Sunday, May 31, 2009

past, present and future


The past is not what it’s so often cracked
up to be, and though some choose to flee
the present for the future, it is packed
with problems, hardly what it used to be.

The past and present have together let us
down, and we who can’t live by the letter
of the testamentum that is vetus
can’t find a testament that’s any better.

Presently we’re creatures of the past,
which like the present we will come to curse,
for both of them are dies in which the future’s cast,
and doomed to be, compared with them, far worse.

Inspired by an article by Frank Bruni about commencement speeches (“Buck Up, Graduates!” NYT, May 31, 2009):
It’s a mean season for silver linings, but that hasn’t kept inspiration-minded commencement speakers from reaching for them. And what flows from lecterns coast to coast is some of the most strenuous, creative optimism ever fashioned, as graduates are told not only that the cup is half full but also that the opportunity to replenish such a vast measure of missing liquid doesn’t lurch into view too often. Isn’t that heady? Isn’t that a privilege? Privilege is a word in heavy rotation, as is responsibility. The kinds of exhortations to dream big that some previous generations and classes of graduates heard have been supplanted by pleas to be strong. To be patient. To accept and even feel ennobled by the challenges of the nation’s current juncture. And to know that no matter how grim the road seems, it has no corner on grimness and could in fact be grimmer….
There’s much oratorical flailing out there, as speakers try to figure out how to be upbeat and when to be downbeat — what’s the right ratio, what’s the best recipe. A few of them elect a truth telling so unvarnished it’s as if they’ve swapped the diplomas they’re supposed to give graduates with cyanide capsules. “We are in a recession, and the labor market is weak,” said Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, at the Boston College School of Law. “Many of you may not have gotten the job you wanted; some may have had offers rescinded or the start of employment delayed.” Having thus lifted his audience’s spirits, Mr. Bernanke proceeded to the task of giving them a detailed, fail-safe plan of action. “So,” he added, “my advice to you is to stay optimistic. Things usually have a way of working out.” The writer Christopher Buckley, addressing graduating seniors at Yale University, didn’t bother with that sort of compulsory (and unpersuasive) reassurance. He just annotated the doom and gloom with a joke. “This hasn’t been the most excellent of millenniums,” Mr. Buckley noted. “You entered your teens just around the time of 9/11, and now you’re entering the job market — to use an ironic term for it — during the Great Recession.” “As a French philosopher put it, ‘The trouble with our times is that the future isn’t what it used to be,’ ” he added. “Being French, he probably went on strike after coming up with that.”..
In truth, many speakers have found less circuitous routes to inspiration, alluding to the milestone of a first black president and heralding diversity at the highest levels of government. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with authority at Barnard about the advances of women. But when she wandered beyond that topic, some of the season’s oratorical desperation crept in. She said that today’s graduates could use tools like Facebook not only “to tell people you’ve gone to get a latte or you’re going to be running late,” but also to unite people to “fight human trafficking or child marriage.” And Twitter, she said, had great diplomatic potential. Tweeting our way to better relations with Iran? It’s not a conventional beacon of hope. But this year, it will have to do.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/31/09

Thursday, May 28, 2009

mass extinction


One afternoon in Yucatán,
perhaps one night or in the morning,
an asteroid that hit the fan
caused mass extinction without warning,
and the period called Cretaceous
was aborted like the Perm,
and the Ordivician too.
None of these came to full term,
as ours most likely will not do,
judging by the die-off that’s
occurring now to frogs and toads,
and white nose plague that causes bats’
extinction which I fear forebodes
our own. It probably is not
just climate change that threatens this.
The world is often far too hot
and far too cold, and though we’ll miss
the chance of being very cool,
this problem may be less humungous
than one that isn’t minuscule
though microscopic, deadly fungus
killing off amphibians
and bats with white nose in our era
like Taliban, Qaddafi Libyans
and men Al Qaeda trains with terror
to murder, jihadists employed
to keep alive sectarian strife,
and surely as an asteroid
or pathogens, destroy much life.

Mankind is threatened in so many
ways I wonder how long it
can last. It seems that Henny-Penny
was right, as we must now admit.
The sky is falling! Her discourse
is true, and we are doomed to die
like frogs and bats, and dinosaurs,
which I forgot, can’t think why,
perhaps because I do not care
for them as much as for the bats
and frogs and those with whom I share
my life, like people and most cats.

Inspired by an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, May 25, 2009 (“The Sixth Extinction? There have been five great die-offs in history. This time the cataclysm is us”), who describes how graduate student Karen Lips observed the mysterious disappearance of large numbers of local golden frogs, in the nineteen-nineties, at several locations in Panama and Costa Rica. Whatever was killing Lips’s frogs moved east, like a wave, across Panama. Of the many species that have existed on earth, more than ninety-nine per cent have disappeared. Yet extinction has been a much contested concept. Throughout the eighteenth century, the prevailing view was that species were fixed. Charles Darwin believed extinction happened only slowly, but he was wrong. Over the past half billion years, there have been at least twenty mass extinctions. Five of these—the so-called Big Five—were so devastating that they’re usually put in their own category. The fifth, the end-Cretaceous event, which occurred sixty-five million years ago, exterminated not just the dinosaurs but seventy-five per cent of all species on earth. Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it’s generally with a new cast of characters. In this way, mass extinctions have played a determining role in evolution’s course. It’s now generally agreed among biologists that another mass extinction is under way. If current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone. The writer went frog collecting in Chagres National Park with Edgardo Griffith, the director of EVACC (the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center). About two decades ago, researchers first noticed something odd was happening to amphibians. It’s difficult to say when the current extinction event—sometimes called the sixth extinction— began. Its opening phase appears to have started about fifty thousand years ago, when the first humans migrated across Australia and America. The main culprit in the wavelike series of amphibian crashes is a chytrid fungus, known as Bd. At this point, Bd appears to be unstoppable. Mentions Don Nichols, Allan Pessier, Joyce Longcore, and Rick Speare. In the fossil record, mass extinctions stand out. Mentions Walter Alvarez and the Alvarez hypothesis, which wreaked havoc with the uniformitarian idea of extinction. In 2007, biologist Al Hicks, of the New York State D.E.C., and the National Wildlife Health Center started investigating a series of mysterious bat deaths. Many of the dead bats were discovered with a white substance on their nose, which was cultured and found to be an unidentified fungus. Mentions White-Nose Syndrome (W.N.S.). The writer visited an abandoned mine to study bats with Hicks. One of the puzzles of mass extinction is why, at certain junctures, the resourcefulness of life seems to falter. Just in the last century, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have changed by as much as they normally do in a hundred-thousand-year glacial cycle. In the end, the most deadly aspect of human activity may simply be the pace itself.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/28/09

