Fluffy Pie, the Angel Kitty

In anticipation of a move, I’ve been weeding through boxes of old papers, trying to throw out as much of the last couple of decades as possible. Most of the attendant archival discoveries are now looking forward to useful reincarnation as cardboard or napkins, but one folder seemed worth translating into the electronic realm, if only for the sake of confusing as many people as possible about the “brand” that my byline represents. About a dozen years ago, as I was finishing graduate school, my friend Chris Duffy, who was then an editor at the children’s magazine Nickelodeon, now defunct, asked if I’d try writing some children’s poetry. He ended up buying a few of them, and even printing at least a couple, along with illustrations by cartoonists. I seem to have written six in all; I’ll post one a day over the next week.

Fluffy Pie, the Angel Kitty

When Gwendolyn went skating, she
Slipped and skinned her knee.
Her mom and dad were far away.
She howled in agony.

But then Gwen saw, mid snowy clouds,
Some furry, beating wings:
‘Twas Fluffy Pie, the angel kitty,
Who flies around and sings.

“Dear Gwendolyn, I feel your pain,”
The angel kitty sang.
“I bring you catnip, herbal treat
With pain-relieving tang.”

Fluffy Pie was radiant, like the
Summer sky at dawn.
But Gwen thought catnip tasted
A little bit like lawn.

Jerome was glum when he received
A D-plus-plus in math.
“Who cares?” he growled, but then a wingèd
Kitty crossed his path.

“Behold,” the flying kitten sang,
“I bring celestial food.
I caught this mouse in heaven to
Improve your earthly mood.”

With downy fur and winking eyes,
Fluffy Pie was cute.
But mouse for dinner, Jerome thought,
Didn’t quite compute.

Sandy had a wobbly tooth
That kept her in suspense.
It jiggled and it wiggled
And it made her rather tense.

Then Sandy heard a meow above
Of “Peace,” and just for her
Fluffy Pie coughed up a ball
Of special kitty fur.

“Ick,” said Sandy. “Ack,” said Gwen.
“Yucky,” said Jerome.
“My work here is finished,” Fluffy
Smiled, and flew home.

“Wallenstein Garden,” by Jaroslav Seifert

I've been translating a few things from Czech lately, when I should have been doing something else. This poem is about a garden in Prague full of neoclassical statuary.

Wallenstein Garden
by Jaroslav Seifert

When violets rain down
into the strings of the old lyre,
held under one arm
as if it were a distorted discus

by the pretty young goddess
—there was a time when
a burbling fountain used to dress her
in his glittering silver—

when the wind beats
moldering leaves up against a staircase
and eats from an empty fountain
as from a bowl,

a nude crouches silently
under the cold ivy
and we tell each other
gentle foolishnesses again.

Next to the old musket,
there, in a corner gray with mildew,
I wiped the kisses off
the lips of your damp roses

much the way time, which has played quietly
here in the harps of the old trees,
long ago wiped the blood away
from the rusty weapons.

Licenses taken: I haven't tried to reproduce the rhyme or the rhythm of the original. In Czech, the goddess is a "little young goddess," not quite colloquial in English; I changed "little" to "pretty" in an attempt to capture the affection implied in Czech by the dimininutive. There's no second em dash in the original, but I think the conventions of English punctuation require one.

Melville’s Secrets: The Walter Harding Lecture, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”

SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.

I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.

Other, less difficult media

While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.

Cockney Keats?

“Keats Speaks,” my essay about whether the real Keats spoke the way the one in the recent Jane Campion movie does, appears in the 1 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

You can read the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article that accused Keats of “Cockney rhymes” here (though signed “Z.,” it was by John Gibson Lockhart, and it appeared in the August 1818 issue). Just as infamous was a similar attack in the Quarterly Review by John Wilson Croker (though the issue was dated April 1818, it actually appeared in September).