Aug 18, 2014

Predatory Thanatosis and Shakespeare's Falstaff

Camouflage: Yellow Warbler

At Butlers Birds on 8/14/14  [], the blogger mentions the Eastern Pee Wee and the House Finch in connection with “predatory thanatosis,” a wonderful academic phrase that means mimicking death--yes, playing possum, or playing dead like Falstaff--Shakespeare's comic, pragmatic, lovable, execrable, drunken, cowardly, obese knight, Sir John Falstaff. (see below).

I wondered about a bird's reasons for pretending death. It's usually for safety--creating lack of interest from a predator. But some think it's possible that a bird might be trying to trick a predator or a prey into coming close enough for a surprise counterattack by the supposedly injured or dead "possum bird."And if birds don't do it, other animals do.
Eastern Wood-Peewee or Eastern Phoebe ??
I looked at a couple of additional sources on Wikipedia and found that some male spiders fake death in order to improve their chances for survival after mating with a female.The males usually die after mating, and sometimes the female eats her suitor.

So how could I fail to think of poor old Edward Lee and Sadie Bell in my last post (8/13/14). Here it is again, with the news above from the animal kingdom added for a bit of context. You’ll be forgiven if you find yourself humming “Frankie and Johnny” as you read—“Rat a tat tat, three times she shot, right through that hardwood door. He was her man, but he was doin’ her wrong.” 
Female Baltimore Oriole? Trying to be Subtle?

I hope you'll look at Wikipedia's fascinating info on predatory thanatosis, even at the risk of finding your imaginative self picturing these bird, snake, fish, spider, and human maneuvers in 3D Technicolor.

Once again from The Oakland Press, Pontiac, Michigan, July 26, 2014:

Bond revoked for Southfield woman convicted of shooting boyfriend over sexual performance.         
            Sadie Bell, 58 . . .  shot her longtime lover, Edward Lee, after he produced what she believed to be an inadequate amount of ejaculate during a sexual encounter.
            She accused Lee of cheating on her.
            Bell and Lee had been having an affair for 15 years . . . .

I don't know if Falstaff can be appreciated
outside the plays themselves (both parts of Henry IV, plus
Henry V), but his self-serving, devious
humor can be seen here, as can the high stakes underlying the banter between him and Prince Hal, who has become King Henry V:

  • Henry V. That villanous abominable misleader of youth, 1445
    Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
  • Falstaff. But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
    were to say more than I know. That he is old, the 1450
    more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
    that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
    that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
    God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
    sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if 1455
    to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine
    are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
    banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
    Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
    valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, 1460
    being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
    thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
    company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

See the gator snout just above the lily pads? Good time for the immature ibis to play dead

Aug 13, 2014

Kay Ryan's "Surfaces" and Crime in Southeast Michigan

Key West, Florida

Wooster, Ohio

Surfaces by Kay Ryan : The Poetry Foundation

Once again I like a Kay Ryan poem, “Surfaces.” The succinctness, subtlety of imagery, and the surprising yet reasonable associations of thought and sound are vintage Kay Ryan, a recent U.S. poet laureate.

Can you offer, from your own experience or meditation, an example of a discrepancy, or merely an intriguing relationship, between a surface and what’s within or beneath it?

I think Kay Ryan's “Surfaces” has something to do with the headlines and notes below, which come from a single issue (July 26, 2014) of The Oakland Press of Pontiac, Michigan. But maybe I’m forcing the comparison. If so, will you tell me?

Metamora Township: Dogs that killed man [jogging] involved in past attack, says Oxford woman.      In May 2012, there was a report of a dog bite where the animal returned to the same property . . . . .  And in November 2013, a man was taken to a hospital after being bitten by a dog that returned to the address.

Murdered Armada teen identified: Police seek clues to death of April Milsap, 14, who was walking her dog on a recreational trail near Armada. 

Sheriff: Man stabbed in back by girlfriend [33-year-old Pontiac woman],  causing a collapsed lung.

[Pontiac] Man stable after being shot three times.

No injuries reported in [Pontiac] apartment shooting.

