Monthly Archives: September 2020

[Spoilers] – The Water Diviner

This is my first – but not the last – poem about The Water Diviner. Be warned, there are spoilers. Font is a little wonky because I am not an expert at formatting in WordPress…

Tied with Babadook for Best Picture in Australia’s Academy Awards, this film is Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, and folks, if you’re thinking of watching this movie, be warned, it will get under your skin. The Water Diviner swept the awards in the Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards, but hit some resistance in other critics’ corners. For my part, I’m hoping to see more films directed by Russell Crowe coming out of lockdown brainstorming sessions!

This is actually a film I have to think twice about rewatching – it’s a bit triggering – but I often return to it regardless, because there’s medicine in there, too.

The way home leads you out of bounds
  and follows shining waters,
    past seagrass beds, deep underground,
      your fare the coin of fathers.

You learn the language of the lost,
  the courtesies long absence
    imposes on the way we gloss
      this limbo with brave gladness.

If, at the last resort, you found
  an antidote to madness,
    an echo of the subtle sound
      that hooks a father’s gut sense -

would you reclaim someone who fought
  for years to be forgotten?
    could you embrace a young man caught
      at the inferno’s bottom?

could you unbind the bandage round
  the eyes he turned on heaven?
    and wipe away the shame that’s found
      a burrowing place inside him?

And where will you embark, you two,
  if hell is not forever?
    past seagrass beds - or with those who
      make hope their whole endeavor?

Would he know what to do with you,
  or how to finally sever
    ties to what he thought he knew
      when his whole heart said, “never”?

Where will the way home lead you both?
  and has he asked you whether
    love released him of his oath
      forgiving him his valor?

Will he embrace a future bright
  with dangers and long chances,
    and join the unremitting fight
      when grief’s long arm advances?

Can you conduct him through this night,
  back to the wide expanses
    native to the living light 
      - a world where his heart dances?

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Filed under Directing, Poetry, The Water Diviner

Game of Thrones

There’s something comical about the power trips in Game of Thrones, and when you rewrite the 21st Psalm to pay tribute to the ladies of Westeros, you do get a semi-comical effect. Crocodile tears and all that. With this one, I think the shoe fits rather well. Kudos to Jah on YouTube for a fan video that captures the humor in the violence.

Force, in your fulcrum the new queen rejoices,
and in your reversals how much she exults!
Her basest desires you furnished with spoils,
and her lips’ entreaty through you bore wet fruit.
For you greeted her whims with ease of taking,
you set on her hair a steely diadem.
Lives she demanded – you gave the best to her,
hostages and graves in number without end.
Great is her glamour under your protection.
Power’s chilling grandeur you settled on her.
For you purchased her rich comforts and safety,
flattered her wit in the shade of your temple.
For the queen can trust only in ruthless Force,
through absolute dominance she will not fail.
You will flush out intrigues and find out her foes,
your right hand will seek out their treacherous throats.
You will reduce them to ashes and cinders
in the heat of your inexhaustible wrath.
Mere Force will annul them in her blind anger,
and a blood obsidian tooth hack them up.
Their fields and their kine you roast just in passing
and their progeny fall before you like flies.
For to wretchedness they sought to bring you first,
scheming to foil an unstoppable impulse.
For you will swing them around in their own tracks,
with your bowstring aimed at their rigid faces.
Loom high, blunt Force, in your fierce hegemony.
Let us sing all of your merciless exploits.

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Filed under Poetry

The Flies

Photo credit: Robert Day, at Shakespeare’s Globe, for

In Sartre’s bloody-minded adaptation of Orestes, the gods and furies are no heroes – they succor only the slaves of shame and fear, feeding on their humiliations as they prostrate themselves in the throes of penitence, like decadent voyeurs at a state execution.

The play is The Flies, and the action turns on the homecoming of an exiled son whose mother murdered his father, Agamemnon, when he turned up home from Troy. His sister eggs him on in the fulfillment of a vendetta she has thrust on him with all her energy – and then the furies arrive to settle the score for matricide. Zeus pokes his nose in just to get a whiff of the blood on the walls.

