November 30

1935, 1667



The deaths - I am confident that I am correct in employing the plural - of Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa, a disquieting number of individuals who may actually have written just four books (more than eighty are ascribed to him, directly or indirectly, but "scribed by" and "ascribed to" are not necessarily the same thing), three of them collections of poetry in English ("Antinous" and "Sonnets" in 1918, as well as "English Poems" in 1921), a fourth in his native Portuguese ("Mensagem" in 1933).

The heteronymity of languages results from Pessoa's father having died when Fernando was just five, and his mother taking him to live in Durban, South Africa, where he exacerbated the unhappiness of grief for just eight years, returning to Lisbon in 1905, and dying there, of cirrhosis of the liver, in 1935, virtually unknown even by his neighbours, and totally unknown in the world of literature. And yet, in "The Western Canon", Harold Bloom lists two versions of Pessoa among the twenty-six writers of "the democratic age" responsible for establishing the parameters of contemporary western literature. A remarkable achievement!

Whether or not Pessoa wrote the book for which he is now best known is a matter of academic dispute. Certainly most of the words belong to him, though many also, or instead, may be attributed to Bernardo Soares, who shared Pessoa's life, insofar as any other human can be said to have shared Pessoa's life, for many years; other fragments have been attributed to one Vicente Guedes, though this name does not appear on any electoral roll or census document for the city of Lisbon at that epoch. The book, however, known in Portuguese as "Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa", was not published until forty-seven years after both Pessoa and Soares' deaths, and required the organisational skills of several editors to give it the multiple forms in which multiple very different versions of it may be read today, some even by the same editor, twice.

All this, however, is mere biography; what interests me, what draws me back again and again to re-read him, are the particular combinations of ordinary words which he constructs into phrases, clauses and sentences, and which are known among the cultural and intellectual snobs as Literature. Forgive me if I do not give page numbers for the citations that follow; there are now so many versions of the book, each of a different physical size and therefore heteronymously paginated, each numbering its own choice of fragments in its own disorder; you are much encouraged to acquire a copy and find them for yourself. I personally recommend Richard Zenith's 1991 translation, though it is entirely possible that Iain Watson, Alfred MacAdam and Margaret Jull Costa, who have allegedly published alternative translations, are in fact merely noms de plume employed by Zenith, or indeed that Zenith is one of them.

"I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason that their elders had had it - without knowing why." 

The expression of what I call "Zeitgeist Opinions" or "Quondam Opinions", those views we hold, and believe to be our own, independently arrived at, by what we delude ourselves into thinking is critical judgement, but which are in fact the delineations of the narrow box of currently permitted views known as "free speech".

"I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don't know where it will take me, because I don't know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I am compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it is here that I meet others. But I am neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in the parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I am sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing - for myself alone - wispy songs I compose while waiting."

The Zero Positive incarnate! As is this:

"The way I see it, plagues, storms and wars are products of the same blind force, sometimes operating through unconscious microbes, sometimes through unconscious waters and thunderbolts, and sometimes through unconscious men... such is the world - a dunghill of instinctive forces that nevertheless shines in the sun with pale shades of light and dark gold."

"Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I had languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out with forceps."

(There is a link from this to several passages in Kafka's diaries - click here)

"The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts."

I have to dispute with you, on this occasion: "consensus"? what consensus?

"Blessed are those who entrust their lives to no one."

"The contemplative person, without ever leaving his village, will nevertheless have the whole universe at his disposal. There is infinity in a cell or in a desert. One can sleep cosmically against a rock."

I only came upon Pessoa in 2004, and yet I feel I have known him all my life, can find every one of these phrases in my own stories, poems, aphorisms, diaries, even from many decades prior to that encounter. Perhaps I too am merely one more anagram of the destiny of Pessoa.

"Revolutionary or reformer - the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair...a sensitive and honest-minded man, if he is concerned about evil in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life."

The next I have slightly modified, because I think Pessoa has missed a trick. His version reads: 

"Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the intelligence of this stupidity." 

My re-phrasing: "Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the amount of education that has been poured into this stupidity."

"All of us in this world are living on board a ship that is sailing from one unknown part to another, and we should treat each other with a traveller's cordiality."

This final one is very tough - I doubt even Nietzsche could have gone this far:

"I see humanity as merely one of Nature's latest schools of decorative painting. I do not distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I am sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children."