Bond revoked for Southfield woman convicted of shooting boyfriend over sexual performance.           
            Sadie Bell, 58 . . .  shot her longtime lover, Edward Lee, after he produced what she believed to be an inadequate amount of ejaculate during a sexual encounter.
            She accused Lee of cheating on her.
            Bell and Lee had been having an affair for 15 years . . . .

Bison skull, $200, Berkeley Springs, WV

Anonymous Surfaces

Here’s an ounce of context for those news items (sources:  and Wikipedia).

Pontiac is a blue-collar city of 60,000 (down from 85,000 in 1970). The estimated median household income of $27,818, down from $31,000 in 2000.  

Armada is a village of about 1,700 (up 10% since 2000) at the southern end of Michigan’s agricultural “thumb” area. Its median household income is about $64,120.

Southfield is a suburb on Detroit’s northwest boundary. Population 72,000 in 2012, down 7.4% since 2000. Estimated median household income:  $45,494, down from $51,802 in 2000.

Lakeville, Michigan

Surfaces by Kay Ryan : The Poetry Foundation

Jul 25, 2014

The Chipping Sparrow and Richard Wilbur's "Still, Citizen Sparrow" Again

On my walk today, I saw a new bird. He's not rare, but he was my first Chipping Sparrow. (Someone please correct me it that's incorrect). I didn't get a good look at him in real life, but I took a few shots anyway. When I got home and tinkered with the photos (cropping and sharpening), I was glad to find him fairly quickly at the fantastic Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Chipping Sparrow

It's only a small exaggeration to say I cannot compare little birds to big birds without remembering Richard Wilbur's magnificent poem, "Still, Citizen Sparrow." Today I've tweaked my comments from February of 2010. They're still long and imperfect, so read only as much as you want. But I hope you'll read or re-read the poem. Otherwise, you'll miss your chance to be one of Noah's sons, dutiful, noble and glorious, a survivor on Mt. Ararat.

Although I predict that several of Richard Wilbur's poems are canon-fodder (that is, immortal--I couldn't resist playing with Falstaff's words), I especially admire "Still, Citizen Sparrow," which offers the scavenging vulture as a hero in whose shadow mere sparrows are told to be still.

In "Still" as the opening word, there is more muscularity of language, more purposeful ambiguity and layered meaning, than I find in many entire poems. First and foremost, I hear "Still" as "Be still," an instruction to the chattering sparrows, who are that most mediocre of things, "citizens." Shut up and behold the hovering vulture as he lords (Lords?) it over trivial you with his necessary, purgative work.

However, that meaning of "Still" doesn't hold up grammatically; we'd need a semicolon or period after the command for "citizen sparrow" to be still. So the literal and grammatically sensible meaning is probably, "Even so, citizen sparrow . . . ."  It's an introduction to the more elaborate argument that follows. It's as if the sparrows, just before the poem begins, have proposed their own cuteness along with the vulture's grotesqueness, whereupon Wilbur's speaker is offering a counter-argument. "Oh yeah? Well, consider this about Mr. Vulture, whom you call ugly . . . ."

I won't continue with this kind of attention to detail or I'll never finish. But do, please, take time to admire the parts you consider to be gems. I'll be surprised if you don't find some. For example:

". . . lumber again to air / Over the rotten office . . . ." What could better capture the rhythm of the buzzard's flight than "lumber" or the brutal accuracy of its mission than "rotten office"? Remove the carcass in order to eat it: ". . . bear / The carrion ballast up . . . ."  And because the vulture's the hero who does the dirty work, he is able to "lie cruising" at the "Tip of the sky."

". . . the frightfully free // The naked-headed one . . . ."   Maybe he's "frightfully" free because what he does seems, or is, "unnatural." It's not just garbage collection; it's also something like cannibalism, yet by virtue of this shredding and munching, the hero "mocks mutability."  Death? He laughs at it. He casually eats Death and cruises on.