Orestes hesitates at first, having tasted another way of life in civilized Athens during his exile. But the force of Elektra’s appetite for retaliation is too much for him to resist. She’s been put down for her loyalty to a murdered father. Her status must be restored in this, their hideous native city, for she will not go away with him to live in peace abroad.

It all seems preordained – their ancestors started the bloodbath, and no one can come up with a convincing reason to interrupt the momentum of revenge killing after revenge killing.

This poem is addressed to Orestes on his homecoming, in the voice of the morbidly pliant Argive people, who have taken it upon themselves to worship the very gods who have taken the ruin of the Argive house upon themselves – for sport or for fair play or out of boredom, who can tell? It is based on the 20th Psalm in Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.

May the Gods vouchsafe your prayers in your anguish,
the rites of the Gods of Argos make you safe.
May Zeus touch the scales of fate in your favor,
and from Delphi may he shadow your footsteps.
May He roll his tongue in your wine offerings,
and your burnt offal tickle his white nostrils.
May He furnish your bitterest appetites,
and all your monstrous wishes may He fulfill.
Let us howl gladly for Your abrupt return
and in the name of Zeus succour the fat flies.
May the Gods cater to all your fantasies.
Now, by the light of Apollo, do I know
that old Zeus, that enabler, has been moved.
He has tramped all the way down from Olympus
in a lightshow of thunderbolts to save you.
They – the music, and they – their freedom in laws,
but we – the gut fat-smeared wooden God invoke.
They have taken up blasphemy and murder
but we rose firm in our remorse and spat back.
O Zeus, restore the Argive king to his curse.
May He do as much for us, the day we fall.

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Cape Horn

When I finally bought the Patrick O’Brian novels on which Master and Commander at the Far Side of the World is based, I knew I would have to earn them before I could stand the pleasure of actually reading them. To this day I haven’t been able to finish the first volume. Simply picking it up and reading a few pages feels a lot like binging on a pint of chocolate ice cream…

This poem is about the storm that nearly sank the Surprise when they rounded Cape Horn in pursuit of the Acheron. And, since a blog about Master and Commander wouldn’t be complete without the much-loved musical duo whose friendship goes to the soul of the books and keeps our Captain Aubrey sane (and keeps him on his toes!), here’s a clip from the film as well.

Extinguishing lights on a seaboard horizon –
erasure of star-charts by club-fingered Dawn.
A paling of canvas, a drawing of sail –
blunt instrument Sun parts the twilight’s loose veil.
What night’s sky assured us of, day will not yield –
an oncoming darkness, now plainly revealed,
offers rudderless passage through mast-shearing storms:
we are wrecked, flotsam remnants, adrift and forlorn.
In this passage, what last shred of dignity lost
is a cogent reflection on justice, now tossed
to the breakers with all due proportion and grace,
a memento for tourists – ‘mark this human race’?

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Filed under Master and Commander, Music, Poetry

Heart of a Dog

I read Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s masterwork and often acclaimed one of the greatest novels of all time, right on the heels of digesting Good Omens (Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman), and found the parallels between the two romps through the Ends Times and the Stalinist theater world, respectively, deliciously complementary, although I couldn’t tell for certain whether the authors of Good Omens were familiar with Bulgakov’s work. No matter. If you loved Good Omens, you would certainly enjoy Bulgakov’s sense of humor, too.

This poem was inspired by another of Bulgakov’s novels, which has been adapted to the stage and even the opera, and remains open to a variety of layers of meaning on interpretation. Heart of a Dog deals, on the surface level, with a scientific experiment run amok and a social engineering experiment gone off the rails. An analysis of the themes in this story using the templates in Systems of Survival is tempting, because of how prominent a role corruption and systems of perverse incentives play in the plot. This satirical novel also deals rather pungently with the animal nature lurking just below the surface of human behavior, which is so easily brought to the fore by a little scientific or cultural tinkering, sometimes with appalling results.

