Tag Archives: Poetry

These citron trees…


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Filed under Economics, False controversies, Poetry

Dia De Muertos

So I was reading the Penguin selections of the Talmud, and stumbled upon a ghost story just in time for Halloween – here’s some paranormal poetry in anticipation of the Dia De Muertos.

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A Passage to India – Sonnet 4

I finally finished David Lean’s A Passage to India today, and I can say now with conviction, they don’t make movies like this one any more. The subtlety of the performances from Judy Davis and Victor Banerjee in the last act of the film really took my breath away.

And David Lean creates space for their quieter artistic choices rather than boxing them into a crescendo-series the way so many directors do in contemporary film. You don’t come to epic set pieces expecting something like this nowadays. You look back on the first two acts of the film as you watch their character arcs come to a fitting conclusion, and you can see how every little detail in their artistic choices realizing these roles sets up the climax and denouement flawlessly.

Now I can really see why Russell Crowe tells people he wants to be the next Judy Davis.

This sonnet is in Adela Quested’s voice, trying to make sense of her own actions in hindsight, after the conclusion of the rape trial.

While she is on the stand, we are given a momentary flash-back to a moment on the slope, approaching the Marabar caves, when she clasped Dr. Aziz by the hand for support as she struggled against heat exhaustion and pressed on with him alone. And when giving testimony, she takes us back to a conversation the two of them had during a short rest in their climb. Mr. Fielding, trying to help her make excuses after the trial, suggests that it was suggestion alone that drove her to make the accusation – all along, he suspected she was surrounded by people who mistrusted Indians wholesale, and that this was the whole trouble.

In the end, we are left with the impression of a sensitive young woman who does not quite fit in anywhere, too alert to the contradictions that surround her station in the British Empire to make herself at home in the world.

The sense of touch, the recognition there
of conversations huddled on the brink
of truths we would not speak, but sought to share,
brings waves of vertigo each time I blink.
So many featherweight assumptions press
upon me from well-wishers – when I stayed
the course, I muddled through under duress,
unwilling to disown the scene I’d made.
The horror of the self alone pursued
me down the slope from those unblinking caves,
and how could I explain? Our friends seclude
themselves away from mirrors and close shaves
with self-reflection – they abhor self-doubt,
and cannot feel the fears I dream about.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Dream Ensemble, Judy Davis, Poetry, Roll Credits


This movie dates me, but it’s also a timeless classic. Starring Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick, Ladyhawke tells the mythical story of a knight and his lady, cursed by an evil bishop to inhabit the forms of hawk and wolf in alternation between night and day, so that though they are together forever, they cannot simultaneously take human form. Helped by the thief nicknamed Mouse, they search for a way to break their curse.

Michelle Pfeiffer is unforgettable in this film, and this poem (based on the 61st Psalm) is a love song addressed to her Isabo from her dark knight in shining armor, who guards her human form by night as a wolf, and carries her as a hawk on his arm by day.

Hear me, Isabo, this is my wolf song,
and in it burns a constant heart’s lost prayers.
From the wreck of creation I call you.
When I falter, you lead my gaze upward.
In the coldest nights you have sheltered me,
and by day you fly hard at my foes.
Let me dwell in your dreamlight always,
and rest my head in your wings’ hidden folds.
For once, our God has acknowledged my vows,
and has granted a way to break our curse.
Days though it adds to the bishop’s long life,
this eclipse will defy his black magic.
May this troublesome thief know solace, too.
God’s kindness alone is his surety.
I sing out her name with a wolf’s lone might,
for my vow to Isabo sustains me.

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A Jonah

(Production still courtesy of the wonderful fansite, The Dear Surprise, which I highly recommend.)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the most beautiful, captivating epic adventure movies ever made, with gorgeous cinematography and production design, an unforgettable score, and one of the most charismatic leading man duos ever to grace the silver screen.

But at the heart of the action is the story of a small ship’s crew living in close quarters at sea, trying to do a tough job while living with each other cheek-on-jowl. When the inevitable scapegoating behaviors that arise in such claustrophobic quarters take hold of the crew, even the captain is drawn into the hysteria – Jack Aubrey becomes a passive spectator on the ritual purging of the crew’s projected unconscious in the story of the Jonah.

This poem, inspired by the 56th Psalm, is in that Jonah’s voice, in a moment of desperate resignation – unwilling to flout the crew’s superstitions, even though they may cost him his own life.

Grant me grace, dear God,
when this man tramples my rights,
for all day long he presses me.
The ship’s crew mocks me day and night,
salutes like daggers flout my rank.
When in danger, I trust in God,
the Almighty – His word I praise,
and in His hands, I have no fear.
What can hardship cost my soul?
My men conspire, distort my words,
and turn all hearts against mine.
Their hatred never gives me rest,
but dogs my shadow hungrily,
and I sense they want my life.
Free me from these brutal schemers.
Bring down what wrath You may.
My shame-faced days You’ve numbered –
take my tears as well.
Count them towards the salt sea’s.
Then my detractors will cease
with a hush, the day their wind calls.
That God will claim me, I know.
In the God who called Jonah
and summoned the whale, in the Lord
I place my trust and shall not fear.
What can this ship’s crew do to me then?
I take upon myself their prayers in this.
And add to these my thanks to You.
For You preserved me on the mast,
and kept my grip from slipping,
to walk in enigmatic grace,
and feel the light a few days more.

