augury doggerel

Tuesday, December 30, 2003


I go downtown so rarely, entire shopping centers are new to me today, though one large pit is still an unwanted archaeological find. Developers are plotting how to put a mega-something on the prehistoric village where our river used to be.

There must be sex. There must be public relations. Perhaps a diorama. (Low-tech, in keeping with the desired history museum effect.) Neptune, our city's god, could stride crowned and naked from the plaster surf toward a miniature of our ghost fishing village. Authentically topless (who could claim otherwise? this is prehistory, bub) fisherwomen of the period could gape at the trident god.

Monday, December 29, 2003

The Birth of the Cool

Yesterday, when the kid is done playing an etude and fantasia over and over until the woman is satisfied and the kid is making up ailments, I slide some American noises into the stereo.

I like the hovering notes that begin Copland's Appalachian Spring � the kid sits at the piano and picks out the notes for me � and she likes the hoe-down from his Rodeo, which always turns her into a happy horse.

Then we try Miles Davis. When we stand between the speakers and listen carefully, we think we know, through the miracle of stereo, where Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley and the other guys must be sitting or standing and what they look like when they play.

Today, she asks if we can hear that Mee-less Dah-vees again.

Sunday, December 28, 2003


I start at three machine-tanned bottle-blonded women who come together, peel to bright dresses, and perch under the lights along the bar. They get identical orange drinks, which they sip through thin straws and pretty good teeth. Outside, it's still December and we're on the old cold Baltic shore. Inside, cheap vacations are still available.

Saturday, December 27, 2003


The kid and I are sledding in the woods and she's too cold but she says we can't go home, which is too bad for me because the kid and I are sledding in the woods and I'm too cold but she says we can't go home. But then we're home and couched and slow and warm and watching the Lion King in Polish until my brain breaks up and dissolves and runs into the cushions. I dream transparent snails as big and soft as rubber ducks, warm snails with smooth clear shells, the smell of talcum powder, and wide soft sky-blue snail eyes that blink back at me as friend to friend.

Friday, December 26, 2003


I almost wrote this last summer, then last month, but I never get round to it. Maybe now.

The last time I was home, this past summer, I was reading through a poetry anthology. William Allingham's The Fairies reminded me of my mother laughing about how my father, when he was a boy at school, got into trouble for being unable to recite The Fairies. It was funny to her back then, before her memory started to go, before she forgot all of us.

I took the book to the side of my father's bed, a borrowed hospital bed where he was breathing on a borrowed oxygen machine and could barely lift his tea, and I tried the first line of the poem on him. Without missing a beat, he recited the rest of the first stanza, then ran out of breath and stopped. I don't know how much he remembered. We were interrupted just after.

Maybe there's nothing in this after all, but I felt like writing it. Anyway, here is Allingham's poem, in case you don't remember it.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather!

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He 's nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music
On cold starry nights
To sup with the Queen
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag-leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn-trees
For pleasure here and there.
If any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather!

Thursday, December 25, 2003


The woman and I carry a tree home on our shoulders. The kitten dives into it before we can get it into the stand. We decide not to put anything glass on the tree this year. We decide to tie the tree to the curtain rods. So the kitten can't pull down the tree without also pulling down all of the. Hmm.

I try to repair a string of Christmas tree lights the kitten has already unwired. I grump and flop into a wooden chair and break the chair cartoon-style, snap crack bang, and yank the wires back out of the lights I've just patched together. The kid focuses all of her mental powers � I see her temples throb from across the room � on not laughing at me. I shove the pieces of chair out of the way, put the lights back together, and plug them in. The fuse does not blow.

No presents for anyone except the kid. Santa rings the doorbell and takes off before the kid can see him, but he sticks a Santa hat on mama and leaves her a big red bag full of toys and books for the kid.

Dinner. We have it here, but Grandpa and Grandma and Grandma's brother bring most of the food. The table is covered with dismantled scaly things, things sliced and jellied, cross-sectioned things that squirmed the bottom of the sea.

The kid plays with her toys and doesn't eat; she doesn't much like any food, and Christmas dinner is pushing it. The kitten discovers mistletoe and runs everywhere with it. Grandpa is ill, so he doesn't drink much. Grandma, head cook, eats and talks with her brother, who sneaks off to the kitchen to fry his own fish the way he likes it.

The fuse does not blow, but I have to go for a walk. Drivers are still working, buses and trams and ambulances and taxis and trains are still going, but there's only me out there and I'm only walking.

Home and more peeling back of skins and scales, more plucking of spines to get at the softer parts. Then Grandma sleeps in the armchair, Grandpa yawns, Uncle runs out of things to say. Then all gone. The other Grandma comes and takes the kid and her pajamas away for more toys and another Christmas dinner she won't eat. Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle leave in one taxi.

The woman and I move fishes, wash dishes, and keep leaping cats from fish and each other. When midnight comes, when the animals are said to speak, we try talking to the cats, but they've also had enough.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003


The temperature has dropped below freezing and the kid's room is cold. The kitten has wet our bed again and somehow purrs on my lap. The bank balance has hit zero and we're selling our watches and hair. The woman has turned thirty. The year is finishing.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Marley was Dead

A young man and woman come into the pub with a kid (a boy? a girl?) and immediately begin operations like soldiers fielding a weapon that could go boom. They're in town for Christmas (I have big ears, Red Riding Crop) and escaping his parents but they had to take the kid.

