Wednesday, April 29, 2009

because of hope


Of hope we always look
for glimmers though there may
be none. Life is no book
with happy endings, “Say
it’s not so” the refrain
we want to hear before
the end, though always pain
concludes the tragic score
that we ourselves compose,
so we can only cope
when we misdiagnose
events because of hope.

Inspired by seeing a near-tragedy, “The Soloist,” the movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx based on Steve Lopez’s book about a homeless man in LA who does not manage to make it back to the world of Beethoven and the Disney Music Center. George Steiner, in his explorations on tragedy, reviews a new biography on Kafka in a recent issue o the TLS. He finds Kafka’s pronouncement that “there is plenty of hope, but none for us”, almost too much to bear. This, he argues, is why true, “absolute” tragedy, of the type that makes us sorry we were born, is so rare. Hamlet, Macbeth and even King Lear end on at least a glimmer of hope.
Alex Danchev writes in the TLS on December 31, 2008 (“Princes and players: From a play banned in Athens to Samuel Beckett in Sarajevo–why theater still matters”):
Bertolt Brecht asked sceptically, “Can the present-day world be represented by the theatre?”. Do these authors offer any answer to that fundamental question? Do they address it? Some more directly than others: George Steiner more resoundingly than most. In a contribution to Rita Felski’s stimulating symposium Rethinking Tragedy, Steiner confirms the suspicion he first voiced in 1961, that the twentieth century saw “the death of tragedy”. In his mandarin summation:
It is virtually indecent to envisage high tragedy engaging recent and current events as Greek tragedy engaged the Persian wars or the massacre at Miletus. We distrust the truths of eloquence. Who now shares T. S. Eliot’s melancholy conviction that verse drama is the natural, legitimate format of conflict and concentrated sensibility? The aesthetics of conceptual art, the semen on the bedsheet, the creed of the happening, of Merz (the nonsense word used by Kurt Schwitters to describe his collages or assemblages based on scavenged scrap materials) or the ready-made – reflecting as they do the collapse of agreed values and developing the parodistic genius of Surrealism – are antithetical to high tragedy. Our immediacies are those of derision, of black farce, of the multimedia circus. At some moments of political \[and\] social crisis, tragedy in its classical mask still provides a shorthand: as the Trojan Women did during the Vietnam war, as the Bacchae served during the turmoil of the drug culture and flower children. But these are loans from the museum. Whether we swallow this whole or attend to other, more meliorist perspectives – offered by Sarah Annes Brown and Catherine Silverstone in another timely collection of essays, Tragedy in Transition (or is it remission?) – Steiner in his stonking fashion has captured something of the spirit of the age. Greek tragedy is not what it used to be. It is no longer “Howl, howl, howl, howl”, Lear’s anguished response to the death of Cordelia. Sometimes it is hardly howl at all. Tragedy has been trivialized. Blair’s former bag man, Jonathan Powell, is supposed to have pulled up on his bike next to Boris Johnson at the traffic lights and observed, as one Oxford man to another, that Gordon Brown’s situation was a Greek tragedy – consumed by ambition, he would never be Prime Minister. Since Brown succeeded to that office, needless to say, there has been no shortage of commentators eager to cast his fate in the familiar frame. In common parlance, at least, the scale and moral force of the genre have been devalued. Pain and grief and rage dwindle into mere misfortune. Tragedy is in jeopardy.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/29/09

Monday, April 27, 2009

song of the reed


My center’s a reed
I play like a flute,
producing the seed
that years for your root.

The Hebrew halil
implies it’s a hollow
which, blown, is the reel
whose music you follow.

Remember the bed
when I went to pluck
the reed whose sounds spread
each time that we fuck.

If you hear it wail
you’re hearing the pain
we’re filled with an feel feel,
when from love we abstain.