creatures of the flame


We all are creatures of the flame,
Promethei, who’ve learned to tame
the fires on our hearths, and cook.
Cool, culinary was the hook
that brought us all together to
prepare a carnophilic stew,
to which we added veggies which
when raw don’t satisfy the itch
to eat, and cannot generate
the energy to masticate
and then digest the healthy herb,
but cooked with meat can taste superb,
unleashing flavors when they’re heated,
producing gas before excreted
if they’re cruciferous––the price
that may be worth the sacrifice.

Flames taught us to respect the cook,
who may, if gourmet, write a book
that if a New York Times best seller
can teach you about Salmonella,
which people get when they reheat
their unrefrigerated meat,
while if he’s merely a consumer
of food, and has a sense of humor,
may write a poem about food,
and treat it as beatitude,
like cheesemakers once blessed by Brian
before the temple burnt in Zion,
long after food was spoiled by dames
whom guys told, “You must watch the flames
while we go find ourselves some beer,”
and ruined on the flames the deer
that had received the benison
that hunters give to venison,
because they were not supervised
as dames must be, or be despised
if they’re allowed to spoil the food
that, when well cooked, God said was good.

Inspired by Dwight Garner’s review of Richard Wrangham’s book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” (“Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes? It’s the Cooking, Stupid,” NYT, May 27, 2009):
Human beings are not obviously equipped to be nature’s gladiators. We have no claws, no armor. That we eat meat seems surprising, because we are not made for chewing it uncooked in the wild. Our jaws are weak; our teeth are blunt; our mouths are small. That thing below our noses? It truly is a pie hole. To attend to these facts, for some people, is to plead for vegetarianism or for a raw-food diet. We should forage and eat the way our long-ago ancestors surely did. For Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and the author of “Catching Fire,” however, these facts and others demonstrate something quite different. They help prove that we are, as he vividly puts it, “the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame.” The title of Mr. Wrangham’s new book — “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” — sounds a bit touchy-feely. Perhaps, you think, he has written a meditation on hearth and fellow feeling and s’mores. He has not. “Catching Fire” is a plain-spoken and thoroughly gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less than a new theory of human evolution, one he calls “the cooking hypothesis,” one that Darwin (among others) simply missed.
Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food. “Cooked food does many familiar things,” he observes. “It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.” He continues: “The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food — whether meat or plants or both —made digestion easier, and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/27/09

Monday, May 25, 2009

memory's kingdom


In memory’s kingdom we try to forget
the downsides of life and the sadness and sorrows
that when we recall them induce and upset
the cart that transports us to happy tomorrows.
We may spend a day in solemn memorial
of what happened once and still makes us downcast,
and read in a poem or brief editorial
events that transport us from present to past,
but quickly move back then to pastures much greener
than those where great tragedies once had occurred.
Forgetting’s not classified as misdemeanor,
and memories may feel more blessed when they’re blurred.

Written on Memorial Day, May 25, 2009, and inspired by Marc Porter-Zasada’s article “Random Access Memory” which he wrote inspired by a visit to the Veterans’ graveyard in Westwoood:

