A Poem Combining Two Themes–“Costan and Merlu”

Sometimes, a poem just springs forth into the mind, however good or bad like the springing forth of Athena from the mind of Zeus.  This is such a poem, but I’ve thought about it a bit and managed to locate two themes from other works that I suspect contributed to its genesis.  The first is the tale of David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament, in which David sent one of his generals, Bathsheba’s husband, into battle so that he would be killed and David could have Bathsheba.  My favorite contemporary song, “Hallelujah,” mentions this episode briefly as well.  The second work is the tale “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville.  In it, a naïve midshipman, Billy Budd, is trapped into a confrontation with Claggart, a scheming superior officer, and accidentally kills Claggart in a fit of justifiable though excessive rage, and is condemned to death.  Somehow, I think these two stories came together in my mind and created this poem, which doesn’t exactly match either of them, but has the joint themes of a young officer being shoved into harm’s way, and a devious superior officer who is responsible for this.  The poem is cast back in time, which I think is also responsible for the somewhat old-fashioned tone of the remarks about the two main characters, being as Costan might today be seen as a womanizer plain and simple, and Merlu perhaps even a correctly behaving superior who gets the soldier’s mind back on what he is supposed to be there for, however harsh the task or sentence.  Still, I think with the tone cast as it is in the poem as written, the readers’ sympathies should rest mainly with Costan.  Here’s the poem:

Costan and Merlu

Costan
Was what women know as a warm man.
Up to all their wiles and tricks,
Even seeing a few where there were none,
But full of love and joy and yes, laughter,
Nonetheless.

Merlu
His superior
In the army
They wrinkled their noses up at
When they discussed him,
And more than one thought
“Cold fish.”
His love and attention wasn’t warm
Rather possessive and deigning,
Full of his own self-importance,
And seeing not them.

Costan
At the sight of a red petticoat,
Always had a second glance for it
Over his shoulder,
Merlu
Had the mort arrested
For crimes she’d only thought of committing
And thought disdainfully
Of poor people’s attire,
For modesty had nothing to do
With red petticoats,
And he flattered himself
That he was a modest man.

Costan one evening
Caught up with a lovely young smart thing
And chortled and sang with her
Under the wall, where they sat,
Sharing a bottle and some bread and cheese.
Merlu’s henchman
No less forward to impropriety,
But knowing what Merlu wanted,
Carried the news.
The next night,
Costan stood red-faced for reproach
In front of Merlu
Agreeing that yes, he had been most improper,
And bowing his head to anger and what was more,
Envy, though he hardly dared even to himself
Think of Merlu in that light.

Two days later,
There was a wall to storm,
A bridge to take,
And warning his friends to stand away from him,
Lest they too fall into disfavor
With the keeper of the garrison,
Costan accepted the mission
Forced upon him by Merlu,
But eager himself to shine.
The ending was inevitable,
Given Costan’s brave resilience,
And throwing of himself over the wall
Straight into enemy fire.
His loving and noble heart was breached as well,
By cannon fire he’d no way to fend off,
Since all he could think to offer was himself,
His skill with firearms not equaling
His skill with loving negotiations.

That evening, Merlu sat pondering:
What more need he do to preserve
The public order,
What ordinance or regulation pass
To keep his officers and men in line?
As he then stood, just before his window
He looked at another wall, like to the one
Of Costan’s trespass, and on it,
Flaunting bold and red,
As if someone had torn the red petticoats in pieces
And stuck them in place any way at all,
Someone had hastily painted the accusation
“Murderer!” to face his window;
He was startled, and for just a moment
Struck to the heart
That someone had read his thought.
Then, taking on himself once more
The yoke of office,
He sent a man out to clean it off
Or paint over it,
Sure, or no, not sure,
But avoiding the thought,
That someone knew him
Better than he had known himself.
Such knowledge comes too late for regret,
And in any case,
He was persuaded by the experience
That constituted all his life so far
That he was right to act so,
That Costan had been hostile
To the public temper and a danger
To public life.
And after all, once the word was painted over
From the wall,
There was no witness to the crime
And that made all the difference to him,
Though those who knew him sensed a subtle change,
A tension in the command,
As if he was second-guessing himself,
A lack of certainty, a questioning,
A questing for a solution to something
They knew not.
Came the day when he too was ordered over a wall
In front of his troops,
And taking a deep breath, nearly asking himself
If this was the price of it all,
He tried to be valiant, as valiant as he could imagine
Costan had been,
Though when his body came back also shot through,
The women and men of the town
Didn’t mourn him. Instead,
As his shattered body made its way on a stretcher
Through town, his last breath still not drawn,
He heard them saying, “It’s his time!” and laughing,
And then
Someone spitting by his frame,
And “Serves him right!”
“Vindictive peasants!” he thought, and shedding a tear
For his own passing, he died.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/27/17

