Sunday, November 30, 2014

Across the Grey Atlantic: Creative Platypus

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across Saint Brendan’s sea,
Is the land where the lairds wear sackcloth
And all the serfs are free.

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across the spume and foam,
Lies the land of the Imrams castles
Where a Gael can find a home.

In the green fields of Elysium,
Every blade of grass is a sword
To pierce the feet of trespassers
In the Garden of the Lord.

Just so the Emerald Isle,
Though enslaved and conquered be,
Will never lack for weapons
To set her people free.

But wars go on forever
And the killing's never done
Though the smoke rise up to heaven
And strike from the sky the Sun.

So many Gaels went wandering
Across the Earth’s expanse,
To find fair fields in foreign lands
Where peaceful feet could dance.

They flooded into Boston,
Found safe harbor in New York,
And others flew to southern climes
As surely as the stork.

They raked the bogs for cranberries
While old Thoreau explained
That if they'd just be Englishmen
They needn't take such pains.

They built the mighty railroads
With thundering tracks of steel
And made the lonely prairies groan
Beneath the iron wheel.

In Savannah and in Charleston
They fought for blue and grey
And turned the earth to Ireland
Where’er their bodies lay.

They saved their pennies one by one
And carved in wood and stone
Till up they raised Saint Patrick’s spires
And made this land their own.

So now we dye the rivers green
On old Saint Patty’s Day.
But other things are quite forgot
We’ve been so long away.

What does it mean to be a Celt,
A Norman, or a Dane,
When here in Teddy’s melting pot
We’re pretty much the same?

I speak the language of my foes,
Pass with an English name,
And I’d raise a cry of righteous wrath
If someone were to blame.

But still the blades of Irish grass
Wave like a press of swords
Held high by arch-angelic hands
In the Hour of the Lord.

Oh God on high, You heard our cry
And set this people free.
Stretch out Your hand, raise from this land
A single sword to Thee.

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across Saint Brendan’s sea,
Is the land where the lairds wear sackcloth
And all the serfs are free.

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across the spume and foam,
Lies the land of the Imrams castles
Where a Gael can find a home.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Notes on Pixar's Brave and Beowulf: Film Platypus

Something struck me this year as I was reading through Beowulf with my tenth graders: Pixar's Brave is Beowulf from the perspective of Queen Wealtheow and Princess Freawaru and set during the time of the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland as opposed to the rise of the Danish people over their neighbors.  As in the case of Hrothgar's developing kingdom, Brave's Scotland is besieged by two troubles: a giant monster that carries off the people and an unstable network of human alliances that threatens war and division.  In each case, the reigning monarch finds himself powerless to stave off the supernatural terror and relies on the aid of his politically astute wife to keep order among the clans.  Where Beowulf deals with questions of finding a new warrior with courage and greatness enough to solve the problems and eventually become king, Brave deals with the problem of forging a marriage alliance with the princess and raising her up to be the next queen.

A careful read of Beowulf reveals that strong and capable queens are every bit as important to a society's flourishing as a good king or a great warrior.  In the world of Beowulf, good queens are astute politicians that use a knowledge of protocol and the art of speech-making to control the network of alliances that uphold a kingdom.  The good queen Wealtheow carefully times her appearance to prevent the argument between Beowulf and Unferth from getting out of hand.  After Beowulf defeats Grendel, Wealtheow moves in to make sure that Beowulf knows that while he will be amply rewarded for his loyalty, he will meet firm resistance if he sets his eyes on the throne of Denmark.  In contrast to Wealtheow is Grendel's mother, a hell-dame who brings war and division with only sea-snakes to rule over and a murky cave for a mead-hall.  Brave takes up this theme by transforming the queen (literally) into both Wealtheow and Grendel's Mother and thus throwing the young kingdom of Scotland into chaos.  To restore order, the young princess must learn the arts of political persuasion, culminating in a speech that heals the divisions within the kingdom while buying her time to free her mother from the curse and put off an unwelcome choice of suitors.

There are other themes in Brave, including ones that also find correspondences in Beowulf.*  For today, however, I would like to limit my thoughts to the way that both stories explore the role of a good queen.  Looking at the film Brave through this lens not only casts more light on the artistry and message of the movie, it also gives us a better understanding of the female characters that dominate the middle portion of the Old English poem Beowulf.

*For instance, Merida has already learned from her father how to be a good warrior when the film begins, but needs to learn the skills of a good queen that her mother can teach her.  By the end of the film, Merida has learned both what her father and her mother have to teach her, thus becoming the woman Scotland needs to forge new customs for a new age. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Patriots In Exile: Creative Platypus

Patriots in Exile

The real world has no room for an Aeneas,
And perhaps that is a good thing.
Troy burned and Troy rebuilt
As much as seven-gated Thebes
Or Hiroshima and Dresden –even
Roman Carthage- though the Goths
Sacked that one.
There are no more seas to sail,
No new worlds to discover.
I’ve been from one coast
To another
And believe me,
The World is round.
On the other side is Russia
And that’s right back to where
You came from;
Whether Irish or Algonquin.
So we’ll drink another round
In a bar in Massachusetts
And we’ll raise a toast to Foxwoods
As a Wonder of the World.

