Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Word of the day: Euonym

The movie Akeelah and the Bee is the only one that I know of that was funded by Starbucks. As a result, when it came out, Starbucks coffee shops were festooned with word cards with interesting words on them. One, I recall, had "pterodactyl," which, like the others, is challenging to spell, but familiar. The one exception, a word I had never seen before, was "euonym."

The film has a scene in which Akeelah learns how to recognize new words by recognizing their prefixes, stems, and suffixes.

I applied the same technique. "Nym" I recognized from "synonym," "homonym," and the rest, and probably means "name." "Eu" I knew from "euphoria" and "euthanasia," and means "good." Therefore, "euonym" means "good name."

I bought my coffee, went back to work, and checked in the dictionary. Yes, that's right; a euonym is an appropriate name for something.

Today, I spotted a euonym that inspired me to tell this little story. What would be a good name for a prize for the year's best book? The Booker Prize, of course.

Update 23 Oct 2013. Not quite a euonym, but in the same territory, is John Benson, a publisher of work by Ben Jonson. That strikes me as hilarious.

Update 5 Jan 2014. A marvellous euonym! The former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales (that is, the head judge) rejoices in the title and name Lord Judge! Expressed slightly differently, he is Igor Judge, Baron Judge.

In addition, any mention of euonyms should be accompanied by a reference to the famous Victorian firm of toilet manufacturers, Thomas Crapper and Co.

Far less famous, but a source of amusement over the years, is a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver called the Wong Kee. It is in an older building, in need of a spruce-up, so I thought of it as the Wonky Restaurant.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

"Sisyphus" poem

I wrote this poem about 2008 or 2009. I had been immersing myself in work on my book on poetry and the business I was running was about to close down. I had no idea what was coming, but giving up was no option. This poem was one response to the situation.

It may be the best poem I've written.


by Gareth Jones

A man, a stone, each standing of a height.
His fingers drag across the stone's rough grain
from side to other side, and then a pause.
Two palms are placed below and sharply press,
a shoulder settles in, feet firmly set,
and leaning in, as if for strength against a wall,
the man begins to rock the stone. It shifts.
Easy. Easy. No time for sudden force,
but for the slow seduction of the stone's own power.
He almost stumbles at the moment of success.

His arms embrace the stone, his cheek pressed flat
as if against a lover's cheek, his chest
scored slightly by the rough support it found.
While from below the stone, a cracking noise,
as crisp and sharp as crystals breaking,
and his foot, finding balance, refragments
splinters of old plastic, metal, wood, and clay
that once were worth a fortune to a child.
Now outgrown, they form a rubble, rough as coral,
which, lacking other function, lacerates his feet.

The blood swells to drops that stand up from the skin:
pomegranate seeds, scattered on white clay.
He plants them as he passes and their smears
become a dotted path that follows him
as man and stone move up the easy slope.
He cannot see he leaves some part behind
to nourish earth or ants or show someone the way.
Since blood and earth encrust each cut upon the feet,                      
the track diminishes and disappears:
The way behind unknown as that ahead.

They leave their inessential burdens all below:
no rubble here, no earth, just granite, warm
from the sun's attention, from the acts
of ancient ice and patient southern wind,
kind to feet. No obstacles remain
except the slope, that slowly steepens here,
and the stone's own great weight. They exhaust
so the pair must sometimes pause and rest.
Their intermittent movements tend towards the peak
though their angles left and right obscure the trend.

But both have patience, and the man more force,
and humility enough to test the ways,
retracing wayward steps to start again.
So they arrive: an oval on the height
with flowers tangled in the seeding grass.
A depression in the centre holds a pool
of water nearly clearer than the air
with green leaves springing from below:
This is a place to stop, refresh, and contemplate.
Around it, like a map, is all the world he knows.

It is here the Greeks who tell this tale
go wrong. They make a myth about this man,
a man whose effort brings himself and stone
up to the apex of the hill. But here the myth
asserts his stone escapes him at the top,
slips off without his will, and tumbles down,
rockets off the angled rocks, beats soil to cement
thuds and clatters like a breaking world, rolls on,
and slowly stops. No, the stone lacks will,
and the hill is none so sharp as that.

Instead, the man would rest, so rests,
letting aches escape the muscles of his arms,
the whistles of his breathing slow and end,
the wonder of arrival fill his mind. Then what?
The stone is there, the wonder loses shape,
and sitting is no goal to keep for long,
but he can see the whole circumference of the world;
each tangent point along its arc, a proffered goal;
a distant limit, too, but glowing, bright,
insensible as shackles made of light.