More splendid sentences, as well as more background and commentary, can be found in my piece about Pessoa in "Private Collection"; and more about the man in a "Book of Days" piece about Pseudonyms, here.


1667


I am confident that Jonathan Swift was not one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, though I would be amazed if Pessoa had not read him, and been massively influenced by him; and even, in some elements of his deeply solitary journeys into reality by way of the imagination, conceived of himself as a latter-day Gulliver on many an occasion. 

Their goals though were quite different. In a letter to Alexander Pope (29th September 1725) Swift wrote:

"... the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than to divert it, and if I could compass that design without hurting my own person or fortune I would be the most indefatigable writer you have ever seen..."


Lemuel said much the same thing in the Travels (4:12):

"my principal design was to Inform, and not to amuse thee";

while back in his own persona he gave this advice to a young poet:

"... once kick the world, and the world and you will live together at a reasonable good understanding."

But there are so many memorable phrases:


"It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by providence as an evil to mankind."

"Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late; the jest is over and the tale has had its effect."


"Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards, and pretences to foretell events."

I am also intrigued to discover that Swift was the coiner of certain now clichéd phrases, including:

“A penny for your thoughts.” (Introduction to "Polite Conversation")

"The sight of you is good for sore eyes" (Ibid. Dialogue 1)

"She looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth" (Ibid)

"rain cats and dogs" (Ibid. Dialogue 2)

"you and he were hand-in-glove" (Ibid)

“all the world and his wife” (Ibid)


Swift was born today, November 30th 1667





You can find David Prashker at:


Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

April 7

1908


This page is 'borrowed' form my Songs&Poem blog, because it belongs in both places. If this blog is, at least in part, a catalogue of some of my heroes of "The Immaculate Failure", there are few who more deserve a place in that particular Hall of Fame than does Robert Edwin Peary, of whom I am absolutely certain you have never heard, but should have done.

To listen to an audio recital of the poem, click here.


Ninety Degrees North





The form is known as a "dramatic monologue". No one ever did it better than Robert Browning, though Max Sebald made several wonderful attempts. The problem with a dramatic monologue, when you read it anyway, is that you have to get the accent right. I'm a Brit, Peary was an American - what more can I say! I also realise that "realised" in line 7 should have been spelled "realized", and I guess that "parlours" should have gone without its "u".

  


The name’s Peary, Robert Edwin Peary,
and no you haven’t heard of me,
despite the fact you should have done,
because I, not Cook, not Amundsen, not Scott,
I was the first to reach the geographical North Pole,
which used to be the last frontier of human exploration,
till scientists realised there are more than three dimensions,
such as inwards to the nucleus of the atom,
and outwards to the ice below the crust of Mars,
and upwards to the mount of knowledge,
yes and downwards too,
into the darkest depths of human calumny.
I hope they’ve got the guts they’ll need to find those poles.

Not that you need to know,
but I was born in Cresson,
which lies 40o 58' north and 78o 58' west,
80 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
in 1856, but moved to Maine,
the toughest journey of my life,
where I attended Bowdoin College
(the natives pronounce it Beau-din),
where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a student.
I graduated as a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity –
which means, I understand, a gentleman, in Inuit -
and was commissioned as a Civil Engineer Corps Officer
in the United States Navy in October, 1881.
I married the very lovely Josephine Diebitsch Peary,
and had two children with her: Marie and Robert Junior.
I should also tell you, since I’m always honest,
that Matthew Henson and I
both fathered children on Inuit women,
mine was called Ally,
while we were on our Arctic expeditions.

We made them all together, Matt and I,
explored Greenland by dog sled in 1886 and 1891;
returned to the island three times in the 1890s;
twice attempted to cross northwest Greenland over the ice cap;
discovered Navy Cliff.
How did we do it and survive?
By studying Inuit survival techniques, that’s how,
by building igloos,
dressing in furs in the native fashion,
both for heat preservation
and to get rid of the extra weight of tents and sleeping bags
when on the march.
Used Inuit hunters and dog-drivers too,
invented my Peary system
of having support teams and supply caches for Arctic travel.
Josephine came too sometimes.
Lost eight of my ten toes from frost bite.

