The Foghorn


Friday evening I was reading and enjoying the gorgeous view of Boston Harbor at the Piers Park in East Boston.  Some event was going on at the end of the next pier: there was a party tent hung with lights and people inside were clapping.  Mostly this pier seems to be used by pleasure boats and small yachts, but there are also water taxis and big ferries I can only guess are refueling.  Friday night a Nantucket lightship (there were many) was moored at the end next to the tent.  The lightships have been replaced now by buoys; I thought maybe this was a group involved with the boat’s preservation, or perhaps they just rented it for fun.  The party seemed to culminate when they turned on the lights and blasted the foghorn.  It was extremely loud, of course.  The whole park turned as one.  The low, resonant note descended at the end to a rumbling, blatting, obscene pedal tone that was funny but also disconcerting.  There was an answering chorus from boats all around the harbor, but nothing came close.


Then I remembered W. S. Merwin’s poem, “The Foghorn”, from The Drunk in the Furnace.  The poem asks, “Who wounded that beast/ Incurably, or from whose pasture/ Was it lost, full grown, and time closed round it/ With no way back? … What does it bespeak in us, repeating/  And repeating, insisting on something/ That we never meant?”  The voice of the foghorn is our creation, yet somehow it is alive.  It has escaped us and become something we cannot see and would rather not hear, but the alternative is drowning, “always nearer than we had remembered”.  The poem may be about facing death, but it suggests that there is something culpable as well in our attempts to deal with it.  In light (light?) of Jude, verse 13, “They are raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame”, the sea is the abode of the damned.


It’s one of a number of sea poems that Merwin wrote early on, poems with titles like “The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over”, “The “Portland” Going Out” and “The Sea Monster”.  The Portland was a steamer that went down in a blizzard off of Massachusetts in 1898.  No one even knows how many people were on board; there were probably more than one hundred, and none survived.  The poem takes the point of view of the last people to see the doomed ship, the crew of a little fishing boat heading home safely with no warning of the storm to come.  These poems are sometimes so gothic that I think critics have a hard time deciding how seriously to take them.  Nicholson Baker, who I think of whenever I write something like “blatting, obscene pedal tone”, seems to think that Merwin wrote all of his good stuff later in life, after he gave up punctuation and capital letters.  Or maybe only his strange alter ego, Paul Chowder, thinks that.

Photos are, top, by Elmschrat Coaching38, CC attribution/share alike via wikimedia commons, middle, author’s photo, bottom, public domain via wikimedia commons and Nantucket Historical Association.

Egil’s Poetry

Borges is right to make so much of the Norse poets’ way with metaphor.  I am more firmly convinced of this after reading Egil’s Saga.  Egil has a case for being the quintessential viking.  His father Skallagrim left Norway for Iceland among the earliest settlers, rather than submit to the ascendant King Harald Fairhair.  Like his father, Egil raided and fought as a mercenary before settling down somewhat as a farmer.  On one of his journeys he fought for Aethelstan of England against the Scots.  Years later, he found himself in York, facing execution at the hands his enemy Eirik Blood Axe.  Though Egil was a berserker who killed his first victim when he was seven and sometimes bit his enemies to death, this time he saved himself with poetry, using a night’s reprieve to write an ode to King Eirik.  Afterwards he joked that

Ugly as my head may be,
the cliff my helmet rests upon,
I am not loathe
to accept it from the king.
Where is the man who ever
received a finer gift […]?

Poetry comes naturally among the viking’s exploits.  “The ship raced along, and Egil spoke this verse:

With its chisel of snow, the headwind,
scourge of the mast, mightily
hones its file by the prow
on the path my sea-bull treads.

In his old age, Egil’s spirits were revived by composing laments for the death of his friend Arinbjorn, and for two of his sons, in an episode that might bear comparison with the story of Job.

I have piled a mound
of praise that long
will stand without crumbling
in poetry’s field.
Snorri Sturluson, perhaps the author of Egil's Saga

Snorri Sturluson, perhaps the author of Egil’s Saga

I’ve been reading Bernard Scudder’s translation, in a Viking hardcover copy of The Sagas of Icelanders that is one of my favorite books.  It’s only a selection from a five volume translation of the Icelandic sagas, supposedly complete, that was published in Iceland in 1997.  One day maybe…

Do you need another reason to read the sagas?  The Middle Ages will never seem more immediate or relevant.  Tenth century Europe was a cosmopolitan place, its rulers more like businessmen than national institutions. Eirik Blood Axe was ruling in York because he had extorted it as a kind of compensation from Aethelstan, who helped his brother take over Norway.  He was like a defense contractor that is never out of work, or like Scott Brown maybe.

Dido, the Guise, and Lear



I recently read the two of Christopher Marlowe’s plays I had left to read, and I also reread King Lear.