". . . childheart . . . bedlam hours . . . slam of his hammer . . . " All of those am sounds are verbal sledge hammers against the chirpy multitudes of sparrows, who, in their small lives, might protest,  "Oh, Buzzard, stop preparing for heroism--we sparrows can't sleep (or chatter) with the slam of your hammer going on and on and on."

And these bits of elegance speak for themselves, I think:

How high and weary it was . . .

He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew . . .

Wilbur proclaims that sparrows don't know much. They haven't "rocked" anything; they know nothing of "high and weary" labor that purifies and saves--or the soaring that goes with the work. Trash collectors and undertakers probably know a lot more than most of us. Odd as it may seem, the poem is an apotheosis of those who tidy up after messes, including corpses. And there we find the vulture glorified as the lofty, silent one, the solitary Noah among us nattering nabobs of sparrow-hood..
Turkey Vulture

As something of a skeptic about heroes, I don't know how much I agree with Wilbur's argument, but I admire its creative logic and presentation, the power of its imperatives ("Do this; do that"), the poem's passion bucking against the constraints of its rhymed and metered formality, just as its argument bucks against the expectations of most of us, who might like a sparrow in the back yard rather than a buzzard, never mind that the sparrow makes messes while the buzzard cleans them up, flies away and soars again, looking for more. He's big and other, not at all a citizen like us.

Black Vulture

Jul 12, 2014

Guns and Morons, plus Chase Twichell's "Stripped Car"

aka Peace and Wisdom Party
Thirty seconds of this video conveys plenty, but I’m a masochist and watched all four minutes. The film wants to be funny, and sometimes it may be, but I find it a troubling sequence too. When I caught myself smiling a few times, I didn’t like myself. So I wrote the snarky treatise below.

What’s the moral of the story in the video, which is passed off as humor?

1.  Guns don’t shoot themselves. Unequivocally true.

2.  In spite of some delusions, people can’t fire bullets from their fingers or genitalia. Unequivocally true. 


1.  Eliminate gun control for people who have never made a mistake of any kind.

2.  Hate
each other over the two unequivocal truths above.

3.  I'm pretty sure  there are 8 billion mountain tops on Planet Earth.  Give each human a mountain top and all the firearms he can carry, which will lead to all the ammo-orgasms he has time for. Or energy. And alone on a mountain top, that’s a lot of time. Food? With all that weaponry, if they can’t find enough to kill, fuck ‘em. Shelter? Ammo-orgasms will keep ‘em warm.

4.  Uh-oh. My research team isn't sure there are 8 billion mountain tops.

5.  Someone also asked about propagation of the species?  Uh-oh.

Then I went to Poetry Foundation, typed “guns” in the search box, and was offered “Stripped Car” by Chase Twichell. I’ve liked her work before, so I read it, though it's a little longer than what I usually post here:

Notice white fuzz ball in nest
    I’m not sure every line needs to be there, but the style is breezy, and some of the images were poignant,

    so I stuck with it. Do you like the poem? Respect it? Do you have some favorite lines, images or ideas? How about a “sulking adolescent” . . . “with a silky little shadow-moustache/and a gun”? Or the play of fruit and gardens against the images of metal and violence?

Jun 28, 2014

Phillip Levine, "Coming Close": Labor and Place

Here is former Poet Laureate, and native Detroiter, Phillip Levine with a portrait of women who labor. Really labor.  Would you agree that he does not sentimentalize her or the work?

Am I the only one who thinks of a slight connection to Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, although they strike me as agrarian while Levine’s woman is part of the American industrial scene? 

In “You must feed her, as they say in the language of the place,” the “her” is the machinery. (Right?).  So Levine characterizes industrial machinery as female, then goes on to say, “Make no mistake, the place has a language.” In this place the machinery is female, perhaps a demanding maternal figure who must be fed.

I think Levine's treatment of place and language might be the most interesting idea in the poem. Does a place have its own language? Does our language change according to place and situation? If so, is that about the power of place to shape human language, which amounts to human thought, emotion, and personality?

If our language changes as we move from place to place, are we being dishonest? No? Simply pragmatic? Is pragmatism inherently dishonest? And then of course, the old adolescent question, how much honesty can any of us handle? “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”  Remember the Jackster delivering that one?

