This Consciousness that is Aware

A few days ago I wrote and posted a poem. It dealt, narrowly, with a contemplated stroke. More broadly, I suppose more deeply too, it is the certain fact of my one day death that I interrogate.
It is a big question, or set of questions, for me. I am sure it is for others too.
My feelings were pressing, my need to express them was strong. Poetry was the needed medium.
This morning I awoke (still alive), moved limbs (no motor stroke) and opened a volume of poetry. The book fell open at this poem of Emily Dickenson, a poem I had not previously known. I read the work (no central stroke) and understood Emily had addressed similar questions.

“This Consciousness that is aware”

This Consciousness that is aware

Of Neighbors and the Sun

Will be the one aware of Death

And that itself alone

 

Is traversing the interval

Experience between

And most profound experiment

death

Appointed unto Men-

 

How adequate unto itself

Its properties shall be

Itself unto itself and None

Shall make discovery.

 

Adventure most unto itself

The Soul condemned to be-

Attended by a single Hound

Its own identity.

Emily Dickenson

 

After reading and considering, I recalled how Death (Emily always capitalises and personifies her erotic forces) is the subject, her opposite actor, in many, many poems. Many poems, but never too many. Such is the subject and such is the poet.
It was my great friend (and the greatest critic of this blog) who observed of my writing a couple of decades ago: “You realise, don’t you Howard, that everything you write is part of the process of coming to terms with your own death?”

Sperms

My recent mail swims with sperms. I send you these items to keep you informed.

Dr Paul Jarrett writes from Arizona:

I don’t know why spermatogenesis, the production of sperm, must take place at a temperature about 2 degrees below body temperature, but it does.

In order to insure propagation of the species – and this includes many other mammals – some means had to be employed so that a cooler environment than that within the peritoneal cavity, (where ovaries are completely comfortable), could be maintained.  The solution is to initiate the testicle at body temperature, an early necessity during organogenesis, and later in pregnancy move it outside where temperatures will be more easily regulated.  

Nerves provide temperature sensing while the cremaster muscles provide raising and lowering of the testes and further feed-back. Responding nerves provide for perspiration glands to produce sweat for evaporation and further cooling.  There are also mechanisms in place to minimize injury which I will not describe at this time.

Moving the testicle outside took a bit of doing.  During development of the embryo, (sometimes later-“Undescended Testicle) the testicle migrates out of the retroperitonal space through the Inguinal Canal to the Scrotum.  The process of peritoneum which forms the lining of the inguinal canal during this passage is pinched off at the Internal Ring if all goes well.  If not, a potential Inguinal Hernia exists with a pre-formed sac waiting for peritoneal contents to also migrate downward into the Inguinal Canal or Scrotal Sac.  This is known as an “Indirect Hernia”.  It happens with sufficient regularity to provide tuition for a Surgeon’s kids. I have repaired these from a few days old to well into old age.  They can occur in animals but are more common in bipeds. Continue reading

Cerebrovascular Accident

Ten or twelve
Only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc
Quite unselve…

(from Binsley Poplars, Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Self-pity. It’s Amy Clampitt’s fault:
blame amy.
In her “Beethoven, Opus111” –
A poem, its title promising
Music, but its texture and girth
Thick with root and thorn, and earth,
The toil of her farmer father, the clodded
Soil his foe (and freiheit!) and moil,
She speaks of his dying, his escape
Into air, and I wondered: how will I
Go there?
I smiled to imagine his “last act,
to walk on air.”

But then I remembered: one hundred and seventy
on one hundred and ten, numbers that number my days, Dread then, of a stroke broke my smile:
To sit, endless,
Helpless, in my piss
And my shit? Well
That’s how I started, how my grandruby sits,
The happiest of souls, she laughs in fits –
Why might not I subsist, exist, persist –
Unlearn, and learn and earn to laugh like Ruby?
My Mum had strokes, stroke upon stroke –
The doctors lost count; but she, like Ruby,
Knew only stroke upon stroke
Of joy: I’ve never been happier in my life, Mum
Said. And meant it. And showed it.

Mum followed Beethoven into the quiet
Of the deaf, whither I tiptoe too: there
White noise abates, music awaits,
Remembered. And you hear less bullshite.