Random Access Memory

By Marc Porter Zasada
It’s a few days before Memorial Day, right here in the Kingdom of Forgetting, and the Urban Man has gone down to the veteran’s cemetery. Yes, the cemetery. Wait...don’t tune out just yet, my swift and belovèd Angelenos, zipping down the 405 to the next big thing; or just now heading home on the 10 with that nice full-day-at-the-beach feeling; or better yet rushing to apple martinis at your friend’s excellent after-the-barbeque bash...
You only have to do this once a year.
In fact, you don’t have to do it at all, since I have pulled off the 405 to serve as your very own ambassador to the L.A. National Cemetery, right near the Wilshire exit. Maybe you’ve seen it: that glimpse of many white headstones appearing briefly below the crowd of Westwood office towers as you head north.
I went last Thursday to avoid the rush. And sure enough, again this year as I parked among the low rolling hills, I was the only visitor I could see: For a time just me and 86,000 sleeping vets.
I’m sorry to say it wasn’t peaceful. The 405 runs right alongside on an elevated grade, so it’s never peaceful here. I figure even the dead are aware of us roaring ceaselessly into the future.
What do I do on these annual visits? I read a few headstones, here and there, out loud. That’s all. That’s it. I exercise a sort of Random Access Memory by reciting from what you might call the original memory sticks:
Charles O. Wesby, Colonel, 158th Infantry, Spanish American War. Walter T. Rowland, PFC, World War II. Bertrand R. Butler, PFC, Vietnam—I see that Bertrand died at age 18.
Here’s a crowd of fresh flowers and a bouquet of happy birthday balloons around the grave of Daniel Patrick Cagle, SPC, U.S. Army, killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom: born May 20, 1985, died May 23, 2007. Daniel had just made it to age 22. Obviously his family visited this grave just the day before, on his birthday, when they set up little figurines of pirates and Homer Simpson and other small toys, I suppose from his childhood. Birthday candles were stuck in the earth, reading “D-A-N.”
Okay, sorry, now I really am depressing you. I know that images should be more fleeting in the Kingdom of Forgetting, that the names should come more quickly, one after the other. I mean, what would happen if people here paused too long to recall not merely lost lovers and misplaced friends, but lost soldiers and far-off wars? And what if they actually remembered the 7 p.m. news when the 8 p.m. news rolled around? Here in the Kingdom of Forgetting, shouldn’t it always be the moment just after the last update?
It’s not like that in a cemetery, where one headstone does not disappear when you read the next. Here’s Robert Thomas Ayers the third, Sergeant, U.S. Army, Iraqi Freedom, died 2007 at the age of 23. And further on, Steven Vega, SPC U.S. Army, Iraqi Freedom, born 1984, died 2008. “Truly one of a kind,” it says on his marker.
Someone has placed fresh blooms and coins on the headstone of Jin Su Ong, PFC, U.S. Army, Iraqi Freedom, born 1987, died January 4, 2009. Me I add a coin, since I forgot to bring flowers.
Then the Urban Man looks at his watch, and finds he’s late for his next appointment. He glances up at the 405 and feels the tug of the current. Still, as he rushes toward his car, he tries to get in just two or three more names:
Paul Thornton, Apprentice Seaman, 1954. Richard Duncan, U.S. Navy, Vietnam. Edgar Lopez, Marine, born 1977, died in Iraq August 28, 2004, Killed in Action, awarded the Purple Heart.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/24/09

Sunday, May 24, 2009

woman on a quilt


Louche and somewhat overweight,
lazy, lying on a quilt,
maybe waiting for a date,
smoking without signs of guilt,
bluer than the quilt her mood,
and the spirit not quite fresh,
while the arms and shoulders nude
promise pleasure of the flesh,
as do both her outstretched legs
and fleshy thighs that striped pants cover.
She is ready, never begs
for either male or female lover,
secure, because she’s read in books
which lie beside her feet that life
can offer more than that, and looks
unwilling to become a wife.

Inspired by Suzanne Valadon’s “La chamber bleue,” which is part of an exhibition, “elles@centrepompidou,” that features hundreds of works by female artists only, reviewed by Suzanne Muchnic in the LA Times on May 24, 2009.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/24/09

Friday, May 22, 2009

arrested love


Love is hard to stop, but loss of lovers
who’re separated like two pieces of a melon
undermines arrested love when, under covers
of other beds, a fallen lover fails, faux felon.

Inspired by Ted Hughes’s poem “Lovesong,” presumably inspired by the love and death of Sylvia Plath:

He loved her and she loved himHis kisses sucked out her whole past and future or tried toHe had no other appetiteShe bit him she gnawed him she suckedShe wanted him complete inside herSafe and Sure forever and everTheir little cries fluttered into the curtainsHer eyes wanted nothing to get awayHer looks nailed down his hands his wrists his elbowsHe gripped her hard so that lifeShould not drag her from that momentHe wanted all future to ceaseHe wanted to topple with his arms round herOr everlasting or whatever there wasHer embrace was an immense pressTo print him into her bonesHis smiles were the garrets of a fairy placeWhere the real world would never comeHer smiles were spider bitesSo he would lie still till she felt hungryHis word were occupying armiesHer laughs were an assasin's attemptsHis looks were bullets daggers of revengeHer glances were ghosts in the corner with horrible secretsHis whispers were whips and jackbootsHer kisses were lawyers steadily writingHis caresses were the last hooks of a castaway Her love-tricks were the grinding of locksAnd their deep cries crawled over the floorsLike an animal dragging a great trapHis promises were the surgeon's gagHer promises took the top off his skullShe would get a brooch made of itHis vows pulled out all her sinews He showed her how to make a love-knotAt the back of her secret drawerTheir screams stuck in the wallTheir heads fell apart into sleep like the two halvesOf a lopped melon, but love is hard to stopIn their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legsIn their dreams their brains took each other hostageIn the morning they wore each other's face

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/22/09

Thursday, May 21, 2009

lwft-handed blows


Don’t rely on competence, for strength
come from unlearned blows that are left-handed;
until you learn to improvise at length
you short the truth and cannot understand it.

Inspired by a saying of Walter Benjamin: “These are days when no one should rely on his competence. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/21/09

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

plain truth


Plain truth cannot be told by means of poetry
whose rhymes and rhythms ace it so that we can’t see,
truth trumped by it when lacking language that, prosaic,
to all hyperbole can be apotropaic.

And yet, prosaic truth is also inconclusive,
when chips are down, without much money in the pot,
and fools us being both evasive and elusive
by causing those who seek it to appear dim-witted.

Inspired by an article by Colm Tóibín in the LRB, May 14, 2009 (“Follow-the-leader”) on the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell:
In a letter to Lowell in 1955 Bishop tried to work out what the difference between prose and poetry might be for her, what it was that caused her to derive ‘a great satisfaction’ from the few stories she wrote, including ‘In the Village’. ‘It’s almost impossible not to tell the truth in poetry, I think,’ she wrote, ‘but in prose it keeps eluding one in the funniest way.’ For most of her life, Bishop was interested in managing what eluded her with considerable care so that the truth, when it appeared, might become sharper and more precise, so that she could find the right tone and form for it. She was never sure.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/20/09

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

murphy's law


For every symptoms that is eased,
another is made worse;
that’s Murphy’s law, and I am pleased
to write it vividly in verse.
A constant quantity of tears
affects the world, and I
have sown and reaped them through the years,
but will, until I die,
continue stoically to praise
more than the tears the laughter
with which I try to live my days,
and happily thereafter.

