Cautiously optimistic

Graffiti that I saw on my way into a metro station this morning: “Neither Macron nor Le Pen means Le Pen.” Picture source: me.

A very good thing about France: the French don’t really do protest votes.  That’s not to say that we don’t have the ni-nis—those who say that they won’t vote ni for Macron, ni for Le Pen.  A ni-ni might abstain, or voter blanc–-submit a blank ballot.  But, it’s not exactly a common thing in France.  France has a two-round election process, with multiple candidates in the first round, and only the top two finishers in the second (except in the unlikely event where someone takes more than 50% in the first round.) People sometimes say that you vote the first round with your heart, and the second round with your head.

I would say that Americans vote 80% on emotion, and 20% on the basis of their takes on the candidates’ actual policies.  (I don’t except myself from that; “one’s take on something” explained in the English notes below.)  In contrast, I would guess that the French tend to vote 20% on emotion, and 80% on the basis of their takes on the candidates’ actual policies.  I know plenty of people who aren’t at all crazy about Macron’s proposals for the economy, but given a choice between someone about whom they’re not crazy and some Nazi sociopath, of course they’re going to vote for the guy about whom they’re not crazy.  The photo above–some graffiti that I saw as I walked into a metro station this morning–is representative of the opinion of everyone with whom I’ve talked: deciding not to vote for either of them is to vote for Le Pen.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

–W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

The worry of most of the people I know is that Macron is so far ahead of Le Pen in the polls that everyone will assume that he’s going to win, and too many people will decide that they don’t need to vote, and then the Le Pen voters all show up, and boum–Le Pen wins.

I was never really all that struck by Yeats’ poem The Second Coming when I was an English major in college.  We mostly contented ourselves with showing off our knowledge of what a gyre is, and moved on to Beowulf, or Salman Rushdie.  But, ever since Obama got elected and the Republican Party went insane over the sight of a black man in the Oval Office, The Second Coming has become more and more meaningful to me.  With Trump in office, it has gone past “meaningful” towards “frightening”–at the very least, foreboding.

The polls in France close in four hours.  We’ll see what happens.

The Second Coming

W. B. Yeats, 1919

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

English notes

One’s “take on” something is your opinion, or analysis of, it.  Note that this is entirely different from the verbal idiom to take something/someone on.  

  • I want to comment on Trump’s take on the Civil War and Andrew Jackson… but, seriously, it hurts me. READ A BOOK!  (Twitter) (Context: Trump recently said something about a former populist president, Andrew Jackson, that is consistent with either (a) Trump being an uneducated idiot who, in particular, doesn’t know anything about American history, or (b) Trump being a very bad person.)
  • Gr8, some sources just hav a screwed up set of priorities. Who cares about Trump’s take on med marijuana when the health care plan sucks?! (Twitter) (Context: the Republican-controlled House of Representatives just voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a disaster.)
  • Trump’s take on Andrew Jackson isn’t astonishing; what is astonishing is that this country elected an ignorant pussy-grabbing Richie Rich.  (Twitter)
  • My take on Trump is that he just wants to be liked by whoever is in front of him, which makes him inconsistent and unreliable.  (Twitter)
  • My take on Trump’s worse-than-worthless briefing to every senator on the North Korean problem.  (Twitter) (Context: here’s a link to the Tweeter’s article on Trump’s attempt to swing the Senate in his favor with respect to whatever crap he’s brewing concerning North Korea.)

How I used it in the post: I would say that Americans vote 80% on emotion, and 20% on the basis of their takes on the candidates’ actual policies.  

Dulce et decorum est

Engine room, Liberty Ship John W Brown 2012_284_4718-1024x677
Engine room of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown. Picture source:

I spent my last few years in the Navy working in cardiac catheterization labs, doing physiological monitoring–mostly hemodynamics and electrophysiology.  I started out on a ship, though–working in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser.  It was hot down there–the coolest that it got was under one of the giant air vents, where it was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius).

The good side of being on a naval vessel is visiting cool ports of call, seeing the sun and the moon both in the sky at sunrise after a midnight watch, eating roasted squid in Spain–stuff like that.  The bad side is the Navy’s equivalent of combat training.  At the time, that involved a few weeks in the Caribbean, doing “casualty drills” over, and over, and over again, until you could get them right over, and over, and over again.