Now people are envious sons of bitches
who never leave their front parlours
unless someone’s sent a chauffeured limousine,
and like to deny you your achievements
cause they can’t stand the thought that someone
struggled to achieve something worth the trouble
while they were fiddling their tax returns
and wondering who won the baseball,
so all I’ll say about the Jesup Land controversy
is that we found it,
and we saw Axel Heiberg too,
long before that Norwegian Sverdrup’s expedition,
and the men as give me the gold medals
from the American Geographical Society
and the Royal Geographical Society of London
stated that they honored my tenacity,
and they were damned right,
because it took tenacity to get to Jesup,
and they haven’t yet invented a word for what it took
to get the farthest north there is to get,
which was north of Ellesmere Island.

Now I gotta take a moment to say thanks to George Crocker,
who put up $50,000 to acquire the Roosevelt,
and cut a way through all that ice
between Greenland and Ellesmere Island,
and attain a Farthest North world record at 87° 06';
though the deniers deny me that achievement too,
from the comfort of their stone igloos
in the frozen tundra of Yale and Washington and Harvard,
where the only degrees they know are Law degrees,
certainly not ones of longitude nor latitude
(they give no latitude at all, these academic pedants),
- so many childless bachelorhoods at the Smithsonian.

87° 06' I say it was,
and get yourself out in the ice, and starve,
and lose your toes, and prove me wrong –
I challenge you.
87° 06' and returned to 86° 30' without camping,
72 nautical miles,
83 statute miles,
between sleeps,
and not a single detour.

We got back to the Roosevelt in May,
then weeks of agonizing travel,
west along the shore of Ellesmere
where we found Cape Colgate
and sighted a previously undiscovered farther-north,
named it “Crocker Land”.
People say I made the place up,
but folks at the National Geographic Society
don’t give you the Hubbard Gold Medal
for something they reckon you made up.

But I came here to tell you about the north pole,
because I found it first, whatever others say.
Me and 23 men set off from New York City on the Roosevelt
under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett, July 6, 1908.
Wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island,
then set out for the pole on February 28, 1909.
Sent the last support party back from “Bartlett Camp”
on April 1, latitude 87° 45' north.
That left just six of us,
Matt Henson and me and four Inuit,
Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah.
Set up “Camp Jesup” in honour of my greatest sponsor,
on April 6 it was, not five miles from the pole.
Hit the point on April 7.
90o dead.
We nearly were too, from hunger, and exhaustion.

Now, all these years later,
it’s as much as I can do to make an expedition
to the liquor store on Eagle Island
and pick up a newspaper
to read all my detractors saying
I never done this and I never done that,
and Congress wanting to send an expedition to prove it,
like as if the footprints haven’t blown away.
Or if not me then Freddie Cook,
who was my surgeon on the 1891 expedition,
and if he says he made it to the Pole,
then I trust his instruments
more than I trust those jealous stay-at-homes
at the Smithsonian,
and I couldn’t care a monument in Greenland
whether he discovered it and I attained it,
or the other way around,
or both, or neither,
and whether you can prove it or you can’t,
cause the whole point ain’t the North Pole anyway,
that’s just a round number you stake out in eternity
like an igloo in the ice or a triangle in spherical trigonometry.

No point telling that to Congressmen and academics though.
They’d say there isn’t a north pole,
if they thought it would win them votes or research fellowships.

My toes hurt.




"Ninety Degrees North" is published in "Welcome To My World, Selected Poems 1973-2013", The Argaman Press. Click here to purchase the book.




You can find David Prashker at:


Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

June 18


2016


Because the linked site is live, and therefore constantly changing, I have placed a screenshot of one key moment below, and leave you to follow up for yourself if you are as excited as I am by this extraordinary expedition. Click here for the European Space Agency website.





And no, you are right, Tim Peake was by no means the first human to travel in space, not even the first Brit (that was Helen Sharman, the first woman to visit the Mir space station, in 1991), but somehow the length of this expedition (six full months without gravity), and the sheer number of important tasks it undertook, and the effervescent personality of Tim Peake himself, and the fact, for a serial-blogger like me at least, that this is definitely the first ever space-expedition to have its own daily blog, have all combined to make this an inexorable entry for June 18th in this Book of Days.

Among the achievements, I discount his being the first Brit to undertake a spacewalk, because then we will end up with the fatuousness of cricket and baseball statistics (the first man ever to do a spacewalk wearing a green shirt on a Thursday in June et cetera), though I cannot resist, and watched a part of it on the television, the sheer absurdity of his participation in the London Marathon, on a treadmill, in zero gravity (he wore a special harness to simulate gravity), and in just three hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds, which is frankly ridiculous back on Earth (I did the same marathon, in stages, at my gym, averaging about fifteen hundred paces a day, and it took me almost as long as he spent in space).