Inspired by a poem by Rumi that I heard on KUSC when driving home after watching a performance of Walter Braunfels’s opera “The Birds”:

The Reed

Listen to the song of the reed,How it wails with the pain of separation:
“Ever since I was taken from my reed bedMy woeful song has caused men and women to weep.I seek out those whose hearts are torn by separationFor only they understand the pain of this longing.Whoever is taken away from his homelandYearns for the day he will return.In every gathering, among those who are happy or sad,I cry with the same lament.Everyone hears according to his own understanding,None has searched for the secrets within me.My secret is found in my lamentBut an eye or ear without light cannot know it..”
The sound of the reed comes from fire, not windWhat use is one’s life without this fire?It is the fire of love that brings music to the reed.It is the ferment of love that gives taste to the wine.The song of the reed soothes the pain of lost love.Its melody sweeps the veils from the heart.Can there be a poison so bitter or a sugar so sweetAs the song of the reed?To hear the song of the reedeverything you have ever known must be left behind.
– Version by Jonathan Star“Rumi - In the Arms of the Beloved”Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York 1997

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/26/09

Friday, April 24, 2009



Sometimes we’re in remission and
sometime we’re in relapse.
Life’s like this. If we understand,
we know just why “perhaps”
must be the most important word
that we can ever use,
apart, perhaps from this: “absurd,”
It’s up to you to choose.

Inspired by John Stokes’s article on Simon Gray, in the TLS, December 5, 2008 (“Curtain Down”. Gray died of lung cancer, and reviewing his last book, “Coda,” Stokes writes:

On previous occasions Gray has had a rather different view of cancer, his idea being that the term “in remission” merely confirms a shgared mortality. He made a young cancer patient say as much in his 1990 play Hidden Laughter, and he returned to the thought in The Last Cigarette (published earlier this year) hen, brooding on the death of Alan Bates and the fragile condition of Harold Pinter, he remarked, “we’re all, always, in remission, even the healthiest of us. In fact, from the day we’re born.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/23/09

Thursday, April 23, 2009



Cleopatra’s critics are draconian,
male chauvinists who ruled the roost from Rome.
Perhaps we’ll find out from her catacomb
if she was African or Macedonian,
or even, God forbid, part dreaded Persian.
If she had been a sexy Scandinavian
might she have proudly ruled the rude Octavian
as she once did, without a sham conversion,
both Jules and Tony, his great antecedents
who sailed with her on burnished barks? Who knows?
Although they say she had a perfect nose,
Octavian might have had a yen for Sweden’s
luscious blondes, preferring them to dark,
dark women. Had she only dyed her hair,
he might augustly have agreed to share
the empire with her, making her his mark.

Stacy Schiff writes about Cleopatra in the NYT, April 2, 2009 (“Who’s Buried in Cleopatra’s Tomb?”):
Cleopatra died 2,039 years ago, at the age of 39. Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag. From her point of view there was nothing irregular about the arrangement. Cleopatra arguably had more powerful female role models than any other woman in history. They were not so much paragons of virtue as shrewd political operators. Her antecedents were the rancorous, meddlesome Macedonian queens who routinely poisoned brothers and sent armies against sons. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother waged one civil war against her parents, another against her children. These women were raised to rule. Cleopatra had a child with Julius Caesar. After his death, she had three more — two sons and a daughter — with his protégé, Marc Antony. Motherhood confirmed her hold on the throne. She was a little bit the reverse of Henry VIII; she too needed a male heir, though she was rather more successful in securing one. Almost certainly Marc Antony and Julius Caesar represent the extent of Cleopatra’s sexual history. She was self-reliant, ingenious and plucky, and for her time and place remarkably well behaved. Having inherited a country in decline, she capably steered it through drought, famine, plague and war.What good can be said of a woman who sleeps with two of the most powerful men of her age, however? The fathers of Cleopatra’s children were men of voracious and celebrated sexual appetites. Cleopatra has gone down in history as a wanton seductress. She is the original bad girl, the Monica Lewinsky of the ancient world. And all because she turns up at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, that of women and power. She presides eternally over the chasm between promiscuity and virility, the forest of connotations that separate “adventuress” from “adventurer.” Women schemed while men strategized in the ancient world, too. And female power asserted itself regularly, if more covertly than it had on the Greek stage. In a first century B.C. marriage contract, a woman promises to be faithful and attentive — and to not add love potions to her husband’s food. Clever women, Euripides had already warned, are dangerous women….
Octavian hardly needed to inflate the tale: Here is a royal woman who could be said to have died, after all, for love. Romantic tragedies don’t get any better, which explains why Shakespeare had a difficult time improving on Plutarch. And Cleopatra puts a vintage label on something we have always known existed: mind-altering female sexuality. It’s that love potion again. She does not so much bump up against a glass ceiling as tumble through a trapdoor, the one that dismisses women by sexualizing them. As Margaret Atwood has written of Jezebel, “The amount of sexual baggage that has accumulated around this figure is astounding, since she doesn’t do anything remotely sexual in the original story, except put on makeup.” In Cleopatra’s case, the sheer absence of truth has guaranteed the legend. Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history….
The search is, too, a topical one. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard points out that for many years archaeologists’ Holy Grail was the (still undiscovered) tomb of Alexander the Great. We find ourselves no longer in the market for an imperialistic white male. While this dig will resolve none of the great questions, it could, notes Professor Beard, conceivably offer clues to Cleopatra’s ethnicity. Was she pure Macedonian, or all or part African? (My guess is Macedonian with, possibly, a bit of Persian blood.) Indeed the mixed ancestry question appears to be the issue of the day: A month ago British scientists suggested that they had answered it definitively, producing computer simulations of Cleopatra’s sister, based on a skull found in Turkey. Here we engage in a familiar exercise: Cleopatra too spent her life trying to reconcile East and West, with as little success as we do today. A Roman could not get past the idea of a civilized, virtuous West and a decadent, opulent East. He could not pry apart the exotic and the erotic. The East was by definition beguiling and voluptuous — like a woman, as it happens. Think of Coffee, that second-act marvel in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.” She is a sultry, intoxicating presence, too potent for any partner, by no means critical to the story, really there, I have always suspected, to wake up the fathers in the audience.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/22/09

