Sunday, July 15, 2012

waves beating in

One thing worked when I had my sinus cold. I stood under a hot shower until the heat soothed the side of my head. But I boiled my own skin, or scalded it -- my arm went red -- the blotches itched, I scratched generously, I was a champion, I gave myself a welt, and it occurred to me that I could keep heading in this direction, with one thing going wrong and then another thing going wrong until something ultimately bad happened, namely decay, wounds, and death.

First the cold, then the itch, then the welts, then bleeding, then an infection, then weakening of the organism, then hospitalisation, then lack of money, then not able to pay for the funeral, gradually descending in gentle terrifying steps, a tempo of movement that Aelian's old Roman On the Characteristics of Animals doesn't always support, with its stories about sting-rays whose barbs will kill you instantly and the pairs of animals that hate one another on sight without stopping to worry or investigate any nuance, or move from one state into another in any way other than abruptly. "The Fox detests a Falcon and the Bull a Raven, and the Buff-backed Heron the Horse. And an educated man who attends to what he hears should know that the Dolphin is at feud with the Whale, the Basse too with the Mullet, and the Moray with the Conger Eel, and so on."

Then there are the herbs that will protect you utterly, as long as you know what you are and what to pick, which is possibly not as easy as the author makes it seem, for, and here is an example: earlier this evening as I was reading an article about sportspeople who had qualified for the Olympic Games I discovered that many of them chose their champion sport by accident one day while they were trying to get out of a different sport that made them feel embarrassed because they couldn't practice it without looking useless, they dropped the ball, nobody wanted them in the team, and they were humiliated. Then they must have concluded that they were no good at sport in toto, dammit, they thought: get me away from sport, but since school is making me do it let me pick this other thing. Fencing. They chose randomly whatever was being offered and some time later wondering what had happened they arrived at the Olympic Games.

In Aelian the people and animals are sure of themselves; they know what to choose. "The Land Tortoise after eating some marjoram treats a land viper with contempt. But if it lacks marjoram it arms itself against its enemy by consuming some rue. If however it fails to find either, it is killed." Events in television advertisements move at this speed, the dose is effective straight away, the car invigorates the spirit; and the child is happy because its mother gave it a crumpet covered with this kind of butter and no other kind of butter; it is not happy for some ambiguous or private reason but solely because the specific butter is present on the crumpet. The viewer may like to conclude that under other circumstances it would not be happy. What an emotional rollercoaster this child endures, its whole sensitive life nothing but wild hurtling depending on presence or absence of butter. Deduce then that it is not a character in a book by Henry James, where it would be delicate, ambiguous, reticent, and similar words; but it is there to love the butter, it is in the frame of the camera, it smiles with joy, it is out of the frame, it is gone, it was as sudden as its own happiness, it was haiku.

The morning glory also
turns out
not to be my friend

(which is Bashō, translated by Robert Hass)

Poor child of pathos, what happens when you've eaten all the butter? The sadness of age overcomes you, and you are still little yet you have nothing more to hope for, the time of happiness is over, there is nothing ahead but bewilderment and memory, the butter not eternal, the body aging, the muscles weakening, the bones brittling, the spine curling, the desire for death closing in, and your only friend is suicide.

The short night --
waves beating in,
an abandoned fire.

(Buson, translated by Robert Hass again. Both of these haiku translations were taken from The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson and Issa, which was published by The Ecco Press in 1994.)


  1. A bull hates a raven?

    A heron hates a horse?

    1. That's the interesting thing about his animal books: he seems to have relied completely on heresay, tall stories, anecdotes, and travellers' tales. He writes like a man who has never actually seen an animal. Some of the conclusions are wrong but you can work out where they came from (the chief bee in his hive is a male, a king, not a female, a queen: a fair enough conclusion when you're living under a male ruler yourself) and others are deeply random. Who decided that bats make stork eggs infertile, for example? How did they reach that conclusion? What did they see?