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My all-time favorite Halloween movie, and why (without spoilers)–“An American Werewolf in London”

Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them.  As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them.  Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary  film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind:  “An American Werewolf in London.”  Here’s why:

There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true.  Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar:  the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased).  This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem.  But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more.  Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.

For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage:  the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth.  The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there.  Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success.  Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.

Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again.  So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!

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Verbum satis (est)–“A Poem of Unequal Meters, for an Unequal Subject”

A Poem of Unequal Meters, for an Unequal Subject

Love is a thing that has no whys and wherefores
Love is a thing that comes but once a year;
Or once a century, or once a fortnight,
Love has no rationale, it’s oh! so clear.

Love is betwixt and between the poles and deserts,
Love is both hot and cold, angry and shy,
First we cast it off, and then we seek for it,
When we want it, then no love can we descry.

Love is both sure of itself and quite uncertain,
Love can’t decide whether to go or stay;
Where other things crawl and lump along life’s toll road
We often expect love freely to make its way.

We pay a huge price for love, yet eagerly give it
Many times to such contenders as value it not,
And whatever we have to invite its honest presence
Others would give up for what we have not got.

For lovers’ sakes we pull our hair, and beat our breastbone,
Like to a host of cannibals on the prowl,
Such spiritual nourishment torn from human sources
In a case of symbolic replacement, any old how.

On the days when love’s spirit, though, doesn’t plague us,
We fall for love’s body, a hand, a lip, an eye:
Yet always we find ourselves incredulous
Whatever our own appeal, that love passes us by.

For it doesn’t matter how modest we are, or how clever,
We’re born with a sense that it’s a democracy,
Yet often when love overtakes us, aristocratic
Norms prevail, and do not set us free.

So take your best shot at it, or forego it,
You’re born to it! Or, you lack love’s troublesome spark,
But be sure should you falter in love’s path, my dear, you will know it,
And find yourself lost and stumbling in the dark.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/11/17

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A Poem for a Friend, Already Much Missed Though Still Present–“To a Departing Friend”

For the occasion of the publication of this poem, I don’t mind revealing that it is a poem based on fact, and is written for a friend whose presence will be sorely missed.  We’ve all lived through such an experience, when all the little debates and differences of opinion we go through with our friends are suddenly less important than the friend’s upcoming departure.  Debate is often a luxury of presence, and  later unity of mind and temper prevail, so that we can express what we deeply and truly feel, at the last possible moment, when absence will begin to be felt.

To a Departing Friend

Yes, I am full of commonplaces,
Conversational gambits,
Some not new, some all my own.
I say to you,
“‘…the feast of reason,
And the flow of soul.'”
And in search of some universal
(Or at least particular) truth,
You say in frustration,
“Defense mechanism.”
Considering my options,
And reviewing my mistakes,
I say,
“This is all I can do,
This makes me survive.”
In search of making myself and you
A little more perfect,
If such a thing could ever have degrees,
You point to this as my
“Comfort zone.”
Don’t chase your own tail, my friend,
That’s a ploy for kittens and puppies,
Who don’t yet recognize
The other end of themselves following.
The fact is,
That my life has been made so much better
By your intercession for me
With the storms and high winds
Of happenstance
Which precede
The visits of the gods,
And you have for a while
Kept me most divine company
In the space allotted us
Before the great dark.
Who knows if what heaven there is
Is not arranged and populated
By such conversations as ours,
And the sorrow and laughter
We have shared
Are not apportioned out
To all who would live on
Beyond their death?