I met an old Oneida in the land
Of broken promise
And he spoke of David Brainard
And a little of John Eliot.
Here we were across the world
Far from both our lands and fathers
And I’d bless him by Saint Patrick
If I were still a papist.

Homes are tricky things
And a heritage’s a burden
Whether it’s one that you can’t get to
Or it’s lost as sure as Eden.
So let’s raise a glass of grape juice
And be glad we weren’t born Britons.

Rule Britannia, rule them waves.

Britons never will be slaves
For they’re better than almost
At making slaves of others.

What is there between us,
Save a land we both call home,
Unless something so large
And universal
Big enough for Walter Whitman?
That is so large as to be useless,
Except to Eliot and Patrick.
But I drove by Brainard’s Rock
At least three times a day
And the gas station marks the
Where he wrestled with discernment.
So in the end we both love something;
Our affinities unite us
And I’ll gladly show you round the
When I cross your side of Jordan.

There’s no kingdom for Aeneas
And old Virgil’s half a fascist
But here’s to David Brainard
The Patrick of Oneida.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Walking in MacDonald's Walden: Platypus Travels Part LVII/The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXV

George MacDonald begins his enigmatic Science Fiction novel, Lilith, with a quote from Henry David Thoreau's essay Walking.  Thoreau's haunting, yet ultimately satirical and political description of a trip down an abandoned wagon road in rural Massachusetts is transformed by MacDonald's imagination into a statement on how thin the barrier is that separates our world from other realms.

The text below gives the quote from Thoreau as it appears in Lilith, which can be found in it entirety for free here.
I took a walk on Spaulding's Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,— who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding's cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious to vision; their trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer's cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor,—notwithstanding I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed.
But I find it difficult to remember them. They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself. It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of their cohabitancy. If it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord.

We walked all around Walden Pond this summer as well as in the surrounding area.  There are still places in the woods such as Thoreau describes.  I don't know that I felt any particular thinness between the worlds, but I do know that the place is powerful and enchanting in its own right.  I can see why Thoreau found such power and energy living here.  Green space enlivens and empowers.  I am told that urban space can do the same.  There seems to be no reason to disbelieve those who say so, but the most I can find is a sort of melancholy grandeur that sets in on rainy days when the neon lights shimmer up from reflecting pools in the concrete.  My soul hungers and thirst for the living God in a dry and weary land where there is no water

Saturday, November 01, 2014

New England Reflections and Platypus Readings: Platypus Travels Part LVI/The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXIV

Our travels this summer took us all over Connecticut and Massachusetts on the trail of historic locations and famous figures.  One place we were particularly delighted to see was Walden Pond, the site a which Henry David Thoreau conducted his famous experiment.  Both my wife and I have taught a selection of Thoreau's works and it was a treat to see Walden complete with a replica of Thoreau's cabin (the original was sold for scrap shortly after he vacated it).

I don't know what I think of Thoreau's thought.  On the whole, he seems more useful as a critic than as any positive role model.  On the other hand, we had a nice long chat with a wonderful park ranger at Walden who had been inspired in her job by Thoreau's love of nature.  If Dana Gioia can co-opt lapsed Catholics as part of a larger Catholic literary culture, maybe Thoreau can be treated as a lapsed Puritan.  His thought, iconoclastic, numinous, visionary, and full of a wonder and love for creation, certainly helped to solidify the move from Post-Puritan to Yankee.  This Christ-less Quaker still followed the internal light and managed to become something of a secular saint.  Most times, I don't think he deserves that -maybe he approaches it at his best moments.

Thoreau has many disciples in modern America.  I can feel his presence hovering over Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson.  I have known people who have taken up the call to simplify and turned to organic farming (ironic since Thoreau spends much of Walden attacking the cupidity of New England farmers).  Some have flourished and some have failed.  I've had students who have connected with Thoreau, particularly his essay Walking.  These students often come from families that spend a good deal of time hunting, thought I've also had one who was a nascent park ranger who particularly seemed to get it.  I have the most success in winning new admirers for Concord's Curmudgeon on our senior year "Thoreau Walks".  These are hour-and-a-half treks into the woods and farmlands that surround the school spent admiring nature and reading aphoristic passages from Walking.  One of the tragedies of living in Houston is that each year the available open space to walk has grown dramatically less.  This irony is far from lost on the students and it poses a real challenge to the die-hard-libertarian-no-zoning tendencies that all Houstonians have as a birth right.

So where do I fall in the end?  Preserving nature is second nature to me.  I grew up in a town with at least three sizable parks and a zoning laws that set some 11-15% of the land aside as open space.  One of these preserves was behind our house and even as a rather inactive child I benefited from it ways I can't even begin to express.  The wanton devastation of the natural world I've seen in just four years of living in North Houston appalls me.  On the other hand, I don't know that Thoreau provides a firm foundation from which to resist these depredations.  A sneer and a suggestion do not a coherent worldview make -not even a coherent argument.  So, in the end, I think Thoreau is a trailblazer.  He clears paths and suggests possible routes.  That's all he ever claimed to do.  It's up to us to chose the way.