When a ship is on the receiving end of a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack, you put on gas masks, and you shut its openings down completely while some guys put on serious protective gear, go up on the decks, and scrub down every inch of the vessel.  This takes a long time–my ship, the USS Biddle, was 547 feet (167 meters) long.

So, there you are down in the engine room.  The alarm for an NBC attack (nuclear/chemical/biological) is sounded.  You put on your gas mask and you shut off all of the ventilation–in a space where it was already 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the cool places.  Then you watch the temperature start to rise.

When you learn how to put on a gas mask, they teach you what to do if you vomit with the gas mask on.  (If you can think of a way to not end that sentence with a preposition, I’d love to hear about it.)  This is super-necessary, because one of the old dirty tricks of gas warfare is to mix in an emetic with the gas.  An emetic is something that makes you vomit–the idea is to get you vomiting in the hopes that you’ll rip your gas mask off, in which case you’re toast.  (To be toast explained in the English notes below.)  So, you know what to do if you vomit–but, there’s nothing to be done about what happens when you’re in a super-hot space with a gas mask on, which is that the parts around your eyes fill up with sweat to the point that you can’t see anymore.  We’d sit there, our eye ports filling up with sweat, and watch the thermometer go up, and up, and up.

The temperature in an unventilated engine room goes up fast.  Around 120-130 degrees, the air is so hot that it’s painful to breathe, and when I say painful, I mean really painful.  It’s very quickly so hot that they call it a day for the engineering spaces and let you take off your gas mask and open the ventilation again.  Now, as I said, it takes a long time to scrub down a ship–but, it was clear to everyone that there was no way that we were going to be able to survive that long with the ventilation shut down.  So much for What To Do In Case Of NBC Attack.

Today’s bow to National Poetry Month is about a gas attack.  It’s by Wilfred Owen, an Englishman who fought in the Great War.  You tend to think of poets as wispy, ethereal types who you wouldn’t want backing you up in a tight spot; Wilfred Owen is a pretty good counter-example to this widely-held prejudice.  He was one of the great poets of the First World War–the poem that you’ll find below was the first one I ever memorized that didn’t involve words that I don’t really dare to put on this blog.  He was also a gay man who wrote what appears to be a poem about anonymous sex–and a decorated military hero who volunteered to go to the front repeatedly, even after being wounded twice in artillery shellings.  He was awarded the Military Cross–here’s the text of the commendation:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.  (Copied from Wikipedia.)

Before the war, he spent several years teaching French and English in France.  He died there just days before the Armistice–in action.


by Wilfred Owen

blood-shod is an amazing neologism.  “To be shod” means something like “to have footgear (e.g. shoes, boots, and the like).”  Examples below in the English notes.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

“…the white eyes writhing in his face…” Victim of gas attack by the Syrian government. Picture source:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

You can find readings of this very famous poem here.

English notes

Examples of shod:

  • All horses’ hooves are healthier without shoes, and barefoot horses are healthier than shod horses.  (Source)
  • The foot evolved to function unshod. (Source)
  • Paul says in verse 15 that we are to have our feet “shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” (Source)

to be toast: to be in a bad situation, to be in trouble.



Juventud, divino tesoro

…con el cabello gris, me acerco a los rosales del jardín…

Darío lived in Paris for 4 months–who knew? 4, rue Herschel, 75006. Picture source: DanielaBPSept.

For National Poetry Month, here’s some Rubén Darío.  I first came across this poem sitting in a night class at Old Dominion University, purveyor of fine educational experiences to a wide range of traditional and non-traditional students, including a hell of a lot of sailors.  The first stanza was carved into the top of the desk at which I was sitting (the desk I was sitting at, more commonly):

Juventud, divino tesoro,
¡ya te vas para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro…
y a veces lloro sin querer…

Youth, divine treasure, // you’re gone, never to return! // When I want to cry, I can’t… // and sometimes I cry without wanting to….

I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever read, and in isolation, it most certainly, certainly is.

In isolation.  And, oddly: even more so at 25 or so than at 55.

Eventually, I tracked down the rest of the poem–much harder back in those pre-Google days–and made it to the end.

Mas a pesar del tiempo
terco, mi sed de amor no tiene fin;
con el cabello gris, me acerco a los
rosales del jardín…

But despite pig-headed // time, my thirst for love is endless; // gray-haired, I approach the rose-bushes in the garden…

(Don’t feel bad–I had to look up terco, too.)