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/29/17

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“Irony, Solipsism, and the Conceptual Slant”–an attempt at a philosophy

Though it’s sort of cheating to cap off a philosophical poem with a rhyme when the rest of it basically hasn’t rhymed, as if that answered the question and said it all (which it doesn’t, really), there’s irony even in the final couplet, for those who prefer their philosophy tough and mean.

Irony, Solipsism, and the Conceptual Slant

At the heart of the matter
Is humanity’s love of the absurd
We laugh together
At what makes us cry alone
In the silence of the night
For the absurdity
Of only feeling real oneself
When confronted
With another soul
Groping, seeking the light,
It is as if we were perpetually
Self-seeking, and needed a reflection
But that the reflection
Could not look like us,
But must look like another
To set us straight.
We are full of doublenesses,
And parleys with the other,
But really we ask ourselves
“Are we touching infinity
When we reach another mind,
Can it be that we make contact
With all that is grand and noble
In humankind
When we seek with what we call
Our inner selves,
Or is it all shadow play,
In front of an audience of one
From behind a white curtain
Put there by some overlord we don’t yet know?”
And as yet, there is no answer.
At the present time, we’ve more or less
Had it with the overlord idea,
So, we guess and think and pause
Still inept to fight off the notion
Of solipsism
Just because someone suggested it
Who had the same right to comment
As we do,
A license to deflect our attempts
To touch minds with him.
So it may be that philosopher
Was only talking to himself, too
But we can at least overhear him,
And can comment in turn
On his ranting speech,
As if he were a penny actor
Whom everyone could afford.
And if after all my thoughts
Are sitting there on the conceptual slant
Where you can lift them from their box,
And your thoughts likewise
I can avail myself of,
Then, don’t we have some consensus,
Though it’s boring not to revert
To our first, fine humane notions
That we spoke mind to mind,
Whispered thought to thought,
Felt heart to heart?
I write a poem,
You write a treatise,
I read aloud,
You mutter your clauses in an undertone,
Both testing them out
To see if they pass muster,
Each having that “ideal reader”
In mind whom so much ink has been spilled about.
Well, my friend, to paraphrase an old, silly catch-phrase,
If you read me and I read you,
No solipsist can part us two.
Two ideals obsessed with ideals we’ll be,
Of tone and temper bold and free.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/27/17

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A Poem for a Season Past: “Wise Lovers”

Autumn is the time of year for saying goodbye to many people and things, summer among them.  Here is a poem for parting lovers who want to mitigate their suffering.

Wise Lovers

They each had deep-laid plans
For neither would be left;
At least, they thought of it
As not to be bereft.
One thought of life alone
After the ship had sailed
On love for the last time
And often wept and railed.
The other thought of days
Spent doing what he list,
Post facto happiness
At not to have been kissed.
For kissing would imply
That he had returned love,
And would incur the wrath
Of those ruling above.
And too, he thought of it
As generous and bland
To garner love and trust
With a well-opened hand.
And, who’s to say he’s wrong
When all is said and done?
Love listened to and heard
Is love near half-begun.
Nay, it’s no breach of faith
To say what’s possible;
Refuse to war with rules,
To cite life codicils–
You know, those edicts all
Follow when pressed at last
When thinking of breaches
Committed in the past.
Examples rule the day
For either of the pair,
One quoting poetry,
The other, custom’s fare.
So finally, they part.
While one will stay and mourn
The other seeks new shores
And who knows if he’s torn?
But both were well-prepared
Despite sorrow and dole,
Or using partial ways
To make a brand-new whole.
The first said to herself
“I will be left someday”;
The other said, “It’s time–
I must be on my way.”
Of Circe and Calypso
One could debate and ask
If such impediments
Made worse Ulysses’ task.
Odysseus was wise
Though wiser still may be
To love and count as nothing
Love’s inconvenient sea.
But both had planned ahead
As far as they could see,
And so my lovers end
Not so unhappily.
Though it is difficult,
Still, they can well forfend
To utter irked retorts,
Reproaches at the end.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/19/17