Each degree a bound, but each a boon,
and so, again, he chooses to begin.
He stands, tall as the stone, and touches it,
gently checks the roughness of its grain,
places palms and pushes once again.
He moves the stone up to the edge and past--
driving it with strength where there is need,
guiding it when gravity agrees.
His choice, to push, be pushed, be altered, alter, learn,
knowing that these joys of choice spring from the stone.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

More on Orson Scott Card

I've written about Orson Scott Card before, since he's a good example of a writer whose fictions I have loved and whose other words I have not. I'd like, now, to bring out someone who could stand up to Card and challenge his uglier statements, point for point, without name-calling but without compromise. I've found that man. Orson Scott Card, I'd like you to meet your nemesis: Orson Scott Card.

It's no joke. Back in 1986, at a science fiction convention, the Orson Scott Card of that time gave a brilliant, funny, and accurate defence of the split between church and state (or, if you prefer to put it otherwise, a brilliant, funny, and accurate attack on Fundamentalists' efforts to put their understanding of morality into law). He called it The Secular Humanist Revival, and I very much recommend it.

Recently, Card alienated many of his fans by forcefully criticizing the legalization of gay marriage. The reasons that he gives are exactly the ones that his earlier alter-ego had attacked in 1986.

Shall we have a look? Here is the recent Card on gay marriage.
Here's the irony: There is no branch of government with the authority to redefine marriage.
Marriage is older than government. Its meaning is universal: It is the permanent or semipermanent bond between a man and a woman, establishing responsibilities between the couple and any children that ensue.
The laws concerning marriage did not create marriage, they merely attempted to solve problems in such areas as inheritance, property, paternity, divorce, adoption and so on.
I'll give this to recent Card, with a small tip of the hat, that he doesn't appeal to religion as the reason for the "daddy, mummy, and baby" model of the family. He defines that form of marriage as a "permanent fact of nature." However, let's hear the early Card on how to approach such a claim of fact. He challenges his audience to
...go after truth every time, even if it leads you into places that scare the holy shinola out of you.
So, is recent Card right? Is our current definition of marriage part of the definition of being human? Is it a "permanent fact of nature"?

I haven't believed that since I watched the film Little Big Man at the age of fourteen and found that the Cheyenne allowed a man (defined physically) to dress as a woman and marry another man. OK, is that just Hollywood? Apparently not. Follow the link and see: it wasn't just the Cheyenne.

In addition, Card should be one of the last people to say that the definition of marriage is the bond between a man and a woman, given his religion's history of polygamy. And the Jewish people's. Not to mention Muslims.

Let's take another of Card's reasons for supporting one definition of marriage.
Husbands need to have the whole society agree that when they marry, their wives are off limits to all other males. He has a right to trust that all his wife's children would be his.
Wives need to have the whole society agree that when they marry, their husband is off limits to all other females. All of his protection and earning power will be devoted to her and her children, and will not be divided with other women and their children.
These two premises are so basic that they preexist any known government.
Unfortunately for recent Card, those statements, too, seem contrary to fact. The rich tapestry of ways to live together and raise children includes the avunculate, in which fathers do not live with the mother and child, and have no role in raising the children, but the mother's brother does both. We'd also have to include group marriage of three to six adults, also common in some cultures, or even of three hundred adults in America's own Oneida Colony. Finally, we would have to include the Nayar people, who raise children in almost exclusively female groups and have little concern for the number of sexual partners they take.

To accept that marriage--defined as "daddy, mummy, and baby"--is not universal may scare the shinola out of recent Card, but taking his own advice would lead him to changing his mind because he once said nasty things about those who do not.
If you answer 'I believe' then you're saying yes to things you don't even know. You are signing a blank cheque--and let me fill it in later. You are signing a blank cheque against the belief account in the bank of your brain...and, brothers and sisters, I can promise you--it will bounce.
Recent Card, whatever his own reasons, is on the side of many people who have religious reasons to want to prevent gay marriages from being recognized. They would like, in other words, to put their religious beliefs into the law. The early Card recognized that this desire was a common human fault. He said,
It is the nature of all men, when they see the power of government within their grasp, to try to use that power to try to make everyone else comply with their idea of virtue.
And so he says,
I say woe unto you Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, hypocrites! You pretend to be ministers of religion, but all your acts declare that you want to lay your hands on the power of the state. They do not want to establish America as a Christian nation. [One with a Christian population]. They want to establish America as a Christian state.
There's so much good in the early Card, it's hard to read the non-fiction of the recent Card. It makes me wonder if Card had been offered a choice between remaining part of the Mormon community, which is, on the whole, a conservative one, or retaining his socially non-conservative beliefs.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Watersons

Before my dad died, I discovered the music made by a family of English folk singers, The Watersons. I hurriedly made sure that dad had a chance to listen to them. And I'm glad I did, because he said to me, "That music hits me right in so many ways."

My son was very young at the time, five or six I think, and not really interested in his dad's music. However, I played him a song from a Waterson's CD that became a favorite. We often sang in honour of the foxhounds named in it: "Dido, Bendigo, ..."