On the pub television, Poland watches something part game show, part variety show, first dancers, then a contest and prizes, then dancers again. A half-dozen very white teevee-attractive young men and women choreo across the stage while another teevee-attractive white guy sings "No Woman, No Cry" in an approximated Jamaican-English accent.

The couple's kid stands on the pub carpet and does the traditional knee-bend dance that is handed down from toddler to toddler.

Saturday, December 20, 2003


Work is done for the year, and just in time. It was close, but I killed no one, not even me. Now I'm home and everyone's asleep. I've been up all night drinking tea, picking through books, cooling my head. This is how I was in the days before duties, after my father had finally gone to bed.

I want things short, I want to like these things, and I want these things to like me. I don't want to have to write the thing for the author. I want distractions between trains and birds and trees and aunts.

Wodehouse? No Wodehouse for now.

Maybe there are things in Yeats I could read again this winter. Keats? Geats? Hardy, maybe, for snow. (Something has been gnawing at the base of Philip Larkin's green spine. He was entirely collected the last I saw him.)

I can't read another drop of Raymond Carver this year. Or of Thurber or Perelman or E.B. White or Roy Blount.

A good detective? Father Brown or Sherlock Holmes or

Ghost stories? I've finished A Christmas Carol and Gawain for the season. This old dusty M.R. James? Henry James? Maybe Robertson Davies. I saw him in Boston once, before he was a ghost, but mainly I saw his long white beard.

Shakespeare. More ghosts.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


The bartenderizer puts my beer on the bar and tells me "Wait a minute!" through a cheery face. And that's the end of the conversation. She needs another look at her English phrasebook.

But when a keg runs out, she kicks the tap loose with her high crack heels hiss, rolls it with her feet into the back room, rolls a full one out, and crack kicks the tap tight, all while juggling thirteen customers and a cigarette. Then she uses two long-nailed fingers to push the corners of her mouth back up.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Elves Have Left the Building

The kid is solidly in the business of Christmas now. She finds the cache at the top of a cupboard, memorizes what must be hers (everything, including the cupboard), and adds to her list of demands.

When I keep her from hauling out everything to show off � Stop. That's... awful. � she puts on an I'm-no-fool face and asks what difference it could make. After all, she says with that face, now she knows that there's no Mikolai. Because this way, I say, there's no surprise left in anything.

But she has turned into a horse and run on all fours to where I can't go.

Saturday, December 13, 2003


I don't fit through my door. There's a party in there, and folk I don't know are being festive round my table, chewing through my fridge, talking horses. What if I stood out here and watched?

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Left of Them

On October 25, 1854, from the top of a hill at the Battle of Balaclava, Lord Raglan saw the Russian enemy making off with captured Turkish cannons. This must be stopped, he commanded. But someone (don't ask who) bungled the order, and men and horses on the valley floor charged straight into firing cannons.

Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' was published a few weeks later, on this day in 1854. It has been recited thousands of times since. By Alfalfa, for instance. But here's Tennyson himself reading the poem in an 1890 recording, thumping out the beat and declaiming into the horn of an Edison machine. Here's his manuscript.

But here's something closer to the real thing, a fragment of a soldier's account of the charge.
As they, too, plunged into the inferno of fire, and as batteries and massed riflemen on each flank began to tear gaps in their ranks and trooper after trooper came crashing to the ground, they had a new and horrible difficulty to face. The ground was strewn with casualties of the first line -- not only dead men and dead horses, but horses and men not yet dead, able to crawl, to scream, to writhe. They had perpetually to avoid riding over men they knew, while riderless horses, some unhurt, some horribly injured, tried to force their way into the ranks. Troop-horses in battle, as long as they feel the hand of their rider and his weight on their backs, are, even when wounded, singularly free from fear. When Lord George Paget's charger was hit, he was astonished to find the horse showed no sign of panic. But, once deprived of his rider, the troop-horse becomes crazed with terror. He does not gallop out of the action and seek safety: trained to range himself in line, he seeks the companionship of other horses, and, mad with fear, eyeballs protruding, he attempts to attach himself to some leader or to force himself into the ranks of the nearest squadrons. Lord George, riding in advance of the second line, found himself actually in danger. The poor brutes made dashes at him, trying to gallop with him. At one moment he was riding in the midst of seven riderless horses, who cringed and pushed against him as round-shot and bullets came by, covering him with blood from their wounds, and so nearly unhorsing him that he was forced to use his sword to free himself.

Sunday, December 07, 2003


When I walk out, this morning's snow is sloping lightly, last night's is crunching on the walk. A blind man who lives near here goes along with his hat in one hand and his cane in the other. He is bald and flakes of snow melt on his head. The tops of his shoes are spatted.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Bona Dea

Of the milk and the honey pot, I cannot speak. But where are the women tonight?

Monday, December 01, 2003


Faber and Faber published Little Gidding, thin and sewn, on this day in 1942.