Inspired by the axiom Lucky learns from Pozzo in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”:
(Lyrically.) The tears of the world are a constant quality. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. (He laughs.) Let us then no speak ill of our generation, it is not unhappier than it predecessors.

Eric Griffiths, reviewing a performance of “Waiting for Godot” with Ian McKellen as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, writesin the TLS, May 15, 2009, that Beckett stuck to this steady-state dismalness over may years before he loaned it to Pozzo late in 1948, and in 1936 quoted Murphy as saying: “For every symptom that is eased, another is made worse.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/19/09

Monday, May 18, 2009

learning from the starlight


We lift each other in the starlight to
a realm that lies so far beyond the moon
that we are unaware of any tune
except of that which sings of me and you.
When dawn arrives we’ll know we have reached
each other in a way the moon and sun
prevent, because we can’t be seen as one
where feelings of the bleary-eyed are bleached.

What we learn in starlight is far more
indelible than what in moonlight we
discern, because we have to strain to see,
and therefore feel what we cannot ignore.
In moonlight we believe that we can trust
our eyes, but in the starlight we rely
on feelings, and we learn the reason why
the heart that speaks to us declares, “You must.”

Inspired by “This,” a poem by Osip Mandelstam:

This is what I most wantunpursued, aloneto reach beyond the lightthat I am furthest from.And for you to shine there-no other happiness-and learn, from starlight,what its fire might suggest.A star burns as a star,light becomes light,because our murmuringstrengthens us, and warms the night.And I want to say to youmy little one, whispering,I can only lift you towards the lightby means of this babbling.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/18/09

Sunday, May 17, 2009

splitting from herself


Splitting from herself, from what she was,
hoping that she might
spend just one more torrid night
with him, she could not reach her goal, because
what she had separated was what he
most loved in her, the com-
bination of aplomb
that she had lost, and bonnefemmie.

Inspired by a poem by the new Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, Ruth Padel. A great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, she succeeds Christopher Ricks.

He's gone. She can't believe it, can't go on. She's going to give up painting. So she paints Her final canvas, total-turn-offBlack. One longObsidian goodbye. A charcoal-burner's Smirnoff, The mirror of Loch Ness Reflecting the monster back to its own eye.But something's wrong. Those mad Black-body particles don't sing Her story of despair, the steel andGarnet spindleOf the storm.This black has everything its own sweet way, Where's the I'd-like-to-kill-You conflict? Try once more, but this time addA curve to all that straight. And opposition White. She paints black first. A grindstone belly Hammering a smaller shapeBeneath a snakeOf in-betweening light. "I feel like this. I hope that you do, too, Black crater. Screw you. Kiss" And sees a voodoo flicker, where two worlds nearly touchAnd miss. That flash, where whiteLets black get close, that dagger of not-quite contact,Catspaw panic, quiver on the wheatField before thunder -There. That's it. That's her own self, in paint, Splitting what she was from what she is. As if everything that separates, unites.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/17/09

To treasures of the inner life hold fast,
however much outer ones are wrecked,
and if you feel superior to Bast,
do not include him when you would connect
to riches that are probably beyond
his reach. Take care when choosing all your friends;
of everyone you don’t need to be fond,
though not connecting brutally offends.

To moral obligations we must be,
aspiring to the mind’s great treasures––blinded,
about them when connecting––always free
when striving to bebrilliant and high-minded.
It’s vital that we always be selective
regarding people with whom we connect,
avoiding issues can’t make us connective
with those who don’t share values we respect.

Preserve the deep part of you, your interior,
not disconnected to what seems inferior,
don’t be judgmental when you’re pensive:
and end up being cowardly offensive.

Inspired by Edwin Frank’s discussion of E.M. Forster’s in The Threepenny Review, Spring 2009, in which he points out that “only connect” in However’s End regrettably means to those who say it the opposite of what it says:

I loved Howard’s End when I first read it. I find it almost unreadable now…And yes, of course, it is an important book. But what bothers me about it no is what I call its bad faith…As an arbiter for society, nice Margaret Schlegel, guided by the spirit of Mrs. Wilcox, looks a lot like Radovan Karadzik. In the end, Howards’s End is a fantasy, unseeing, sentimental, and punitive––consider the treatment of Leonard Bast, the poor clerk who aspires to read Ruskin and is instead crushed by Forster under a bookshelf. It is a fantasy for a world for people “like us,” the only people with whom one really can connect....Part of my impatience with Howard’s End is that, however crude, contrived and self-serving the book now seems to me, I suspect that it remains, for all that, my fantasy too, even as I criticize. A familiar prison, very snug. What would it mean, at last, to escape fro Howard’s End?

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/14/09

Friday, May 15, 2009



Tell your mistresses you love them;
that’s the etiquette to which you ought to stick,
and do not always lie above them.
Give them a choice, but if you find they pick
power seat make sure they always know that you’re
the master though they are on top.
Don’t let them dominate you or become cocksure,
or use your credit card to shop,
and make sure that they never meet your wife until
you’ve told her the affair has ended.
Buy inexpensive gifts to show
you love them since they are prepared to be your whores,
and make sure that they see you know
it doesn’t cost a lot to make them flaunt the mores.
By following these rules you’ll generate good will,
and they won’t show that they’re offended,
because you’ve been a stickler for the etiquette
requiring that you tell them you
love them, and only them, and would be most upset
if they believed this was not true.