As the grandson of a man who started a new family in the United States in his 60s (¡muy fuerte!, say my Mexican buddies when I tell them the story–I’ll spare you the accompanying gesture of admiration), I think I get the metaphor.  You go, pépère.  You go, Rubén.  Do I ever cry without wanting to?  Rarely–I am certainly an American male of my generation–but, yeah: it happens.  Nonetheless: I’m headed out to the back porch for a cigarette next to the lilacs, and the plum tree, and the flowering chestnut…


Juventud, divino tesoro,
¡ya te vas para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro…
y a veces lloro sin querer…

Plural ha sido la celeste
historia de mi corazón.
Era una dulce niña,
en este mundo de duelo y de aflicción.

Miraba como el alba pura;
sonreía como una flor.
Era su cabellera obscura

hecha de noche y de dolor.
Yo era tímido como un niño.

Ella, naturalmente, fue,
para mi amor hecho de armiño,

Herodías y Salomé…
Juventud, divino tesoro,
¡ya te vas para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro…
y a veces lloro sin querer…

Y más consoladora y más
halagadora y expresiva,
la otra fue más sensitiva
cual no pensé encontrar jamás.
Pues a su continua ternura
una pasión violenta unía.
En un peplo de gasa pura
una bacante se envolvía…

En sus brazos tomó mi ensueño
y lo arrulló como a un bebé…
Y te mató, triste y pequeño,
falto de luz, falto de fe…

Juventud, divino tesoro,
¡te fuiste para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro…
y a veces lloro sin querer…

Otra juzgó que era mi boca
el estuche de su pasión;
y que me roería, loca,

con sus dientes el corazón.

Poniendo en un amor de exceso

la mira de su voluntad,
mientras eran abrazo y beso
síntesis de la eternidad;

y de nuestra carne ligera
imaginar siempre un Edén,
sin pensar que la Primavera
y la carne acaban también…

Juventud, divino tesoro,
¡ya te vas para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro…
y a veces lloro sin querer.

¡Y las demás! En tantos
climas, en tantas tierras siempre son,
si no pretextos de mis rimas
fantasmas de mi corazón.

En vano busqué a la princesa

que estaba triste de esperar.
La vida es dura. Amarga y pesa.
¡Ya no hay princesa que cantar!

Mas a pesar del tiempo
terco, mi sed de amor no tiene fin;
con el cabello gris, me acerco a los
rosales del jardín…

Juventud, divino tesoro,
¡ya te vas para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro…
y a veces lloro sin querer…
¡Mas es mía el Alba de oro!

Red, but not off-color

I can’t find a picture of Dimitar Pantaleev, so here’s a picture of Schliemann’s wife. I’ve loved it since childhood, though I couldn’t tell you why.  Here she’s dressed in jewelry that they dug up in Turkey. Picture source: Storia Illustrata n. 167. Public domain.

My father once told me that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann spoke 14 languages, all of which (other than his native German) he learnt by memorizing a book in the language.  Whether or not this is true, I don’t know–my father’s level of willingness to just make things up is non-zero (although never malicious).  But, memorizing things in your language of choice makes as much sense to me as any other way of learning a language, and it’s certainly more fun than memorizing long lists of vocabulary.  Unfortunately, my choices of what to memorize are mostly drawn from the stuff that I like to read, which means that (from what I’m told), way too much of what comes out of my mouth is either off-color (Céline, Queneau) or marivaudage (Laclos, Molière).  (See the English notes below for what off-color means.)

As National Poetry Month continues, here’s the first poem that I ever tried to memorize in Bulgarian.  I only got as far as the first stanza, which may explain why my Bulgarian sucks (see here for a good example of the trouble you can get into when you don’t speak Bulgarian quite as well as you think you do).  By Dimitar Pantaleev, in theory it’s a Communist poem, although I don’t understand why, since it’s entirely anti-authoritarian–the title means I cross against a red light.  Also, as far as I can tell, he was considered a formalist, and Communists (Reds, if you will) were pretty anti-formalism, to the best of my (very limited) knowledge.

Amazingly, the poem was recorded as a song by the officially government-sanctioned rock group Diana Express.  The production is as unfortunate as most music recorded in the 1980s that wasn’t either Joan Armatrading, Simon and Garfunkel, or Elton John, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t spend $0.99 (literally) to buy it on Amazon, just for its inherent cool-value.  Amazingly, these guys are still around–here’s footage of them giving a concert two months ago in Atlanta, Georgia.