Now, Bulgakov didn’t share the warm and fuzzies you and I reserve for our four-legged friends. To appreciate his sense of humor, you have to see in the dog the pejorative metaphor for those all-too-human instincts for grasping, guzzling, chasing, heckling, grovelling, and just generally making a ruckus that writers in by-gone days heaped on those same companion animals that we cherish today for their innocence, loyalty, patience, sympathy and fortitude.

So this poem might make you a little uncomfortable, if your best friend has a wet nose and a wagging tail. The book certainly made me squirm a little when I read it. But it must’ve gotten under my skin, too, because when I sat down to write a poem based on the 19th psalm, I ended up with this little tribute to Bulgakov.

The blue Earth’s mirror alleges man’s glory,
and his genius satellite orbits attest.
Day to day sounds of traffic mark his passing
and sleep to sleep his habitus rests secure.
There is no common language for this insight,
only a bald, ineffable mastery.
Through every surface of the earth there pours out,
to the very stratosphere, man’s naked force.
For the sun he refracts in pillars of fumes –
and he like a groom from his glass tower steps,
stretching like a killer refreshed from a nap.
From the farthest scrap of sky his mirrors wink
and his cargo hustles round the globe below,
and no sparrow, root or weed is spared his heat.
Man’s leverage over nature is complete,
inventing and supplanting lifeforms undone.
Man’s covenant with power is resilient,
it makes a giant out of any old fool.
Man’s instincts elevate the boundless present,
the tastes and colors that stoke the appetite.
The measure of man’s kingdom is as precise,
the light in his eyes as bitter as sunlight.
The fear man inspires is absolute,
over all else hangs the risk of extinction.
As man is the measure of falsehood and truth,
all of his doings conform to his justice.
More sacred than water, his covenant’s axe,
than abundant sweet springs in the great badlands,
and intoxicating in its action, clean
and clear as the nectar of honey and meade.
Your poodle, too, is observant of the laws.
in licking the heels of power – great reward.
What can dogs know of nakedness, or of shame?
Of unwitting trespasses, forgive my tail.
From forward strangers hands preserve Your servant,
let them not seize me up and rebrand my hide.
Then I shall be content with the threats I know
and secure from the wrath of alien apes.
Let my muzzle’s whines and yaps be welcome here
and my tail’s wagging appease your blandishments,
Man, my great gaoler, my shield and my succor.

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Filed under Corruption, Systems of Survival

The Great Dictator

Michael Wood wrote, of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, “The greatness of the film lies in the bridge Chaplin builds between the little guy and the bully, so that in an amazing spiral, the thugs who pursue Chaplin as victim are under the orders of Chaplin the boss. .. There is even a point in the final speech when Chaplin starts to rant like [the Dictator], reminding us that rage in a good cause is still rage.”

He quotes Chaplin’s son: “Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination. ‘Just think,’ he would say uneasily, ‘he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.’”

Michael Wood seems to be speaking to us, today, when he says, “Chaplin’s finest further touch, having made his dictator ridiculous, is to remind us of how much harm even ridiculous people can do.” You can find this essay and others on Chaplin’s radical 1940 confrontation with Hitler (before American entered the war) enclosed with the DVD in The Criterion Collection.

Today’s poem, modeled on the 13th Psalm, is a gut-level response to Chaplin’s final speech in this film, adapted masterfully to accompany a montage of contemporary films in MedeRecord’s multifandom fan video, A Decent World.

How long, hands in pockets, will strength desert me?
How long will integrity shuffle its feet?
How long must I search my soul for mere courage,
and cast down my spirit for sloth every day?
How long will impunity stand on my watch?
Am I due no respect, no answer, my heart?
Light up my eyes, before death sedates my soul,
before I am trampled in scorn and contempt,
before I trip and amuse the uneasy.
Even now, in my secret kindness I trust,
and to act on it fills me with vehemence.
Let this song be my pledge to my convictions,
for by these obligations alone, I rise.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Poetry

Oscar and Lucinda

This poem didn’t need much revision for presentation here – I still approve the effect of the run-on rhymes and the way the alexandrines mirror the feminine rhythms of the storytelling in this gem of a film. The banner header for this blog is also from the same film.