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Heat, love, fear, discovery–literary suspense in Pen’s and Bruni’s “Desert Flowers”

Paul Pen’s novel Desert Flowers, translated by Simon Bruni, begins with a simple, natural, and graceful flow of narration as–and for that matter stands as–an overwhelming and sometimes frightening testimony to family and parental love, no matter the cost or parents involved.  Daily routines, though sometimes seeming a trifle eccentric to one or the other of the family’s members, are the accepted currency from each of them to the others, the things they are teased about or provoked into sharing and demonstrating.  And though romantic love “like that in the novels” between individuals, whether younger or older, is featured as a corollary subject, it is made to seem smaller, less compelling, and in the end less significant in some respects, than the deep and abiding love that a child and parent (or the two parents of a child) have for each other, even when one or both are in the wrong.

Desert Flowers, named for the mother and five daughters at the center of the novel’s focus, all of whom have floral names, is also a tense and original suspense novel, one which manages to paint in the hues and tones of mystery here and there amidst the familial picture as it develops.  It is possible almost to breathe in the sere desert air, to observe the changes of morning, night, sunrise, twilight, to sense the quotidian dangers of the plants and animals around about, to live with the characters in their pictured surroundings as the prose first pauses, then races ahead, then takes a moment to accustom the reader to variations of momentum and balance as quickly changing as a desert sky and as awe-inspiring.  After a heart-stopping opening prelude introducing the parents, Rose and Elmer, at night, when they at first believe (prophetically enough) that there is an intruder in the house, we change to a slow adagio of a first movement, which blends various repeated melodies of the family’s daily harmonious routines, making them seem uncharacteristically bland at first by comparison with Rose’s initial panic, which smacks more of the usual self-proclaimed suspense novel.  When the reader has been kept waiting a bit impatiently to find out the cause of her alarm for a sufficient period of time in which to wonder about Rose herself, however, the pace quickens suddenly and unexpectedly with the addition of a different theme of a stranger appearing without warning in the center of the family group when Elmer is away from home.

As with many real situations, the characters Rose, Elmer, and the young stranger, Rick, end up playing a game with each other in their struggles to one-up the opponent without departing from the strictures of good manners and seemly deportment.  But little by little, a second movement of the piece develops after an interlude of time when Rick is trying to piece together clues about his host and hostess and their family, almost as if he has some reason or other to find them suspect.  In this second movement, it is rather Rick who emerges as the questionable party for a time, and we follow his footsteps as he does things which do not suggest that he is a good guest or at least not one without flaw.

To continue the metaphor of a piece of music, the third movement is a movement of secrets half-revealed, with all three of the adults participating in the jumps of logic and understanding taking place, a movement of back-and-forth recriminations and accusations, whether made silently in the quiet of the desert night and one’s own mind, or in the daylight confrontations amongst the three of them.  Though the book has been an interesting and pleasurable read up until now, it is this movement which produces that frisson of luxurious fear in the readers’ minds, and a temptation to start choosing sides.  But that must not be yet, for there are two more movements to come, and compelling reasons why all three adults are vital and worthwhile beings.

The fourth movement is one of quick and unanswerable violence and retribution, yet exactly who is being punished?  The answer is not as obvious as it might otherwise seem to be, as even the children come in for their share of the suffering, however unnecessary or undeserved.

The fifth movement is one full of surprises, not only plot twists and a final, rewarding fictional ending that has elements both of justice served and of a cliff-hanger; there are also surprises, here at the very end, in some of the characters, whom one might otherwise have thought of as already fully developed.

All in all, this is a fine work of what one must after all call literary suspense fiction, since it has both the evocative and lovely language of the portraiture of the characters’ surroundings and the terse, carefully underwritten language of the literary thriller.  It’s not often that a book which starts out so very innocently and wholesomely, with a family’s daily concerns and small victories and challenges, has one unable to stop turning pages by a little before the middle of the text, but so it is here.  I would recommend it to anyone who truly enjoys literary suspense.  Shadowoperator

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