Inspired by a line in Jean Anouilh’s The Awakening, performed at The Noise Within in Glendale. A Count has a wife who tolerates his mistresses but takes cunning steps to make sure that he does not fall in love with a young girl who is virginally naïve. One of the characters, I am not sure which, declares, “Tell all your mistresses you love them, be a stickler for such etiquette.”

© 2009 Gesrhon Hepner 5/13/09

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

naming pluto


Venetia Burney, aged eleven,
named an object in the heaven,
transuranic and remote,
to observers’ eyes a mote,
suggesting that it should be known
as Pluto, name that it would own,
and share with Disney’s dog of Mickey.
Some astronomers were picky,
but finally they all agreed
the name she chose was great indeed
and didn’t choose to later ban it
once it had ceased to be a planet,
like teams in Premier League demoted,
remaining to this name devoted,
thus to Venetia being fair,
as her last name became, for Phair
she turned into when she got married
and Burney became hara-kari’d,
a plutoid name, you might say if
on Pluto’s you would make a riff.

Her father was a bible scholar,
and when it’s time for an extoller
of me you’ll find out in my obit
that I, too, study Holy Writ,
an inconspicuous asteroid
revolving in the Western void.
Quite unlike Ms. Venetia Phair,
there are no traces of me there
like those that you will find in heaven
made by Venetia when eleven,
though plus eleven three score years,
and taxwise sadly in arrears.

The first poem written while working in my new job near Glendale, and inspired by an obituary of Venetia Phair written by William Grimes in the NYT, May 11, 2007:

Frozen and lonely, Planet X circled the far reaches of the solar system awaiting discovery and a name. It got one thanks to an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, an enthusiast of the planets and classical myth. On March 14, 1930, the day newspapers reported that the long-suspected “trans-Neptunian body” had been photographed for the first time, she proposed to her well-connected grandfather that it be named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld. And so it was. Venetia Phair, as she became by marriage, died April 30 in her home in Banstead, in the county of Surrey, England. She was 90. The death was confirmed by her son, Patrick. Venetia, on the fateful day that Pluto popped into her head, was having breakfast with her mother and her grandfather, Falconer Madan, retired librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. He had exciting news to tell. Scientists at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., had just photographed a planet lying beyond Neptune. Its existence had been postulated since the late 19th century, and astronomers working under Percival Lowell, the observatory’s founder, had been chasing it photographically since 1906. Now theory had become fact. “He wondered what it should be called,” Mrs. Phair recalled in the documentary film, “Naming Pluto,” released last month. “We all wondered, and then I said, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ And the whole thing stemmed from that.” Mr. Madan passed the idea along to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford. Pluto, he suggested in a letter, was an excellent name for “the big obscure new baby.” Mr. Turner, as it happened, was in London for a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, where word of the new planet had members buzzing, and proposals for a name flew fast and furious. “I think PLUTO excellent!!” he wrote to Mr. Madan on his return. “We did not manage to think of anything so good at the RAS yesterday. The only at all meritorious suggestion was Kronos, but that won’t do alongside Saturn.” (Kronos is the Greek equivalent of Saturn.) Mr. Turner immediately sent a telegram to Flagstaff: “Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.”…
Venetia Katherine Burney was born in Oxford, where her father, the Rev. Charles Fox Burney, was a professor of scriptural interpretation. He died when Venetia was 6, and she and her mother went to live with Mr. Madan. Venetia developed an interest in astronomy after playing a game with other children in which lumps of clay, standing for the planets, were placed on a lawn in their positions relative to the sun.She attended Downe House, a boarding school in Berkshire, and, after studying mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, became a chartered accountant. She later taught economics and math at two girls’ schools in southwest London. In 1947 she married Maxwell Phair, a classicist, who became housemaster and head of English at Epsom College. She is survived by her son, of Cheltenham. Mrs. Phair tended to play down her stroke of genius. She came up with Pluto, she said, simply because it was one of the few important Roman gods still available for planetary duty. “Whether I thought about a dark, gloomy Hades, I’m not sure,” she told the BBC in 2006…
Mrs. Phair took it in stride when the International Astronomical Union decreed that Pluto was not a planet at all. It was a dwarf planet, and not even the largest one, a lump of rock and ice orbiting in a ring of icy debris known as the Kuiper Belt. Some face was saved last year when the union announced the coining of the term “plutoid” to designate a dwarf planet beyond the orbit of Neptune. More vexing to Mrs. Phair was the persistent notion that she had taken the name from the Disney character. “It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way around,” she told the BBC. “So, one is vindicated.” Alan M. MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky and Telescope, foresees sweeter vindication ahead. “In the year 4,000 A.D., when Pluto is hollowed out and millions of people are living inside,” he said, “the name of Venetia Burney may be the only thing that Great Britain is remembered for.”
Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer who teaches at Williams College, responded to the poem thus:
We thank you for your rhyming piece. Your skills in language never cease. It's hard to bring astronomy To worldwide people As you see. Venetia Burney chose a name Though probably they had the same Idea in Flagstaff and were ready, Solidifying their idea so heady. This summer's August I will go To Rio, where it doesn't snow. And we will see if IAU Considers their own old boo-boo. But probably the name will stick And kids won't know or care a lick. And I've moved on to Haumea (A plutoid, yet a dwarf, so say ya). Jay

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/11/09

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ira and I


Amanda rhymes with propaganda;
with miscellania Titania
goes well, but as for Angelas,
they only have Los Angeles
as rhyme words, although Ira didn’
realize this. I’m from Britain
which maybe gives me an advantage
when using weak rhymes as a bandage
to cover words that hardly rhyme:
if you’ve the license, it’s no crime;
if you with it can get away
you have the verbal right of way.