I think the term for their music is "polyphonic singing," but I've no background in music to describe the mixture of harmonies and dissonance that makes my eyes open and the hair on my neck stand up. I just know that I love it.

Here is one song I learned well from them. It is a lament for the passing of the lifestyle of the "travelling men," the gypsies, the tinkers.
Here is a hymn, of sorts. I remember reading a comment on the liner notes for this song (though I may not have the words exactly right) that singing it was meant to "break the monopoly of 'Hymns Ancient and Modern.'" Be that as it may, it's sung with refreshing gusto!
Finally, here is the "Dido, Bendigo" song that my son and I used to sing.
Finally, a comment that I really haven't shared with anyone before. When I listened to the Watersons I started to reflect on my own life. A folk group in the early sixties didn't have much of a life in terms of income. They would have a hotel room if they were playing a concert, or they kipped on couches if they weren't, and they kept a mattress and blankets in the back of the car in case even that failed them. They kept going for the music. And I was struck that they made their livings from the songs in their heads and the voices that sang them. In a way, they they made a living because of who and what they were, nothing else needed. A storyteller can do this, too. A teacher, as well. It isn't a bad goal for a life.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Two More of Pluto's Moons are Named: Kerberos and Styx

Two moons around Pluto have just received their names. The ones named earlier were Charon (the biggest of them, about half the diameter of Pluto), Nix, and Hydra. Now Kerberos and Styx have joined the party. It's interesting that they went with Kerberos instead of Cerberus, given that the planet has a Roman name, rather than a Greek one. That decision was made "to avoid confusion with an asteroid called 1865 Cerberus."

William Shatner led a movement on the web to name the moon Vulcan. I am quite glad that it failed to persuade the International Astronomical Union. That name should be held in reserve for the first habitable planet around the star 40 Eridani A. Such a planet may very well exist.

Even that may not receive the name, however, as it was earlier assigned to a non-existent planet of our own sun.

Poem: "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" by Dylan Thomas

The Poetry Foundation has a discussion of Dylan Thomas, which mentions that the jury of self-appointed jurors is still hung. It has not returned a consensus regarding Thomas's greatness as a poet. My mind, in contrast, is full of phrases from his poems, and recordings of Thomas's readings still ring in my ear. I think of him as the quintessential poet.

Blame it on my Welsh forbears.
Thomas lived through the Second World War, though he did not serve in it. He could not avoid reacting to the death of innocents, especially when it came in the form of a young girl burned to death in London during the Blitz, any more than residents of New York could avoid reacting to the death of innocents in the 9/11 attack, or residents of London, to the 7/7 killings.

The poem he wrote was called, paradoxically,  "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London." Its last line is "After the first death, there is no other." The Poetry Foundation page says this about it:
As Tindall observed, this statement can be taken either as a pledge of eternal life or as a realization that death is death, that one is dead forever—or both.
That observation led to this posting, since my own interpretation has been different from either of those presented. Before my father died, I realize now, death had been something quite unreal to me. I recognized intellectually that it existed, but it existed separate from me. After he died, it was solid, real, and unavoidable. I will never go through that transformation of feelings again. In a real way, "After the first death, there is no other."

Here is the poem.
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.  
Here is the poem recited by the author himself.

I appreciate that Thomas's writing is sometimes difficult, but I believe this one can be interpreted in a fairly straightforward way. Never again, he says, until I am dead (and my body transformed into water and grain) will I pray or cry ("sow my salt seed") for her death. The sowing of salt is also an custom in which the earth is made sterile so it would never live again.

I think Thomas is saying that, if we focus on death, despite the "majesty" of that transition, we blight and trivialize life, just as salt blights the soil. Thomas says he will not trivialize her death ("murder/The mankind of her going") or blaspheme it with any further words, though they would be "a grave truth" in every sense of the phrase.

The blaspheming words would pass through "the stations of the breath" from lung to mouth, but the phrase also recalls the stations of the cross, which are points along the path to death.

The last stanza says that the girl, as Thomas said of himself in the second stanza, is made of parts that will now become parts of water (the Thames) and plants ("grains beyond age," though "grains" has two meanings here as her elemental particles and the plants that the particles will enter). 

Who is her mother with the "dark veins"? In this context, she is London. The girl is identified as "London's daughter." The dark veins of the city may be the streets criss-crossing her "by the unmourning water/Of the riding Thames."
However, the darkness of those veins reminds us of the girl's father, who is our father too: death, who is called "mankind making," "Bird beast and flower/Fathering" and "all humbling darkness." The darkness of death runs like a river through life and gives birth to everything.

The last line reminds us that death will never enter the world for the first time again, because it is an essential part of the world we know. 

Update (24 August 2013): I added the picture of London and distinguished London and Death as the girl's mother and father a little more explicitly. Added also Dylan's recital.

Also, I've just thought of an explanation for "the sea tumbling in harness." That is the movement of the blood as it pulses. So the "still hour" of that sea is the moment of death.