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

ill wind


They say that the oboist dinned
when he blew a most evil wind,
though fiddles with no bow’s
are safer than oboes
when the players have not yet been tune-ined.

Introducing the Australian oboist Nicholas Daniel, Jim Svejda cited Danny Kaye when perhaps he should have cited Ogden Nash:
In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," comedian Danny Kaye once sang that an oboe was an "ill wind that no one blows good.""Here's what the language mavens who put out Random House's "Word of the Day" have to say about this pressing matter:"This play on words is variously said to be about the clarinet, the French horn, or the oboe. It has been attributed to - among others - Duke Ellington, Ogden Nash, Sir Thomas Beacham, Danny Kaye, and Danny Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine, who wrote the songs for all his movies. In truth, it was probably around before any of them. But whoever said it first, the words that ring in my ears were sung in 1947 by Danny Kaye in the movie 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty': 'And the oboe it is clearly understood / Is anill wind that no one blows good.'" "

It's an ill wind that blows (nobody) no good is a "naval proverb" that was listed in John Heywood's 1546 book of proverbs: An ill wind that bloweth no man TO good. And it was used by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part Three (1581).
Some claim that the witticism derives from lines written by Ogden Nash:"The oboe's a horn made of wood.I'd play you a tune if I could,But the reeds are a pain,And the fingering's insane.It's the ill wind that no one blows good."

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/20/09

Sunday, April 19, 2009

no word for art


American Indians have no word for art
but find in the object the way to its source,
directing us all to the spirit that’s part
of nature that’s silent while running its course.

If all things could be all the things that they can,
and people did only the things that they should,
the world would be playing, as when it began,
idyllically, violins made out of wood.

Roberta Smith reviews an exhibition called “The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art,” at the Metropolitan Museum (‘A Collector’s-Eye Look at North American Art,” the NYT, September 12). Mr. Coe started collecting American Indian Art in 1973, and includes many Haida totem poles, Osage blankets, Onondaga, Pequot and Pomo baskets, a terra-cotta pot by Maria and Julia Martinez of San Ildefonso and a wide-eyed Yagim mask by George Walkus, a Kwakwaka’wakw active in the 20’s. Mr. Coe points out in the catalogue that none of the many Indian languages have a word for art. Roberta Smith ends her article by saying:
What may stay in your mind is the seeming determination, conscious or not, that every object should be all that it could be---which may be all the definition of art that is needed.

© 2003 Gershon Hepner 9/12/03

Friday, April 17, 2009



Democracy of those who’re dead,
tradition leads us from the grave
with the thoughts have been said
to an old world that is brave,
for aided by democracy
of ghosts that to the past can bind us,
and horrors of hypocrisy,
tradition stands undead behind us.