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Javert’s suicide

There’s something terribly abrupt in Javert’s suicide, in Russell Crowe’s performance of Les Miserables, and the way the song builds logically toward its climax doesn’t fully prepare you for the impact of his leap into the void. You keep expecting an alternate ending, the way he gazes over the edge – you can tell this is not what he wants, and that he regrets it, in the Homeric sense of regret (best described in Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force).

It calls to mind a vignette I read recently about a suicide attempt made by a young woman who had just had a fight with her husband – she survived, and tried to wipe the blood away herself when he discovered her in the bathroom, as if to smooth things over. He screamed, and took her straight to a hospital, whence began her journey into psychiatric care.

The patient in the vignette had a genetic disorder that caused cumulative liver disease which reached a breaking point in her early 20s and predisposed her to disorganized thinking and emotional distress (Wilson’s disease). So one would think she’s not representative of suicides, on the face of it. But there’s something necessarily abrupt and unnatural about a turn to suicide, in anyone who hasn’t already been contemplating it for years. And there’s that apologetic reaction face one naturally puts on when caught red-handed after a failed attempt. It’s not insincere, it’s just abrupt.

This poem, based on the 55th Psalm, captures Javert’s thoughts in between his escape at the barricades and his confrontation with Jean Valjean in the sewers, and highlights how differently things might have turned out, if they had never met again. (But could it have ever ended that way? Could Javert have let himself fail to find Valjean?)

Stars, bend your gaze, hear my prayer,
in your firmament, smile on my plea.
If you hear me below, shine the brighter!
For in turmoil, I stagger and groan.
From the press of the enemy,
from the onslaught of reckless, foul crime,
when the scoundrels of cheapstreet take up arms
and in fury the mob seeks my life,
my breast shudders painfully,
death-terrors flood my senses,
fear sends tremors through me,
and horror of vice floods my soul.
Would I could rise like the eagle,
to soar far from here and take rest.
I would wander the mountainous deserts,
and plunge in the lakes of the highlands,
to wash away all that has touched me,
and live far from the riotous crowds.
Stars, bring your silence to bear,
for I’ve witnessed the outrages here,
criminals ceaselessly circle their prey,
and all Paris is party to mischief,
preying on those most defenseless –
chicanery governs the market square.
No rascal defies me, that I might shrug,
no hatred pursues me, that I might hide.
But you – a pillar of industry,
my equal, a full citizen,
with whom I conferred on my duties,
to whom I once gladly deferred!
May his kind meet their deaths with more haste.
Perdition should take him alive.
For they feather their nests with the spoils of crime.
I call on the stars in dismay,
and their steadiness shows me my fate.
Through the night I have dreaded the dawn
and racked my soul with questions,
for only the stars know my thoughts.
This fugitive ransomed my life,
when in battle, outnumbered, I fell,
a captive among reckless men –
inflamed by their own penury,
such malcontents flinch at no crime.
He released me behind his men’s backs,
a traitor to even his own.
His smoothness was vile as a snake’s;
in his heart he desired my death.
His words were of mercy and peace,
but he came here to take up the sword.
I can only fall back on the law,
for the laws of the heavens are firm.
They protect righteous men from the mob.
I pray that the stars intercede,
and carry him down to destruction.
Men who hide vice in their hearts
will not long outrun death’s embrace.
For myself, I must trust in the stars.

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Filed under Acting, Les Misérables, Music, Poetry

Broken City

Broken City flew under the radar commercially, but was warmly received by critics as a grungy neo-noir A-lister, starring Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright and Barry Pepper as players in a corruption scandal that leaves none of the principals untouched.

Set in the Big Apple, the story revolves around the choices of an ex-cop (Wahlberg) with skeletons in his closet that just won’t leave him alone. His spunky assistant Valerie (played by Britney Theriot) steals the last scene right out from under Wahlberg, but I won’t give too much away.

This poem, based on the 48th Psalm, is in the voice of the mayor’s wife (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), pressing a compromised P.I. (Wahlberg) to help expose her husband (played by Russell Crowe) before he gets a fast one past the voters of New York (again).

Power befits a Mayor so highly praised
in New York City’s ruthless commanding heights.
Built on a grand scale, the world’s symbol of wealth,
this city’s imperial skyline rounds out
the Mayor’s turbulent fiefdoms in high style.
Here is a force to be reckoned with – its steel
and glass irruptions spring from the Mayor’s clout.
For when the Ivy League elite conspired,
those proud outsiders could only pass on through.
They themselves witnessed the city’s growth, amazed,
and faced with this great juggernaut, they withdrew.
You’ve seen the whites of their eyes – they shuddered, stared,
writhed in their seats like women or dogs in heat.
With a rallying cry that captured their mood
this Mayor stole his rival’s thunder – crowds cheered!
As we heard in their debate, so we can see
the Mayor’s staying power – this is his town.
The people want him back – he polls in the lead.
You’ve witnessed the Mayor’s generosity
with the fruits of power, ensconced in his hall.
He’s built up a great name, and he extracts praise
from the lapdog press to the satellite news.
His brand of justice sets the tone for business.
All Manhattan is proud to celebrate him,
the burroughs and brownstones are yielding to steel
skyscrapers worth billions because of his trades.
Go visit the brownstones yourself – look around.
Count the families whose homes now stand in his way.
Set your mind to the memories living there,
and find some way to expose his backroom deals
before he robs another generation.
If you don’t act on what you know, he will win.
This Mayor would kill to have his victory.

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Filed under Broken City, Corruption, Poetry