минавам на червена светлина

by Dimitar Pantaleev

Аз пазя свято земните закони,
но в дни, когато леден дъжд се рони
и трябвада спася една старица,
едно дете, една ранена птица
или една разплакана жена –
минавам на червена светлина.

Когато гинат младите тополи,
когато нечий глас за помощ моли
или когато в топлата ни есен
внезапно слъхва млада чиста песен
по чужда необмислена вина –
минавам на червена светлина.

А някой път, когато трябва смело
да се спаси едно човешко дело,
една любов или една страна,
провиквам се на кръстопътя ясно:
минете, въпреки, че е опасно,
минете на червена светлина.

English notes

Off-color means something like not quite obscene, but not quite OK, either, at least not for the context.  Here are some examples from the OPUS2 and enTenTen13 corpora, collections of 1.1 million and 19.7 billion words of English, respectively, that I searched through the Sketch Engine web site, purveyors of fine linguistic data in more languages than I care to count.  You’ll notice that it frequently modifies either joke or remark, and almost always a noun whose semantics have inherently to do with communication–

  • It’s an off-color remark, it was highly inappropriate.
  • Tom never tells off-color jokes.
  • You also need to be careful of the language you use – nothing off-color, or discriminatory.
  • For the most part, Smith said she overlooked the off-color jokes, sexist remarks and rituals that permeated the fighter pilot culture.
  • The event host was Leonard Maltin who remained professional during an event riddled with technical problems and a few off-color moments.
  • on many other websites normal people converse sans real names and do so without rancor, without hostility, without profanity, without racism, without sexism, without misogyny, without venom, without bile, without hatred, bigotry, obscenity and lame off-color jokes.
  • A disgruntled employee, or one with an off-color sense of humor, could post something reckless under the company’s name.
  • One of the most vivid characters in the show, whose off-color tantrums have become an audience favorite the way Kramer’s clumsy entrances once were.
  • This is the time to Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! in terms of cursing and off-color talk.
  • Crow is the most likely of the four movie-riffers to make off-color or lewd comments during the film, and receives frequent scoldings from Joel, Mike, and occasionally Tom because of this habit (see Crow Syndrome ).
  • And we hear what is believed to be Tiger telling an off-color joke.
  • Sure this is an extreme case but it’s a reminder that we all eventually have that moment when we get a complainer, an off-color remark, or misleading information posted by users on our social media sites.
  • The humor here is ribald and off-color and noone is safe from abuse including tuners, parents and vendors.
  • You’ll be teaching him the principles of keyword searching; at the same time, you’ll be able to steer him away from off-base or off-color content.

To get a really solid sense of how to use off-color, it’s useful to look at the other words that it occurs with.  (With which it occurs, if you prefer your sentences non-preposition-final.)  Here’s a screen shot of something called a “word sketch”–again, from the Sketch Engine web site.  Scroll down past the figure and I’ll talk you through it.

Screenshot 2017-04-14 06.01.28
Picture source: screen shot from the Sketch Engine web site.

At the top left, you see the adverbial modifiers that are most commonly associated with off-color.  Note that they are similar–mildly and slightly.  What you’re not seeing here are intensifiers–you wouldn’t typically say that something is very or horribly “off-color.”  Why?  I don’t know–that’s just the statistical tendency with this adjective.  You certainly could say that–but, a native speaker probably wouldn’t.

In the next column, you see the nouns that have the strongest statistical associations with off-color.  You won’t be surprised to see that the most common ones are joke, remark, and humor.  Most of the other words with strong statistical associations are other nouns that refer to humor–gag, limerick, hilarity, quip, banter, antic, and pun.

The next column over is a nice example of how you can get insight into a word by seeing what other words it’s joined with by and or or.  Most of the words that are joined with off-color in this way fall into one of two categories: they’re either related to humor, or they’re clearly negative.  The first category is related to the fact that off-color itself is so often used to modify joke and, as we saw in the preceding paragraph, other words that refer to humor.  In that category, we have:

  • hilarious
  • quirky
  • humorous
  • funny

In the second category, we have:

  • tasteless
  • vulgar
  • inappropriate
  • incorrect
  • crude
  • offensive
  • racist
  • rude
  • dirty
  • racial

If you had any questions about whether being off-color is good or bad, this should make it pretty clear to you that it’s not good.

In case you’re wondering: no, Sketch Engine does not pay me to shill for them.  In fact, I pay them quite a bit of money every year for access to their corpora and search engine.