With badinage once Ira Gershwin
did this before the poet Gersh. Win-
some my rhymes. I can’t win all,
but in LA I have a ball
competing as I do in rhyme
with Ira, and it’s summertime
for me, as it was once for Porgy,
to wallow in a rhyming orgy,
though I don’t have a George to make
it stick, so when you see me fake
it’s easier to tell I am,
though strictly Jewish, a mere ham.

Inspired by Stephen Holden’s review of an Ira Geshwin review at the 92nd Street Y (“The Gershwin Brother Who Treasured His dictionary,” May 11, 2007):

Margot and embargo, Amanda and propaganda, Titania and miscellanea: those whimsical rhymes for women’s names are breezily trotted out in “A Rhyme for Angela,” a comic song from the forgotten 1945 Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin operetta “The Firebrand of Florence.” Its joke is that there is no usable rhyme for Angela. Performed on Saturday by Tom Wopat at the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series, the song offered a prime example of Gershwin’s irrepressible verbal playfulness. Introducing it on Saturday at the first of five performances of “The Man That Got Away: Ira After George,” Rex Reed, the program’s artistic director, talked about how Ira Gershwin and his Lower East Side schoolmate E. Y. Harburg pored over dictionaries to develop styles of light verse patterned after W. S. Gilbert. As adventurous human rhyming machines, they were as competitive in their way as today’s rappers. A passion for effervescent high jinks is a lyrical hallmark of Gershwin, who remains overshadowed by George, his younger brother. That relative obscurity, alas, is the fate of lyricists in general. Because tunes cling to us more easily than rhymes, the composers in songwriting collaborations reap more of the glory. And so Ira, who died in 1983 (46 years after George), remains underappreciated.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/11/09

Monday, May 11, 2009



Euphemism for senescence,
eulogized as acquiescence
is impeded by reju-
venation. That’s why you
should fight it, thinking in the present
of the future not denied,
to you until you are senescent,
and have acquiesced and died.

Inspired by a poem, “Acquiescence,” by Raynette in her recently published collection of poems “Earthen Jar”. The poem ends:There is this waiting,
this listening,
this passive acquiescence
of darkness before dawn
and the possibility
that morning may never come…
this time.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/7/09

Sunday, May 10, 2009

trade in intellect


Jane Fairfax showed solicitude
to governesses, since their trade
was comparable, she claimed—no prude—
to prostitutes, though less well paid.
It wasn’t flesh but intellect
they sold, which makes them more
like lawyers, who’ve the same defect
though paid, of course, much more.

Inspired by Sir Frank Kermode’s review of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, Vl. IX: Later Manuscripts and Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen conquered the Word, by Claire Harman, in the LRB, April 30, 2009. He reminds his readers of Jane Fairfax’s remarks to Mrs. Elton regarding the position of governess, claiming that their offices were “for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of the human intellect.” Mrs. Elton professes to be shocked by the expression “human flesh,” which is widely thought to refer to the slave-trade, but which Kermode argues probably refers to prostitution.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/8/09

Friday, May 8, 2009

moderate extremists


We’re told we must negotiate
with moderate extremists, oxy-
moron men use to deflate
conservatives, whose orthodoxy
maintains that those espousing terror
by definition can’t be mod-
erate. Oh what a dreadful error!
Those who use the name of God
to fight their enemies cannot
be moderate, for moderation
requires that you do not plot
to kill with bombs and radiation
your enemies who don’t believe
that, disbelieving, they aren’t damned,
and fight the evil plots men weave
to make sure moderates are scammed.

Hassina Sherjan writes an O-Ed in the NYT on May 9, 2009 (“Talked to Death”), in which she deplores the attempt to negotiate with moderate terrorists in Afghanistan:
FOR several years, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has been trying to negotiate and reconcile with supposedly moderate elements of the Taliban to end the insurgency. This approach has failed every time. Thus it is puzzling to many Afghans that President Obama has also been talking about negotiating with “moderates.” Let’s hope that when the two men met in Washington this week, along with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, the idea of reaching out to the Islamic extremists was shelved once and for all. After all, President Karzai’s efforts have simply revealed the weakness of the Afghan government and its international allies. Taliban spokesman have repeatedly demanded unacceptable conditions for talks, including the departure of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and the establishment of Shariah law. Indeed, shortly after Mr. Obama raised the subject of reconciliation, the Taliban rejected his proposal, stating there were no extremists or moderate groups within their ranks. On this point at least, the Taliban are right. Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, put it very clearly: “The Taliban were united under the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar. All the fighters follow and obey orders of one central command. The existence of moderates and extremist elements within the rank and file of Taliban is wishful thinking of the West and the Afghan government.” What can be the purpose of talks with the Taliban? These men deprive women of their rights, throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, reject religious freedom and oppose constitutional democracy. They also threaten to kill any Afghans who have worked with Western militaries and nongovernmental groups or had other contact with foreigners. Is it possible, as some have said, that the Taliban have mellowed since being toppled in 2001? Muhammad Ibrahim Hanafi, a top Taliban commander, answered that question in an interview in March with CNN: “Our law is still the same old law which was in place during our rule in Afghanistan.” The more President Karzai and his Western allies talk about reconciliation, the farther their public support will plummet. I returned to Afghanistan in 2001 after more than two decades in America and founded a manufacturing company with the intention of using part of its profits to help young women get an education. In the early days, the discussions at our organization’s meetings were dominated by talk of building schools and other big plans. Lately, however, the main topic has been the future of us women in Afghanistan under another Taliban regime. We know that there is not, and will never be, any “moderate Taliban.” Extremists and ideologues do not compromise.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/9/09

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

paltry thing


An aged man’s a paltry thing
(John Butler Yeats, of course),
his legacy divided, king
like Lear, bereft of force,
past master of what’s past and passing,
and of what’s to come
abusive, constantly badassing,
on time’s scales his thumb,
weighing down with Byzantine
analysis the world,
until death’s angel draws the line,
and from it he’s hurled.
From Byzantium we sail,
in a tale that’s told
by idiots, who mostly fail
to understand when old.