Directed by Melbourne’s Gillian Armstrong and starring the irresistibly game Cate Blanchett opposite a compulsive gambler who aspires to the cloth (played with gentle understatement by Ralph Fiennes), Oscar and Lucinda sets the bar for screen chemistry rather high. But this is something I’ve come to expect from lady directors (see also Onegin, directed by Martha Fiennes, or Stander, directed by Bronwen Hughes). Armstrong went on to direct another of Blanchett’s early films, the WWII intrigue Charlotte Gray, but is probably best known for her earlier blockbuster adaptation of Little Women (with soon-to-be-all-star-cast members like Winona Rider, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes and Christian Bale).

Here I’m writing from Oscar’s point of view in an introvert’s stream-of-consciousness outpouring about Lucinda, and about spiritual life, love, and zest for adventure.

Unimpeachable friendship. That bank run on faith,
all this mummery frowning on dervish-like grace!
In her furnace for glass, half-formed chalices’ lips
softly smolder on tongs for communion wine’s kiss –
now a ball, now a bowl, now a candlestick – no,
now a lense, now a window, a prism, aglow
with a light glass embraces with tremulous care,
almost jangling into oblivion where
pre-fab walls made of glass rise like dragonfly wings
to a steeple of glass where the sun gently wrings
glassy shadows from river reflections of trees
on the banks of a settlement far from the sea’s
unimpeachable tact, dressing always for death,
reconciled to the strangeness of life, every sense,
every joint and kinetic translation of force
simply liquified – swimmers our souls – never poor,
not among the fastidious cards of the hands
we are dealt, never lacking in gambits and plans,
ever hopeful that fate will dictate the divine
for what more can Creation’s own dice signify?

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Dream Ensemble, Poetry

Istanbul – a postcard

This poem hails from a happy accident en route to Cotonou, when a missed connection landed me an unplanned overnight in Istanbul. Although there wasn’t time for any proper sightseeing, I got to enjoy a cardamom-spiced cup of authentic Turkish coffee and chat with a traveler from Saudi Arabia for an hour about reasons to come back to Turkey at the next opportunity.

For those of you who haven’t yet seen Russell Crowe’s directorial debut in The Water Diviner, a cup of Turkish coffee plays a very special role in two enchanting scenes that pair Russell with the luminous Olga Kurylenko at a hotel restaurant in Istanbul. So needless to say, I was over the moon to be sipping Turkish coffee in Istanbul myself.

I also picked up a novel at the airport by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, entitled Snow, about a poet’s perilous journey home, if home is where the heart is. This poem is a response both to the novel and to the brief glimpses I had of modern Istanbul on my stay. Next time I travel by way of Istanbul, I will find a way to spend more time exploring. The quoted phrases are from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

If “moonlight can prevent the leaves from stirring,”
forgo this little walk along the lighted
waterfront and be still, just an hour, leave
the newspaper by gaslight at the tea house
with the bachelors and tourists and spies,
and await the muezzin without looking
at your watch. Let the ismuth and its music
crown “the static side of moonlight” on the shore,
new electric minarets notwithstanding,
at a certain remove from underpasses,
overpasses, clover leafs and shopping malls.
What am I saying? Even the ocean’s changed.
Even so, stay an hour for the streetlights.
In the concrete shadow of the wharf, listen
to the pilgrim gestures of the spotlit tides.
Listen for the phrases later architects
of understanding will recount to us, no
newfangled revelation but a coming-
into-being of a people raised on light
and electrostatic everywhere-here-now
expectations of the music of the night.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Poetry, The Water Diviner

In memory of Stanley Crouch

I just learned that my favorite contemporary American cultural critic, Stanley Crouch, passed away yesterday at the age of 74. This in the middle of reading his essays on Quentin Tarantino’s films, and looking forward to picking up his books on jazz next. He will be missed.

