Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Romance of Lists

A simple list can have a fascination to it that is not so simple to explain. Consider the shopping list written by the Blessed Liebowitz in Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. It is preserved and revered by the good monks of the Albertan Order of Liebowitz.
Pound pastrami, said one note, can kraut, six bagels,—bring home for Emma.
Another list occurs after the dramatis personæ in the play Cyrano de Bergerac. It classifies characters who are not worthy of individual mention but are, nevertheless, needed.
The Crowd, Citizens, Marquis, Musketeers, Thieves, Pastrycooks, Poets, Cadets of Gascoyne, Actors, Violins, Pages, Children, Spanish Soldiers, Spectators, Intellectuals, Academicians, Nuns, etc.
What a cross-section of humanity in these words! I think that most people can recognize themselves somewhere in that list. In fact, the word "etc." guarantees it.

John Steinbeck uses lists to show the rich diversity in Cannery Row.
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
One thing these lists have in common is that we are familiar with their contents. If we are not, then the list becomes a mystery. It gives us an overview of alien thoughts. Jorge Luis Borges illustrated this in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" with a bizarre list of the fourteen types of animals, reputedly taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopædia.
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies


  1. Gareth, stumbling across this list made the my list of funny synchronicity-petites that I list in my blog because I recently wrote a poem that played with the meaning of lists. Before I post that, some of the most fascinating lists are those of the debt records of Sumer which were almost without doubt the genesis of written language. (The musical genius David Byrne comments on this in his book Bicycle Diaries, which is also a kind of list.)

    Also fascinating are the lists of values in the Irish Barbarian Codes, for example. Included in them was the value of the (slave) milk-maids as a means of payment.

    Anyway, my playing with lists was a direct reference to Sei Shonagon's amazing The Pillow Book, which is also known for being a book of lists.

    Here's the poem:

    What's Left But the Bones: Cotton for Comfort Redux.

    It was my mother who identified me.
    Not by my remains,
    For the little that remained of me
    was comprised of the natural white anonymity of fleshless bone.
    Sex, once curvaceous and vibrant and fetid
    had become a dry geometric puzzle,
    the curve of the pelvic girdle and coccyx
    the sere mystery of skull and bone density,
    agéd clues in de-gummed teeth and voided cranial sutures.

    It was by my clothes,
    the clothes I'd been killed in,
    the made of comfortable cotton clothes
    that so affronted my mother's sense of social propriety,
    that became the means of my escape from the unmarked grave
    of an anonymous de-animation.

    There were tears.
    But …
    How to say this? The tears were not for me, now,
    but for the simulacrum of a corpulent me that once appeared to exist in the mind's eye,
    the giddy distracted mind for the gaudy embodied me I once dizzily revelled in.
    Or, at least that's what I'd like to think I want to remember,
    to be remembered by
    by the strangers I was bound to by the soft
    pillowy cotton delicate strings made by
    and dedicated to the social obligation of family stones.

    Stones? How to explain this weight?
    In so far as my skeleton is sensate,
    I feel compelled to embrace Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book* cant
    and list my listlessness as follows:
    cross bones, tomb stones,
    head stones, hearth stones, heart stones.
    Cajones, nerve, verve.

    In the morgue I rest, un-rued on cold rude un-stained steel,
    pillowed by the dead sure attitude found solely
    in an unremarked gravestone, wet from an unexpected cloudburst,
    and in the lost certitude of my lonesome anonymity.

    *The Pillow Book has been called a book of lists because Shonagon included lists of all kinds. And it has some great and quotable observations, such as:

         In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.
    —Sei Shonagon circa 1000ad.

    1. How would you feel about constructive criticism of the poem, Guy? If so, through e-mail or here?


  2. Gareth, I would take great pleasure in seeing your suggestions. Either method would be fine — whichever is easiest for you. I always find the comments/criticism of others to be valuable, even if I reject the suggestions, because the criticism helps me to learn more about my writing and more about people. I will not feel offended at your shredding this. Note: you may find it interesting to read or listen to the poem for which this was a continuation. If so, you can read it here and/or listen to it read by Rose Mary Boehm here or as read by me here.

    And, hey! After a careful and well thought out extension of your list conceit, all you can do is focus on my attempt at poetry. LoL! That brings a smile to my face.