Inspired by John Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” below, a poem that not only made me think about the impermanence of my own life but enables me to see Klimt’s rationale in painting Adele Block-Bauer in a Byzantine manner. In “Sailing to Byzantium” he implies that that which is Byzantine is permanent, and by using this style he insinuates that she, too, will become as permanent as “sages standing in God's holy fire/ As in the gold mosaic of a wall”.

That is no country for old men. The youngIn one another's arms, birds in the trees- Those dying generations - at their song,The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer longWhatever is begotten, born, and dies.Caught in that sensual music all neglectMonuments of unageing intellect.An aged man is but a paltry thing,A tattered coat upon a stick, unlessSoul clap its hands and sing, and louder singFor every tatter in its mortal dress,Nor is there singing school but studyingMonuments of its own magnificence;And therefore I have sailed the seas and comeTo the holy city of Byzantium.O sages standing in God's holy fireAs in the gold mosaic of a wall,Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,And be the singing-masters of my soul.Consume my heart away; sick with desireAnd fastened to a dying animalIt knows not what it is; and gather meInto the artifice of eternity.Once out of nature I shall never takeMy bodily form from any natural thing,But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths makeOf hammered gold and gold enamellingTo keep a drowsy Emperor awake;Or set upon a golden bough to singTo lords and ladies of ByzantiumOf what is past, or passing, or to come.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/4/09

class of picasso


Picasso is so hard to classify.
With many styles he would Picassify,
while serving meat upon his salad table,
to make each image from his palette palatable.
Caricatural his baroquerie
that makes of all the world a mockery,
depicting of the genitals a glut
that people who are smart do not call smut.

Inspired by an article by James Panero on an exhibition of late Picasso works of art at the Gagosian Gallery, “Picasso: Mosqateros?”:
The great relief comes from how Picasso chose to Picassify his own late work. Picasso’s bull-and-anus motif had grown tedious. His over-sexualization of the visual world had become a cartoon-like cliché, one urinal scrawl after another. The parade of battered wives in his portraits was also growing dreary, as Picasso himself came to recognize. Today’s blond beauty, everyone knew, would become tomorrow’s succubus, a vagina-dentata gorgon forever gnawing at Picasso’s pathetically vulnerable Andalusian arch masculinity. His daughter Paloma once remarked that “people were happy to be consumed by him. They thought it was a privilege.” Maybe so, but it grew increasingly unappetizing to watch Picasso consume his cannibalistic meals. He was that child-Titan forever licking his chops and showing his plate cleaned of limbs and noses. The final years took a different turn. As Picasso became more housebound in Notre-Dame-de-Vie, he introduced new and various forms of visual stimulation. He projected Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, featuring the Amsterdam musketeers (the “Mosqueteros” of the Gagosian title), on his studio wall. He was a movie buff. He watched television. Picasso turned his attention away from reality, his personal sexual reality, reality as filtered through cubism and expressionism, and focused on these new influences. Rather than devour the lives around him, he began to chew on the more palatable (palettable?) legacies of Rembrandt, Velásquez, Goya, El Greco, and van Gogh.
Kenneth Clark has described a major artist like Picasso, burning through his final stage, as someone who paints in an “unholy rage.” On the surface, Picasso appeared to do just that. His furious production at Gagosian seems simply mad. But the show ends up oddly apollonian. Picasso was attempting to scare off death while at the same time diligently preparing the decor for his own pharaonic tomb. Compared to his earlier work, there is less visceral rage in these final paintings and more consistent energy. The Gagosian paintings are mainly enormous playing-card portraits of kings, jacks, and jokers popping up in a roll call of stock art-historical characters. The show is an Old Master museum hall perceived through Picasso-colored glasses. “How could these unashamedly outrageous paintings,” Richardson asks, “with their farcical irony, their caricatural baroquerie, their glut of genitals, their science-fiction time warp and subversive black comedy, be reconciled to the accepted precepts of art history?” The answer is that these conservative paintings are pure art history, a survey course by the aging don offered up in titles like the Dutch-figured Tête d’homme du 17ème siècle de face (1967).

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/5/09

Monday, May 4, 2009



Said Mr. Steed to Mrs. Peel,
“I think we make a splendid pair.”
Said Mrs. Peel, “I also feel
we are, since clearly we both dare
to do the sort of things that some
may think are somewhat outré and
consider to be rather dumb.
The fact is we both understand
each other’s style and know it’s rare
for other people to.” She spoke
at greater length than he, aware
he merely hoped she’d make a joke.

Inspired by a poem Linda wrote to me for my birthday, inspired by Pushkin, whose “Eugene Onegin” she is currently reading ina translation recommended by Nadya’s father. Since she addressed the poem to “my Steed, “I was reminded of Mr. Steed and his colleague Mrs. Peel in “The Avengers,” one of our favorite TV programs before we left the UK.