I wanted to share a poem here based on the ninth psalm that I wrote after discovering the incredible jazz artist and composer Winton Marsalis through one of Stan’s essays, but I didn’t expect to find myself sharing it today. I’ll introduce this (reposted, revised) poem with some excerpts from the first pages of an essay Crouch wrote for the liner notes and republished in The All-American Skin Game, an essay that helps the novice listener hear In this House, On this Morning with an educated ear.

“The liturgical pearls of our culture originated with the chattels who loved percussion and never failed to remember the eternal drumbeats of human affirmation. .. That liturgical drama of song and percussion, of eloquence and incantation, of the sun and the moon rising in absolute light and fullness from the bottom of the social valley, added an unsentimental spirituality to this culture, a fresh language for the dialogue between the all-too-human and the divining, enlivening spark of the invisible. .. We feel the warmth and the calm, the compassion and the integrity, the sense of tragedy as well as the will to transcendance that is the moral essence of courage. In all, we know the illumination that is the sweet embrace of life.”

I acclaim this House with gratitude and grace,
let me sing out this morning of its wonders.
Let me rejoice in your storied history,
let me raise hymns that descend into the blues,
when the rip tide of ignorance, receding,
carries the flotsam of hatred out to sea.
For in this House sweet justice found a hearing,
on this morning hope escaped her weary cage.
Here our mothers shut the door on wickedness,
turning back the slurs of ignorant contempt.
Plantation politics are gone forever,
and the battlefields will be forgotten, too.
But here, our memories endure unbroken,
a hall for testimony and praise endures.
Here in the daylight of truth we will judge them,
laying down law against naked oppression.
Let this House be a fortress for the weary,
a sanctuary for all those dispossessed.
And those who seek the way inside will have faith,
for the door has not been barred to supplicants.
Raise up your voices in this hymn of giving,
give voice to what is promised and what is done.
For no drop of blood shed here will be in vain,
this House can hear the cry of the downtrodden.
In concert and in grace we rejoin the call
to witness and to face this heavy burden,
here at the summit, raised from the prison door.
Let us celebrate our friends’ liberation.
The warp and weave of resentment is undone,
and the snare that held us now is unravelled.
This House is not jealous of its dignity.
Tangled in misconceptions the unjust lie.
The hateful retreat to their stripped down barracks,
all those who forswear the teachings of mercy.
For not always will poverty be punished,
the hope of the working class will not burn out.
All rise, and let no man flaunt his advantage,
let claimants appeal to just mercy alone.
May this House put fear in its proper standing,
so all comers remember, we bleed alike.

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Filed under Music, Poetry, Roll Credits

The Salamander

Those eyes, man. Robert Downey Jr.’s eye acting (in tandem with Gwenyth Paltrowe’s ironic and iconic sense of aplomb) was my favorite part of The Avengers and its affiliated franchises.

I know, it means I’m not a comic book fan. I gave up on Volume II of the series because the opening action sequence ran too long and there was literally no eye acting or dialogue to be found anywhere in the first 15 minutes – just fight scene after fight scene. Not my cup of tea.

But I will never forget the looks he turned in Iron Man. The screencap above really says it all. So here’s a bit of fan poetry for Robert Downey Jr.’s unforgettable Tony Stark.

(This is a revision of a poem I posted elsewhere. The spirit animal I gave Tony comes from a fairytale in which a princess, seeking her lost love “east of the sun and west of the moon,” consults a wise salamander living magically in the heart of a volcano for the secret of her prince’s disappearance and captivity.)

To look upon the flashing stage
of Being and Illusion as a man
regards a prayer half-trusted once
but less so now, without enchantment
and yet longing for a disenchantment, too,
for a return to backlit hopes
that threaten to erupt in livid claims
on our most stolid sense, Reason,
with their Escheresque geometries
of what-I-haven’t-got-and-wish-I-had,
is to negotiate a poem of force
with salamander gravitas –
limpid at the heart
of a volcano – always dancing,
especially in the dark.

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Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Poetry