This, of course, was just a frivolous publicity stunt on one of his rare days off. The remaining time was spent trying to justify the galactic size of the cost of these expeditions into the black hole of Heaven. It included a number of scientific experiments which are only achievable in zero gravity, such as the impact of extreme radiation and vacuums on various organisms, and the physical and psychological impact of extreme isolation on humans; the former could obviously be simulated back on Earth, and the latter is, though California's Supreme Court has now declared it a breach of human rights in their prison system, and Turkey, Iran, Zimbabwe and Egypt, among others, are being encouraged to follow suit.

Principia.org's website provides links to some of the other key experiments, but you will have to surf these yourself if you want to understand them, because frankly science and ancient Greek are the same language to me.

EML: Thermolab and NEQUISOL
EXPOSE-R2: Life in space? Life on Mars?
iVOICE and EPSILON
Measuring Brain Pressure in Space
METERON – human-robotic planetary exploration





All this is the future. I was amused, in the midst of all this remarkable technology, to witness the primitive method of landing Major Peake's spacecraft back on Earth, an absurdity so absurd it made me think of a very different Peake, one Mervyn, some of whose nonsense poems, set to music by Richard Rodney Bennett, I spent the evening listening to in a church in Mill Hill. The last time I saw an object falling out of the skies in this manner, it was November 1973, and I was on the hillside of Korazim in Galilee, in a romantic tryst with a young lady, and what came falling from the skies was her cousin, an Israeli fighter pilot who had just had a rather too close encounter with a surface-to-air missile (you can read the full details in the poem "The Abelone Shell" by buying a copy of my Collected Poems "Welcome To My World"). Surely NASA can invent a better way of doing it than this?



You can find David Prashker at:


Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

June 30

1859



Many, many years ago I wrote a poem for one of my many heroes of the Immaculate Failure, those folk who set out on adventures and expeditions, usually both inward to the depths of themselves as well as outwards to some corner of the universe where none has ever gone before - my own sense of this is that you have to do both simultaneously to achieve either, but neither is actually achievable: hence Immaculate Failure. 

Scientists who go hunting for an explanation of the origins of the universe and stumble upon a possible cure for cancer by accident instead; golfers who hit eighteen birdies in a single round, but rue afterwards the two simple eagle putts they missed; women who do more than sex and housewifery in a male-dominated culture but still don't get paid equally; artists and composers who travel way beyond impersonation of their maestros, but still have nothing to say even in their own original voice; folk who run or walk or sail or fly into the uncharted regions, and get there second... everyone of them a failure of course, but what a failure, what a transcendence of the life of most-of-us, in which we live our triumphs entirely vicariously, usually with a beer and pizza in our broken-down sofa.

Charles Blondin (his real name was Jean-François Gravelet) was the subject of that particular poem, published in my collection "Coins" back in the 1990s, and then again in my Collected Poems, "Welcome To My World", in 2013, and reprinted below, though I would obviously prefer you to buy a copy and read all the poems. There is also an audio version, if you click here.

As happens to me very often, because I tend to be like those explorers who I so admire, I was rambling the Internet in search of something quite different that took place on June 30th of a different year, when there was Charles Blondin walking towards me once again, just as I would expect him, on a tightrope, with a man on his back, and probably, though you can't see it, a bullet from a rifle arranged several hundred yards away the reason why he isn't wearing a hat. It was June 30th 1859, and this the very first time he had undertaken the crossing that would make him famous for doing something so utterly and unequivocally pointless, and yet majestical: the crossing of the Niagara Falls in Canada, by tightrope.

Now I should point out that I have crossed Niagara Falls myself on many an occasion, though I did it by road the first time, on the Rainbow Bridge from the Canadian side to the US, and then back again, while amusing myself by blue-toothing the audio of my Blondin poem to my car radio as we drove through; several times after that (when you live in Toronto, as I did for four years, Niagara is where you take your overseas visitors) on foot across the wall at the summit, and literally inside the rocks, inside the waterfall, where tourists are encouraged to wear waterproofs at any time of year, though (as the pictures in the link will show you), the best time is in mid-winter, when it's minus 18 degrees Celsius, not counting the wind-chill, and the snow and icicles are everywhere. There is the boat too, "The Maid of the Mist" I think she was called, tame and boring once you've done the wall in winter, though "tame and boring" are relative terms. 