A Birthday Pushkin for my Steed

There is no other man on earth
Or even under it I think
Who fills my days with words of mirth
Or makes me weep great streams of ink.
I was forewarned, I must admit,
They told me ‘Grasp that horse’s bit
And hold tight as he gallops wild
But keep your mind and senses mild.
If you hang on and gallop he
Will come to love his rider who
Without his realizing steers true
And he will never want to flee’.
I tried it till we reached the camp
Where nightmares reared their heads to stamp.

One mare named Whinny chomped and chewed
And boasted of her untrod path
Where Eve was weaving, Adam hewed,
And loved hard in the aftermath.
I’d read it all: they told me if
Not only was I much too stiff
But seeming loose, I’d drop the reins
And he’d go trotting over plains
To see himself if Whinny told
The truth, that gold is woven straw
and if not, if there be some flaw,
the virtual straw is counted gold
and can be bartered at the bank
of campus cohorts’ quick think-tank.

I was about to write this verse
Like brushing down my steed who ran
The fastest and made clouds disperse
Across our global campus span.
Then Whinnie whinnied and he stopped;
Her whinny had my poem topped;
I spilt the shampoo on the ground
And threw the sugar on the mound,
Yet carelessly he munched it, then
He galloped up to me and nuzzled
As if to say, do not be puzzled,
You are my rider once again.
So till our next ride, I will wait
This race out, with my horse, my mate.

L 5.3.09

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/3/09

Sunday, May 3, 2009



Asked what she’d like for Christmas Natalie,
whose name recalls the holiday, replied,
“Just yesterday!” a present we can’t have since, fatally,
by definition it is time that’s died.

Frederic Raphael reviews Jeffrey Vance’s “Douglas Fairbanks” in the TLS, April 24, 2009 (“Quicksilver”:

Douglas Fairbanks was the early and emblematic embodiment (he took obsessive care of his physique) of the rugged individual who combined old-world chivalry, and swordplay, with the go-getter’s all-American brio. Quick to strip to the cinched waist, he was actor and athlete, grinning charmer and suntanned daredevil whose blade cut a swathe – literally in The Mark of Zorro – through the bad guys. Jeffrey Vance’s glorified, and glorifying, picture book retrieves the memory and the glamour of one of the first superstars. The text gives us all the details of his unique career anyone could care to read, but the pictures give us the winning smile. If there was no one quite like Douglas Fairbanks before him, there has been no shortage of imitators since…
In the prettiest, if hardly the truest, phrase in this fattened filmography, Booth Tarkington is cited as saying of Fairbanks, “Certainly he will never be older – unless quicksilver can get old”. In fact, dread of age was his and every handsome actor’s occupational malaise. I recall being flown to New York for a conference to meet an unusually long-faced Robert Redford. He had just been told by his dentist that he needed root canal work. When he asked if the condition was serious, he was told “Not a bit; it’s just something that comes with the years”. Not a bit was a bit too much: Redford’s suite turned into the condemned cell and no further work was done. Vance promises that Fairbanks “the private man was elusive and inconsolable”; presumably the latter because every day that passed was gone forever. I am reminded of Natalie Wood, lying on Zuma Beach one Christmas Eve gazing into her make-up mirror, in the hope, one imagines, that if she kept a keen eye on herself she would never change. When someone asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said, without looking up, “Yesterday”.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/1/09

Friday, May 1, 2009

reading other people's correspondence


Warning! Do not poke about
the correspondence of your friends:
you’re surely better off without
the information that it sends.
If despite this you ignore
my warning since you want to poke,
consider less is often more,
and more is often just a joke.

Some diseases we can fool
sometimes, but we can never cure
what we should not have read. It’s cool
and healthier to be unsure
than being certain we have been
betrayed by what was written but
was not intended to be seen
by us, if personal or smut.

The moral for all males and females
is: remember cats aren’t killed
by reading sexy kittens’ e-mails––
being curious does that.

Written in the office of Kia Michel MD, and inspired by Janet Maslin’s review of Christopher Buckley’s memoir on his two parents (Losing Mum and Pup” (“Turns Out It All Does Seem to Be Funny,” NYT, April 30, 2009):
“Losing Mum and Pup” explains how the younger Mr. Buckley lost both his parents within the space of a year and lived to reel off bon mots about it. It eulogizes two people whose only child deemed them larger than life, recognizing that both Godzilla and Mount Rushmore have larger-than-life stature. To some extent this book about the senior Buckleys is an act of expiation, the apologia of a son who sometimes found himself “tempted to pack them off to earlier graves.” To some degree it demonstrates, with the Swiftian urbanity that distinguishes Christopher Buckley’s own literary career, how much about this family’s story is best left unsaid. For a better understanding of how Mr. Buckley developed a satirical style to serve him as a protective carapace, consider the circumstances of his upbringing. His mother, Patricia Taylor Buckley, who died at the age of 80 in April 2007, was elegant, socially prominent and sharp-tongued, capable of sounding like “a cross between Noël Coward and a snapping turtle.” His son credits his own sense of humor to her, which is by far the greatest compliment in this barbed yet flattery-filled memoir. “Losing Mum and Pup” exults over every aspect of Mrs. Buckley’s fabulousness, from her chicken pot pie party recipe to what Women’s Wear Daily called her “belle poitrine.”…
The stormy fights in the Buckley household (Christopher estimates that his parents spent one-third of their marriage not speaking to each other) are used as fodder for humor, not as signs of distress. When he cites a letter he came upon written by his father to the headmaster of Christopher’s boarding school inquiring whether Christopher was having “an amorous dalliance” with another boy (he wasn’t), his main point is this: “Don’t go poking about in other people’s correspondence — you might not like what you find.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/30/09