But if a vessel, sclerotic, brittle,
But block or blow or burst,
It’ll tear, shear, shatter my brain,
And blind me: in that pain – in that pain
Would I, could I smile again – in that dark?
If I, like eyeless Jacob upon the head of Ephraim
Rest my hand on Ruby: I’d smile again

But come that stroke
That stroke
That takes away words –
My words, coin of my world,
Uncoined then, mute, truly broke,
To speak no more, nor write –
Not to ask, nor thank, nor say: I think…
Nor pray.
Nor ask, scratch that itch;
Never again speak my love? Never indite?
Not utter?
Mouth fail, tongue in jail,
Hand flail, pen fall?
That stroke, that stroke,
What, never crack a joke?
Never?
No, not
Ever.

Self-pity is the sincerest emotion.

Sexual Misconduct

A first grader I know confided in me recently. He said, I’ve got a problem. You know my girlfriend, Tori? She kisses me and she wants me to kiss her. At school!
I didn’t see his problem: Is that bad?
Yes! What if the teachers find out?
What would happen if they did find out?
They would send me to the principal.
Why?
The child looked at me as at a simpleton. Because you can’t kiss people at school! It’s against the rules!
Really? I never saw any rule like that? Especially if the girl wants you to kiss her. And if you do.
Exasperated now: Look, if we kiss and other kids know about it, soon the whole school would be kissing…
That’s better than fighting, isn’t it?
A deep breath. He tries a different tack: What if Tori’s parents found out?
What if they did? If your parents wouldn’t mind – why should her parents feel differently?
You don’t understand. Tori’s parents aren’t like mine. They… they live in a great big house…They would go crazy if they knew I kissed Tori.

Nobody Doesn’t Like a Song

I

Whenever I wanted to read a poem to my father he’d make a face. He claimed he didn’t like poetry. I suspect it was the ambiguity in a poem that frustrated him. In fact Dad loved poems, the poems he committed to memory in his schooldays. He recited some of these often enough for them to take seed and grow inside me.

Now Dad is gone and it is I who recites his lines, learned at school around 1925:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

Thou art not so unkind

As man’s ingratitude…

Thy tooth is not so keen

Because thou art not seen

Although thy breath be rude

I see Dad’s wry smile as he continued with lines that border on the cynical.

Sing Hey Ho, Hey ho unto the holly

Most friendship is feigning

Most loving mere folly

Dad was not cynical. So what appealed to him about this snatch from ‘The Tempest’?

I think it was the music.

Lots of people think they don’t like poetry. They would never read a poem – not willingly, not wittingly.

But they listen to songs. And a song is just a poem hidden inside music.

Think of the Beatles. Think of ‘Till there was you’. Think of ‘Elinor Mackenzie’. We loved those songs, not least for their poetry.

Nobody doesn’t like a song.

Continue reading

376,000 Footsteps in the Sisterhood of Man

It was the running of the Jews. Not in Khazakstan but at Melbourne’stan.

Historically, you only saw a bunch of Jews running if there was a fire or a pogrom. But yesterday hundreds of Jews were afoot, an infrequent event since the original Fun Run across the Red Sea. (On that occasion all the Israelites crossed the line. The Egyptians failed to finish.)

We Jews were not alone at the Tan: joining us were Africans from the Horn and from Mandela country; a pair of Iranians, a smiling Swiss, sundry Catholic Australians; the odd Chinese, a couple of Argentines and their Australian born progeny. And my wife and my not-very-old oldest grandchild.

If a kilometre is one thousand metres and the average human pace is one metre, and the circumference of the ‘Tan’ is 3.76 kilometres, then a single lap represents 3760 paces. Yesterday saw 376000 paces in the sisterhood of man.

My team, “Queue Jumpers”, named in honour of those disgraceful individuals who do not go through the correct channels, raised about 1800 dollars. The entire event raised in excess of $20,000, to be spent in two struggling Aboriginal communities in far north NSW and in a Community Centre for queue jumpers from Darfur.

Over coffee, before the event Akbar the Persian storyteller told a story. Akbar has elevated my runs over 25 years – ‘one quarter of a century’, he observes – with folktales from his homeland. Yesterday’s story: The revolution was coming in Iran. We knew people, Bahai, whose houses were burnt by militants. A friend said to us – do not stay in your house. It is not safe. They will burn your house next.