Michael Wood reviews Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1874-1908 by William Oddie and
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton in “A Preference for Torquemada” (LB, April 9, 2009):

‘I have often had a fancy,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy (1908), ‘for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.’ The man would arrive, ‘armed to the teeth and talking by signs’, and try to plant the British flag on the Brighton Pavilion. A little later Chesterton says: ‘I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England.’ He likes this trope and returns to it in detail in The Everlasting Man (1925), adding the variant story of the boy who couldn’t recognise the exotic secret of his village until he got far enough away from it. ‘That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today.’ Home is not only where the heart is, it is our only chance of having a heart. Everything else is an abstraction…
I had seen shadows of his invention in Borges, snatches of his thought In T.S. Eliot, echoes of his paradoxes in Larkin, and an allusion to his imagery in Nabokov (I’m thinking of the ‘democracy of ghosts’ in Pnin, which recalls Chesterton’s definition of tradition as ‘the democracy of the dead’).

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/16/09

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

dolce & gabbana in teheran


Dolce & Gabbana hovers
on a billboard. Demonstrators
herded by divine dictators
luxuriate listlessly as lovers
in the heat, and pay attention
not to Dolce & Gabbana,
but to words upon a banner
which Greatest Satan mention.

“Death to America,” they say,
and the demonstrators shout,
But at home how many doubt
this message, and would like to pay
for Dolce & Gabbana stuff?
I’d like to think that most of them
would rather do this than condemn
the land that doesn’t call their bluff.

Michiko Kakutani reviews “Honeymoon in Teheran” by Azadeh Moaveni (“Life in Iran, Where Freedom is Deferred,” NYT, April 14, 2009):

Ms. Moaveni, who grew up in California, the daughter of Iranian émigrés, and who has covered the country for Time magazine, left Tehran in 2002, in the wake of President Bush’s depiction of Iran in his State of the Union address as part of the “axis of evil.” When she returned to Tehran in 2005 to cover the presidential election, she was initially encouraged by changes she saw in the city and thought “Iranians had reached a tacit accommodation with the government over which taboos might be reconsidered.” Novels by women, full of romance and sex, dominated the best-seller lists; students had started underground rock bands; and Iranians, “accustomed to a bland, mullah-controlled existence lacking in entertainment and retail” prospects, could now choose among a variety of household products, American-style foods and designer goods. (A billboard for Dolce & Gabbana, she notes, weirdly loomed over a site where demonstrators gathered to chant “Death to America.”)

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/14/09

Monday, April 13, 2009

potty parity


When you’re dancing cheek to cheek
and you have to take a leak
in a public place it’s harder
for gals if they’re a bladder martyr
to find a public toilet than
it is for any gentleman,
because though many gals have balls,
they cannot stand in toilet stalls
as men to when they go to potty.
Where gals sequester they are squatty,
and though faith, hope and charity
abound, you won’t find potty parity
in ballparks, stadium and arenas,
where anyone without a penis
can’t pee in secret against walls,
as some men do if they have balls,
and have to stand in lines so long
that if their bladders are not strong
they may invade the premises
of gentlemen, their nemesis
because too few amenities
put them as much as men at ease.

Next time you’re in a multiplex
have pity on the gentler sex
which suffers from disparity
if there’s no potty parity,
once you’ve beguined with them, beguinal,
invite them to your urinal.

Inspired by an article by John Branch (“New Ballpark Statistic: Stadium’s Toilet Ration,” NYT, April 13, 2009):

If nothing else, $2 billion worth of baseball ballparks should buy shorter waits for the restrooms, at least for women. Waiting in longer lines has been an uncomfortable, if not unhealthy, reality for generations of women at places like stadiums, arenas and theaters. Men may see relatively quick marches through the lavatories as a common joke. Women view long lines as everything from a small irritant to a persistent form of gender discrimination. But “potty parity” laws and ever-changing plumbing codes promise relief….
Just what is the right ratio? Dr. Anthony, whose work on the subject includes a book titled, “Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession,” and who wrote two years ago that restrooms “remain among the more tangible relics of gender discrimination,” says it is at least 2 to 1. During exhibition games at the stadiums last weekend, there were no reports of clogged lines at the restrooms. But Dr. Anthony says she wants the Yankees and Mets to clock the wait times and adjust accordingly. “Ideally,” Dr. Anthony said, “nobody should have to wait at all.” No, she does not live in New York.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/13/09

Monday, April 6, 2009

ain't never seen any white jews before


“Ain’t never seen any white Jews before,”
said the Israelite Hebrew, a rabbi, when buying
his meat from an ultra-frum butcher, a store,
which with laws of the OU was kosher-complying.
Israelites Afros who’re Jewish and black
with ones who white with a Yiddisher mamma
unite and the Torah’s old meanings unpack
with the help of Michelle, the brakhah of Obama,
mishopchoh, a cousin who’s just once removed,
of a rabbi who when he’s in shul never greets her
till services end, since she must, as behooved,
remain while she’s praying behind a mehitsah.
Segregation of blacks from the whites is absurd
but of women from men is a viable way
to prove that boundaries shouldn’t be blurred
when Moses and Martin together both pray.
“Ain’t never seen any women before
the Ark of Lord,” many rabbis declare.
You shouldn’t complain, for they follow the law
Of separate but equal, which surely is fair.