Relative to each other, that is, but especially relative to Blondin's achievement, which a man named Nik Wallenda repeated in June 2012, though in his case wearing a safety harness, which would not have impressed Blondin.

Richard Cavendish described Blondin's rather more spectacular spectacle in "History Today" (Volume 59 Issue 6 June 2009).

"Jean-François Gravelet was the most spectacular funambulist, or tightrope-walker, of his day or probably any other day. Born in 1824, he was the son of a veteran of the Grande Armée who was nicknamed 'Blondin' for his fair hair. The family lived at Hesdin in the Pas de Calais and when a circus came to town the little boy was so fascinated by the tightrope-walkers that he decided to be one himself and started practising immediately using his father's fishing-rod as a pole. His parents sent him for training as an acrobat at the celebrated École de Gymnase in Lyons. He made his first professional appearance as 'The Little Wonder' at the age of five and later adopted his father's nickname.

"Blondin's first crossing of the Niagara Falls, in 1859, was the most famous feat in a life packed with them, and like all the others was painstakingly prepared, organised and exploited for maximum publicity. He took care to enlist the support of the Niagara Falls Gazette which at first thought it was a hoax and then decided he was mad but went along anyway. Newspapers all over the country were soon interested. The rival Niagara Mail was sarcastic in its coverage and the New York Times said Blondin was a fool who ought to be arrested, but posters and handbills boosted the excitement. The railway companies laid on special trains and thousands of spectators assembled to watch.

"The tightrope was taken across the river in a rowing boat. More than three inches (7.5cm) thick, it sagged by some 60 feet (18m) in the middle, so it had a steep slope. The distance was a little over 1,000 feet (305m). Blondin offered to carry a volunteer over on his back but, unsurprisingly, no one stood forward. Bands on both banks played as he began his crossing at 5.15pm and took his time over what he privately considered an easy task. He stopped and lay down for a rest at one point and stood on one leg for a while. The crossing took him a little over 17 minutes. After a pause he went back across on the rope, much faster this time. He was cheered to the echo and the feat was reported all over America and in Europe.

"In several later crossings Blondin introduced variations. He carried his top-hatted manager across on his back, crossed blindfolded or on stilts or in a gorilla costume and pushing a wheelbarrow. One of the wonders of the age, he built himself Niagara House in the London suburb of Ealing in 1889 and died there of diabetes in 1897, days before his 73rd birthday. He lies buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. Neighbouring streets in Ealing, Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue, preserve his memory and there's a Blondin Street in Bow."





In Praise Of Tightrope Walkers

(for Charles Blondin)


Charles Blondin
I sing to you on your birthday
a song of praise
knowing full well that no one else
has even heard of you
Blondin? Blondin?
Isn’t he a pop star, a footballer?
Wasn’t he that fascist who?
No, just a moment, I saw him in that film.
Then he must have been a friend of Byron’s?
A Symbolist poet? A politician?

The truth is
he was none
but he was also all of these
for all of these walk tightropes
one way or the other
His real name was Jean-Francois Gravelet
though he styled himself Charles Blondin
and he was first presented to the public
aged five in Saint-Omer
as “The Little Wonder”

And what a wonder!
Circus tightropes anyone can do
with a little bit of training
a harness and a safety net
even the unharnessed headstands and the somersaults
that were his speciality

But Niagara Falls
on a rope stretched 160 feet above the surging water!
Blindfolded!
With a sack over his head!
Trundling a wheelbarrow!
With a man on his back!
On stilts!

One time, he got so carried away
by the need to entertain the thousands
who turned out to watch him crossing
that he stopped half-way
set up a portable grill
cooked and ate an omelette
then had a marksman with a shotgun
in a tugboat down below
fire a bull’s-eye through the hat
that he was wearing

Where are you now
heirs and followers of Blondin
little wonders of the high tightrope?
Where are the artist Blondins
the politician Blondins
the scientist Blondins
where are you when we need you?
Have you all retired as he did
to that park in Ealing
where the streams are forded
by neat bridges made of planks
precisely wide enough for wheelchairs
where the nearest thing to a tightrope
is on pulleys in the kiddies’ playground
supervised by trained child-minders
dug in with cement to health and safety guidelines,
and three-foot pile rugs to catch a fall
from what is anyway just six feet?