We decided to leave. We went to a cousin’s house. But another warned – ‘this house will be burned tonight.’

We had to leave. We all ran from the house but a man with a big automatic weapon stood outside. He said: ‘Do not go. They will burn this house only when my body is dead.’

That man was Savak. Secret Police. But we did not wait. Instead we ran. We ran to the house of the parents of this young woman…

Akbar here indicated his niece, Paloma. It turns out that Paloma -‘dove’ in Spanish – speaks Spanish fluently. This dove was born in Bristol. She takes up the story: My father was in America. He bought a red Ford Mustang. I sat in the back; there were only two doors. He brought the Ford Mustang to Bristol and he drove us, Mother and me and Father, to France, then all across Europe, all the way to Iran. I was four when we left Bristol, but I remember the red car, I remember I sat in the back.

Akbar takes up the story: We ran to the house of Paloma’s father and mother, all of us – myself, my parents and my cousin. Paloma’s family took us in and we stayed. We stayed in their house for nine months and we were safe.

And then we came to Australia.

Akbar smiled. He said it was time for a real Persian story. He told a folk story, of Mullah Nasruddin. Akbar’s story took us to a different age, a different place. We sat in the sunshine and watched and listened to the genial teller of tales as he smiled and talked.

Then we arose and ran, we Aussies, we Jews, we Muslims; we Africans and Catholics; we old and wrinkled ones, we new and sprightly ones; we arose and ran 376,000 footsteps in the Sisterhood of Man.

 

Giving Thanks

Barry and Paul (in the tux)

Barry and Paul (in the tux)

 

Howard and Paul

Howard and Paul

My old and cherished friend, Paul Jarrett, writes from Phoenix Arizona:

 
“Thanksgiving is the day we reserve for giving thanks.
When I was small, every meal was preceded by “returning thanks” which was “Grace” before meals.  It was “returned” by my father if present, or mother if not.
This brief prayer was to express gratitude for God’s many blessings and to ask for His continuing guidance.  We did not eat before the “Blessing” was asked.
While it is true that when small I was impatient to get this ritual over so that I could scarf down my meal, it is also true that I can hear Dad today in my mind’s ear reciting the blessing and realize how important it was to him, no mere gesture or formality.
Once in awhile in a restaurant I see a person asking God’s blessing on the food they are about to eat, but very seldom.  I must admit that I do not do it myself so as not to attract attention.  For that matter I do not “return thanks” when I am by myself at home, a matter that I shall correct.
God doesn’t need these rituals, we do.”
 
Paul is exceedingly old and exceedingly wise. In his time he has been a military surgeon, an aviator, a morbid anatomist.  This means he could fly you to hospital, operate on you, and should you be ungrateful enough to die, Paul would, without hard feelings, carry out your autopsy. 
 
Paul describes himself as conservative. He claims to be to the right of Barry Goldwater. He shows a photo to prove it.
Nowadays, Paul cuts neither the living nor the dead. He contents himself with wise and sometimes splenetic observations about a world and a nation going to the dogs.
 
Paul’s reminiscences are always evocative. His recollections of Grace evoked this memory of my own:
Dear Paul
I recall growing up in a country town in new south wales where our family were the only Jews.
my closest friend’s family were Presbyterian.
like my friends the jarretts, the wanklyns provided kosher meals so i could eat with them.
dulcie wanklyn prefaced each meal with: FOR WHAT WE ARE ABOUT TO RECEIVE THE LORD MAKE US TRULY GRATEFUL.
i recall sitting through this small ritual, head down, in quiet uncharacteristic decorum.
i’d gaze at the linen napery, each napkin held furled inside its collar of china or silver or pewter.
it all seemed holy.
no-one ate, no-one spoke, until AMEN was heard.
it never occurred to me that the benedictions  my father taught me and which we recited before and after every meal, were likewise, Grace, and likewise holy
the problem with an everyday ritual is ritualisation, the normalisation of the quite audacious idea of finite man reaching with words towards infinte God
mrs wanklyn never made Grace feel mundane
love,
Howard