Inspired by an article in the NYT, April 5, 2009, by Zev Chafets on Rabbi Capers Funnye, Michelle Obama’s cousin who is the rabbi of the United State’s largest Black Jewish synagogue:

Rabbi Capers Funnye celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year in New York City at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a mainstream Reform congregation, in the company of about 700 fellow Jews — many of them black. The organizers of the event had reached out to four of New York’s Black Jewish synagogues in the hope of promoting Jewish diversity, and they weren’t disappointed. African-American Jews, largely from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, many of whom had never been in a predominantly white synagogue, made up about a quarter of the audience. Most of the visiting women wore traditional African garb; the men stood out because, though it was a secular occasion, most kept their heads covered. But even with your eyes closed you could tell who was who: the black Jews and the white Jews clapped to the music on different beats. Funnye, the chief rabbi of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest black synagogues in America, was a featured speaker that night. The overflowing audience came out in a snowstorm to hear his thoughts about two men: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. King is Funnye’s hero. Obama, whose inauguration was to take place the following day in Washington, is family — the man who married Funnye’s cousin Michelle. A compact, serious-looking man in his late 50s, Funnye (pronounced fu-NAY) wore a dark business suit and a large gray knit skullcap. He sat expressionless, collecting his thoughts, as Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Band steamed through their sanctified rendition of the Hebrew hymn “Adon Olam.” Nelson, a black Jew, was raised in two Jewish worlds — a white Reform temple in New Jersey and a Black Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn — and he borrows from both. The first time the Rev. Al Sharpton heard a recording of Nelson’s “Adon Olam,” he said, “I can hear that’s Mahalia Jackson, but what language is she singing in?”….
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform Movement, is, like Potasnik, ready to consider new possibilities. “The fact that men and women sit separately in the Israelite congregations might be a problem for us on gender-equality grounds,” he told me. “But race would certainly be no problem for us.” A few years ago, Funnye considered applying for membership to the Union of Reform Jews. He shelved the idea when his congregants objected on the grounds that the white congregation was not observant enough. “Some of their rabbis perform intermarriages,” Funnye explains, “so some of our people were uncomfortable. But sometimes I think it would be good to be part of a larger movement. Maybe we’ll revisit the subject.” Funnye hasn’t built all his bridges yet, let alone crossed them, but the progress he has seen — both as a black Jew and as a black American — has mellowed him. “You know, as a young man I was angry about the way we were laughed at and ignored,” he said. “I sometimes went down to the kosher meat market here in Chicago, put my face right up in the face of one of the Orthodox rabbis and yelled, ‘I ain’t never seen no white Jews before!’ I was so hurt I became obtuse and bitter. But I don’t feel that way anymore.” He paused. “There’s no need to shout. People are ready for a dialogue, to talk and to listen.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/5/09

Sunday, April 5, 2009



Beckett, writer with froideur
never tells us just who were
those people Godot would not meet,
fraught with frissons more than heat.

He answered once, when he was asked,
“Are you Christian, Jew or atheist,”
“None of three,” and, multitasked,
said “Wait!” and added Godot to his list,
a sad homestricken solipsist.

Inspired by an article by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, March 30, 2009, reviewing a new collection of the letters of Samuel Beckett:

At the end of January, 1958, the first American production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” opened, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The idea of Beckett playing on Commerce Street is rich in irony, and the director, Alan Schneider, and his cast would have been all too aware of the fate that had befallen “Waiting for Godot” when that play received its national première, two years earlier. Advertised, perhaps unwisely, as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” “Godot” had opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, in Miami, and closed after two weeks, having led some viewers to inquire if one of the continents in question had been Antarctica. Beckett himself had been not just stoical but positively braced, as was made clear in a letter to Schneider: “Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me, in fact I feel much more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years.”
Such can be the privilege of a poet and prose writer, especially one with ambitions as fearsome and uningratiating as Beckett’s; but it is small comfort to anyone in the theatre business, and Schneider was determined that the first-night fiasco of “Godot” was not to be repeated. With that in mind, he sent queries to the author about various cruces in the text, to which Beckett responded in detail; his replies covered everything from pre-Socratic philosophers to brands of dog biscuit. Thus equipped, Schneider prepared an article on “Endgame,” to be printed in the Times on the weekend before the opening. The idea was to soften the ground for nervous newcomers, and incorporate some of Beckett’s advisory comments, from his correspondence with Schneider. The author was not pleased. “I do not like publication of letters,” he wrote Schneider. (The Times never ran the piece.) Later that year, Beckett toughened his position: “I prefer those letters not to be republished and quite frankly, dear Alan, I do not want any of my letters to anyone to be published anywhere, either in the petit pendant or the long après.” And here we are, more than half a century after the dog biscuits, with the petit pendant—the little now—dead and gone, and the long thereafter in full swing, and what do we find? Seven hundred pages of Beckett’s letters, nearly three pounds in weight, with another three bricks to come….
The Beckett who appears before us, in other words, in his middle to late twenties is already fully formed in his froideurs: another reason for one’s annoyance at the starting date of this edition, for one would dearly like to know if there was ever a time when his narrow-eyed distrust of worldly conventions—and what many of us would embrace as conventional pleasures—was not in place. “This life is terrible and I dont understand how it can be endured,” he writes to McGreevy in 1930. “Quip—that most foul malady—Scandal & KINDNESS.” Unpacked, this means two things. First, he was encountering the gossipy, keen-witted backchat of the Common Room at Trinity; and, second, he was living at home, in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock, while he taught. There are worse things than a family trying to be decent and encouraging toward its brilliant son, but, for Beckett, what he endured at Cooldrinagh—the family home, with its summerhouse, servants, and tennis court—was purgatorial….

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/4/09

Friday, April 3, 2009

night, sleep, stars and death


The hour of the soul, said Walt,
away from books, is based on themes
no poet worth his salt can fault.
The first is night, the source of dreams,
the second sleep, where dreams are made,
the third the stars to which dreams reach
the last and fourth, don’t be afraid,
is death, which can’t the rest impeach,
because it cannot be enjoyed,
experienced only once the soul
has fled, and therefore in its void
as ludicrous as grand guignol.

Inspired by a poem by Walt Whitman which was one of the many that were discuss by Michael Silverblatt’s guests, Eamon Grennan: Matter of Fact (Graywolf), Major Jackson: Hoops (Norton) and Pattiann Rogers: Wayfare (Penguin) on KCRW’s Bookworm this afternoon.

A Clear Midnight

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.Night, sleep, death and the stars

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/2/09

Thursday, April 2, 2009

bailik's bird


Peace on your return, delightful bird,
by my window from a warmer clime;
your voice is just as welcome as a word
of winter warmth recalling summertime.

Sing and tell me, bird I find so dear,
about the wildernest that’s full of wonders;
in its warmer clime do people fear
men’s evil and the blows caused by their blunders?
From my brothers now in Zion do
you bear me greetings, telling me of peace?
Happy they must be, unless they knew
about our pains which never seem to cease.

Do they know my adversaries here?
How many it appears they always are!
Sing of the wonders of the land so dear,
and I will know that springtime can’t be far.

Do you bear me greetings from the land,
from deepest valley and from mountain peak?
Has God shown mercy, does He understand
the graves in Zion of which Jews still speak?

Do incense hills beside the Sharon valley
produce the fragrance of the nard and myrrh?
In hoary forests do the ancients rally,
and are there signs that Lebanon will stir?

Does dew from Hermon fall like precious pearls,
or are the dewdrops more like bitter tears?
And does the Jordan, like the eyes of girls,
still shine, before the sunlight disappears?

Has the heavy cloud that has no glory
departed from them, leaving them a heap
of bones forgotten like a horror story,
in valleys where some say the dead still sleep?

Do blossoms planted by the waters wilt
as I myself have also sadly wilted,
in days as jumbled as a crazy quilt
which decorates a tower that has tilted?

Relate, dear bird, the secrets that men prattle
and tell me what they’re saying of their prey.
Do you hear words of comfort, or the battle
for which our enemies still daily pray?