I don’t have much to report about Dido Queen of Carthage.  I’m not a great fan of The Aeneid, so it’s probably my problem, not Marlowe’s.  I was interested by the appearance of phrases from better known plays, such as “winter’s tale”, “hurly-burly”, and most notably, Marlowe’s own, “make me immortal with a kiss”.

The Massacre at Paris was a bit more rewarding.  The Jew of Malta begins with a great monologue on Machiavelli:

Albeit the world think Machevill is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps,
And now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends…  

Well this play is about that same Duke of Guise.  With the pretext of defending the church, he murders his political enemies, flouts the will of the king, and sets in motion the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  As a card player I liked the lines where the Guise tells himself

Since thou hast all the cards within thy hands,
To shuffle or to cut, take this as surest thing,
That, right or wrong, thou deal thyself a king.

Having read this I can better imagine the poisonous political and religious atmosphere of the times, and appreciate Marlowe’s involvement with it, an involvement that may have cost him his life.

Lear‘s great reputation and my having read it in school are two reasons why I felt particularly guilty for never really having a handle on it.  This rereading helped, but I’m sure I have a long way to go.  This time around it struck me that Shakespeare deliberately conceals a lot of what might lead us to blame the elder sisters more, or even just help us understand the war that takes place mostly off stage. The beginnings of division between the sisters and the threat to Lear’s life are alluded to but never really made concrete.  Perhaps he leaves the politics out of it in order to focus on individuals’ cruelty, which would explain partly why this is such a grueling and mysterious play.

Memory and Mathematics

I put a weak finish on 2013, reading wise.  I’ve been grinding away at grueling, plotless books for long enough that it’s hard to remember why I started.  I put aside a biography of Borges, in Spanish, that I started a while ago.  I never intended to read it at one go, but it still hangs over me.  Another is the book on Shakespeare’s language: mostly it makes me wish I were reading the plays, though I think it may prove worthwhile.

Finally, there was Philosophies of Mathematics.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  My college math had a foundational, philosophical bent, and since then I’ve continued to dabble in it.  I don’t really sympathize with fretting over whether math is created or discovered, how we apply it to nature and so forth.  I’m more interested in the constructions and the proofs that crop up in these books.  (Incidentally, it’s observed that Borges, while no mathematician, had his own taste in mathematics.  So maybe it’s not as sorry as it sounds.)

I like to believe I’ve learned a few mathematical habits of thinking.  One idea that comes up often is that of one-to-one correspondence of collections of things, or sets.  When two sets can be matched up one-to-one (like having a right shoe to go with every left shoe in your closet and vice versa) you say you have the same number.  That the correspondence exists is more important, maybe, than exactly what number you have.  This idea leads in short order to fascinating demonstrations about the different sizes of infinity.  It also informs my personal notion (I don’t remember if I might have read it somewhere) of what a number is, which I muse on when others seem to get to bogged down in the ontological status of mathematics, or the being of numbers.  Numbers are just meaningless words that we recite when we wish to compare sets of objects.  We learn numbers as children by counting along with others, the same way we learn other songs.  If you remember the song the right way every time, you can establish a meaningful correspondence between sets.  So how do we learn the song?

A couple of years ago I read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer.  It’s a popular history of mnemonics, with lots of amusing stories about various competitive memorizers, prodigies and a fair amount on their actual techniques.  At least one of them actually worked: By constructing a memory palace based on my old elementary school and an off the cuff list of strange images involving friends and acquaintances, I was able, with a couple hours of practice, to memorize the order of a deck of cards.  Once I got used to it I could do it in a few minutes.

Of course this amazing new skill didn’t turn into much of anything.  I’ve memorized a fair amount of poetry and I’m not bad at geography, either, but I do it by rote, and if there’s much more to it than that, I don’t know what it is.  I certainly helps if what I’m memorizing is beautiful or otherwise interesting.  Maybe when the limitations of my current method become apparent, I’ll turn again to the memory palace.  I’m interested in how other people commit things to memory and otherwise organize their thought.  Has philosophy, or the study of mathematics or some other field, changed the way you think, or do you just bang it out?

Some serious reading, and some not so serious…

Catalonia (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been agonizing over posts on the last couple of books I read, because I don’t think I can do them justice.  I finished Shirer’s excellent Berlin Diary, which I blogged about earlier.  Shirer was able to tour the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of France immediately after the invasion, before leaving Germany at the end of 1940, his work increasingly obstructed by Nazi censors.  Reading about events from such an immediate perspective raises important questions with an urgency that I don’t think I’ve gotten from regular histories.  Perhaps the most important: How are the Germans and the French (to take just one example) able to live next to each other, not only in peace, but with apparent openness and cooperation?