Does the laborer’s laughter at the end amount to meanness, or is it an effort at jolly, rough fellowship?

Is the speaker’s feeling “marked” a bad thing?  What does “for your own” mean? I really don’t know why that’s there.

Jun 16, 2014

Hannah Gamble's "Growing a Bear": Entertainment and Art

First a note on the photos: which of these women might be the poem's speaker? Now, on to the work itself.

In poetry, humor is such a tricky thing, a tightrope—veer left and you fall into superficiality or mean sarcasm or commercial slickness and pandering; veer right and you reveal an underbelly too dark for genuine levity--no belly laughs, no breeziness at cocktail parties, no appreciation of the absurdity of it all. It's all too grave for that, as Dostoevsky knew.

In my college years and into my twenties, I heard more than once that America’s only contributions to world literature were the short story as a genre and American humor. We were supposed to feel bad about that—inferior, provincial lightweights. Well, if those are our only contributions—and how can one make such a claim in the first place?—I say we’ve done pretty well, as I whisk dreary dust off my shirt and visor from long, long, dark, dark European tomes. Especially on the continent, none of the languages have a word for "concise."

So Hannah Gamble’s “Growing a Bear” interests me quite a bit. I hope no one disputes that it’s funny. But is it fluff? We’re back to The School of Accessibility and the constant question it presents: is the work mere entertainment or does it have enough heft to be labeled significant literature—enough insight into and commentary on big issues like the environment or social justice or simply being a lone human with human complexity? And is the work’s expression artful enough to make us take the piece seriously?

After reading “Growing a Bear” a few times, I’m not at all sure what the Bear is, but I think it's vaguely naughty and funny and grave. How would you pin it down? Or would you decline the invitation to pin it down?

And did you enjoy the poem?

Jun 6, 2014

D.H. Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians" and Dylan Thomas, Follow-up

Here is D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Bavarian Gentians.” I think I know why it came to mind as I talked last time about Dylan Thomas and “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower," but I'm not sure. Ideas?  Which of the two poems do you prefer, and of course, why?

I don't have a photo of a Bavarian Gentian, but I'm including some with important blues or purples and darkening and excess.

My posting twice about the same poem has never elicited much visitor interest, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Here are some further questions and thoughts about Dylan Thomas’ “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”

One word that might confuse or alienate readers is “the green fuse,” which I take to mean the flower’s stem. Does Thomas get enough bang for his buck with “fuse” as a metaphor? In exchange for potential confusion in some readers, what, if anything, does he gain by using “fuse”?

Same question for “dumb”?

Why is the poem so full of violence? About a hundred and fifty years before Dylan Thomas came along in Wales, the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, had conceived of a dynamism in Nature—its potential for destructive activity along with its beauty and spirituality. But isn’t Thomas going further than the Romantics in seeing and insisting upon Nature’s fearsome extremes and thus complicating its beauty with its violence? Thomas’ Nature wreaks such havoc that he cannot express its extremes; he can only give examples and ask us to perceive natural presences as he does. 

Do you think a single force governs the life and death of humans, plants, and animals? Are we that much a part of nature?

Where in the human being would you locate that force? The heart? The brain? The mouth? The hand? The genitals? Or the mind or soul or spirit?—none of which can be located on an anatomical chart.
English teachers are sex-crazed nerds; that’s old news. Therefore, I ask if the poem has anything to do with sex—potency and lack of it, or Freud’s “libido” versus “thanatos.” I’m pretty sure I recall accurately that Freud expanded his concept of the libido from a specifically erotic drive to a broader meaning of life force, a quest for survival, which of course was in continuous conflict with “thanatos,” or death drive.

Thus, Freud, like the Romantics, saw the essential condition of humans as one of tumult,  inner turmoil, conflict, unlike Buddhism’s sense of a calm inner place, nirvana, which we should try to reach. Do you favor one of these views of human nature over the other? If the human is an onion and you keep peeling off layers, what’s at the center—a roiling ocean or a still pond?

Lovers' Lane