My brothers who are working, are they sowing
with tears before they laugh when they start reaping?
If I had wings you’d surely see me going
to where the almond blooms though God is sleeping.

And as for me, what can I tell you, birdie?
From my mouth what do you hope to hear?
You will not see me play the hurdy-gurdy,
nor will my lamentations bring you cheer.

Shall I tell of the woes that have occurred
where those who should be living are consumed?
To count the number of our troubles is absurd,
the troubles of the dying and the doomed.

Wander, birdie, to your wildernest,
be happy that you’ve left my ancient tent.
If you had stayed with me while I’m distressed
you would have wept with me in your descent.

But tears and weeping are not good for me,
by them my wounds will never ever heal;
my eyes are dimmed by tears and cannot see,
and I am numb with pain you cannot feel.

My tears have stopped, but I can see no end
to further lamentations for my sorrows.
I greet you as you come back like a friend,
rejoicing with your voice for your tomorrows.

Freely translated from Chaim Nahman Bialik’s Ha-tsippor, “The Bird”.

© 2005 Gershon Hepner 11/1/05

Wednesday, April 1, 2009



Wherever we may sojourn, ease
may be achieved. Without apparel,
we all can, like Diogenes,
live free as cynics in a barrel.

Life turns out to be less uncouth
to every god-forsaken wretch
if he can face the naked truth,
for if he can’t he’ll only kvetch.

Simon Critchley writes about Diogenes in the NYT, April 1, 2009 (“Cynicism We Can Believe In”):
SOME 2,300 years after his death, Diogenes the Cynic dramatically interrupted a recent New York State Senate committee meeting. Wearing a long, white beard and carrying his trademark lamp in broad daylight, the ancient philosopher — who once described himself as “a Socrates gone mad” — claimed to be looking for an honest man in politics. Considering the never-ending allegations of financial corruption that flow from the sump of Albany, it’s no surprise that he was unsuccessful.
This resurrected Diogenes was, in fact, Randy Credico, a comedian who says he is considering challenging Senator Charles Schumer in the 2010 Democratic primary. Whatever boost Mr. Credico’s prank provides his campaign, it might also cause us to reflect a little on the meaning of cynicism — and how greatly we still need Diogenes.
Cynicism is actually not at all cynical in the modern sense of the word. It bears no real resemblance to that attitude of negativity and jaded scornfulness that sees the worst of intentions behind the apparent good motives of others. True cynicism is not a debasement of others but a debasement of oneself — and in that purposeful self-debasement, a protest against corruption, luxury and insincerity. Diogenes, the story goes, was called a “downright dog,” and this so pleased him that the figure of a dog was carved in stone to mark his final resting place. From that epithet, kunikos (“dog-like”), cynicism was born.
Diogenes credited his teacher Antisthenes with introducing him to a life of poverty and happiness — of poverty as happiness. The cynic’s every word and action was dedicated to the belief that the path to individual freedom required absolute honesty and complete material austerity. So Diogenes threw away his cup when he saw people drinking from their hands. He lived in a barrel, rolling in it over hot sand in the summer. He inured himself to cold by embracing statues blanketed with snow. He ate raw squid to avoid the trouble of cooking. He mocked the auctioneer while being sold into slavery.
When asked by Lysias the pharmacist if he believed in the gods, he replied, “How can I help believing in them when I see a god-forsaken wretch like you?” When he was asked what was the right time to marry, he said, “For a young man not yet, for an old man never at all.” When asked what was the most beautiful thing in the world, Diogenes replied, “Freedom of speech.” Sadly, it remains one of the most dangerous.
And when asked where he came from, this native of Sinope, in what is now Turkey, replied that he was a “citizen of the world,” or kosmopolites. If only today’s self-styled cosmopolitans drank water from their hands, hugged statues and lived in barrels, one might ponder. Truth be told, Diogenes’ “cosmopolitanism” is much more of an anti-political stance than the sort of banal internationalism that people associate with the word today. Cynicism is basically a moral protest against hypocrisy and cant in politics and excess and thoughtless self-indulgence in the conduct of life. In a world like ours, which is slowly trying to rouse itself from the dogmatic slumbers of boundless self-interest, corruption, lazy cronyism and greed, it is Diogenes’ lamp that we need to light our path. Perhaps this recession will make cynics of us all.
Simon Critchley, the chairman of the philosophy department at the New School, is the author of “The Book of Dead Philosophers.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/1/09