In a similar vein I picked up George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  I couldn’t figure out what to be most astonished at: the story Orwell had to tell, the utterly straightforward way he told it, or the fact that I hadn’t gotten to this great work sooner.  Orwell spent parts of 1936 and 1937 in the trenches fighting against Franco only to be turned on by his own cause.  It was a fascinating mess that played out right before World War II and I’m glad to have learned just a little bit about it.

I’ve been on a bit of a World War II thing in recent years, having also read E. B. Sledge’s account of his fighting in the Pacific and also the novels Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.  They were all interesting in various ways.  Next I think I may finally read Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s controversial take on the war; I’ve seen Baker speak and if anyone makes pacifism interesting, it’s him.

At the moment I’m reading Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language.  She takes a very old school liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric and logic) approach to the details of Shakespeare’s language, explaining many, many figures of speech with quotations from the plays.  It’s mainly those quotations that make it fun, especially what she calls vices of language.  I overheard someone affectedly quoting from another language today and immediately thought, “Ah! Soraismus!”

Great Novels (an unscientific classification)

wikimedia commons

I had an odd moment recently when Courtland Gamboge, the cynical and murderous antagonist of Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey, got mixed up in my mind’s eye with Tom Sawyer.  Shades of Grey is a unique dystopian fantasy by the author of The Eyre Affair.  You should read it.  In the book, natural color perception is rare and society is obsessed with artificial pigments.  This conceit was carried through with such thoroughness that it warped my imagination and my reading life, triggering a craving for color words and leading to my rediscovery of the poetry of Andrew Marvell and George Herbert.  I can only hope, most fervently, that Fforde musters the strength to see his bizarre project through.

The resonance of Gamboge, menacing scion of a powerful and corrupt yellow-perceiving caste, and the mischievous archetype Sawyer only appears strange.  Gamboge is seen through the first person narration of the naive hero Eddie Russett.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn we see Tom Sawyer from a similar first person perspective, most importantly at the end, when Tom shows a really diabolical side to his love of fun and games, such that he not only torments Jim and Huck, but hijacks the novel.

I’ve been thinking about first person narration.  I mentioned that the best of Umberto Eco’s novels are written this way: The Name of the Rose, Foucault, Loana.  In fact I’ll take a wild stab and say that the best novels generally are narrated in the first person.  Maybe other narratives stop short of the ultimate reason for reading novels, not only to be somewhere else, but to become someone else?  Consider Jane Eyre vs. Wuthering HeightsJane Eyre is first person and W.H. is a farrago.  Tom Sawyer is not first person; it’s a children’s book and a didactic one at that.  Then Twain switched and wrote the incomparable Huck Finn.  Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time.  Everything of his I’ve read since has been terribly frustrating.  (I read the whole Baroque Cycle…)  Guess which of his works is written in first person.  Moby Dick is first person.  So is Notes from Underground, which is all the Dostoevsky anyone really needs.  I’m sure there is a technical reason for all this, and that writers know very well what they are doing and why certain narratives should be the way they are.  It’s still striking.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123

Memorization has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand it gives me something to think about in odd moments and sometimes rewards me with a sudden insight; on the other, I think I miss out on the context that comes from a straight reading.  The other day I realized I don’t really get Sonnet 123.

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange.
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy, 
Not wond’ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

As I recall, I was attracted to this sonnet for two reasons.  One was the obvious echo of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I think this reaches for or implies something else I was thinking about at the time, from Lao Tsu, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world.”*  The second reason was that I thought it might be the inspiration of one of will-o’-the-wisps of meaning glimpsed in the random pages of Borges’ Library of Babel, the phrase “O Time thy pyramids”.

What’s odd about this sonnet?  It’s one of those I’ve remarked on before, that has little conspicuously attractive imagery.  Then, between body and couplet (often an interesting transition), the poem switches from largely impersonal (the speaker may start out “I” but comes back to “we”) theorizing on history to strident declaration.  Time in this sonnet is not just the ragged hand of winter defacing the poet’s love (Sonnet 6), but a subtler problem.  In fact, I really think this poem is about something like what I have called “historical imagination”, the way knowledge of history informs our everyday thinking.  I’d like to think that, but I just don’t know what it’s really saying.  Some foolish people see a thing for the first time and think it’s the first time it’s ever happened.  They must not be students of history.  The speaker is too wise for that.  That’s the second quatrain.  But then he would also defy history’s lying records.  So where does that leave him?  With just that bold vow, I suppose.  Is it a convincing renunciation?

There are other sonnets on time, of course, though none quite like this one.  I thought of “When in the chronicle of wasted time,” (106) with which I am familiar enough, but realized on looking back over the sonnets that I had totally forgotten about the one right after 123 that starts

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfathered…
It’s tremendous.  I still have a lot to think about.

* Tao Te Ching 47, trs. Feng & English