Just because you’re a poet doesn’t mean you can’t kick ass

Operation Iraqi Freedom II
An LVTP7 amphibious assault vehicle. Picture source: USMC.

One day some decades ago, the amphibious assault vehicle in which I was riding around Camp Pendleton, California while we practiced assaulting hills and the like made an unplanned stop.  I reached into one of those voluminous pockets that military uniforms tend to be covered with and pulled out a book to read while the platoon leader tried to figure out where the fuck we were.  Whatcha reading, Doc?, some big, bulky Marine or another asked me.  (I was a medic in the Navy.  The US Marines don’t have their own medical personnel–they’re all provided by the Navy.  This came as a surprise to lots of young men who volunteered to join the Navy during Vietnam thinking that there was no better way to avoid finding yourself in a rice paddy with leeches on your scrotum and somebody shooting at you than working in a naval hospital–and then found themselves in a rice paddy with leeches on their scrota and somebody shooting at them.  Technically, the term for a Navy medic is hospital corpsman, but by long tradition, the Marines call us “Doc.”  But, back to Camp Pendleton…)

The social animal, I said.  Social psychology.  (You might think that I wouldn’t remember what I was reading in the early 1980s–but, the paperback fit perfectly in my left thigh pocket.  My right thigh pocket was for a bag of licorice.  You never know when you will/won’t get to eat, and licorice doesn’t leave your hands covered with melted chocolate.)  Social psychology…hm… I like to read about history, myself, said the big, bulky Marine.  The Wars of the Roses–that was some crazy shit…  The second lieutenant gave the staff sergeant an embarrassed smile and folded up his map; the big, bulky Marine and I climbed back into our hatches; and we all went back to assaulting whatever we were practicing assaulting–the Wars of the Roses would wait.  In the military, every branch has their stereotypical insults for the other branches, and everyone’s insult for the Marines is that they’re stupid, but I’ll tell you this: I know exactly two guys who dropped out of high school, joined the service, and then got a doctorate, and the one who isn’t me is a Marine.  (I don’t say “was” a Marine, because once a Marine, always a Marine, and they are, indeed, bad motherfuckers.  “Bad motherfucker” explained in the English notes below.)

You tend to think of poets as ethereal, wispy types who are super-sensitive and probably wouldn’t be the person you would want to cover your back if you got into a fight in a metro station.  However, if you’ve been paying attention to the stuff that we’ve been reading for National Poetry Month, you’re already aware that there are plenty of counter-examples to that.  Case in point: Guillaume Apollinaire.  He may or may not have been sensitive, but he was definitely a serious scrapper.  He tried to join the army when the First World War came to France in August 1914, but was turned away due to not being a French citizen.  No problem–he left Paris and headed south-east to Nice and tried again, this time successfully.  He was initially assigned to an artillery unit, but this wasn’t hard-core enough for him, so he got himself transferred to a decimated infantry unit, picking up a promotion to second lieutenant in the process.  (That’s a very low rank for an officer, but for an enlisted man to get promoted to it is a pretty big deal.)

Calligramme. Public domain.

Apollinaire was one of the greats of French poetry; if you’ve only heard of one French poem, it was probably his Le pont Mirabeau.  One of his innovations was his role in the development of what’s known as “concrete poetry.”  It is “concrete” in the sense that not just its linguistic elements, but its typographic shape are essential to the poem.  The one to the left is my favorite of his works in this genre.  In the form of the Eiffel Tower, the words translate something like this:

Hello, world of which I am the eloquent tongue.  Oh Paris, may your tongue stick out, and stick out always, at the Germans.  

Guillaume Apollinaire. Public domain.

Now, being poetry, it is, of course, a bit more complicated than that.  What I’ve given here as “may your tongue stick out” comes from a volume of translations of Apollinaire  by Anne Greet and S.I. Lockerbie that I like.  “To stick one’s tongue out” is a plausible translation of tirer la bouche, but it’s not necessarily the most obvious one.  Certainly it fits with the facts that (a) Apollinaire refers to la langue éloquante, “the elegant tongue,” and the Eiffel Tower does have a tongue-like shape.  But, given that this was written by a guy who was putting his life on the line in the trenches at the time, I tend to think that he was playing on another meaning of the verb tirer: to fire a weapon.  For a poet in an infantry unit, the metaphor of the mouth as a weapon (que sa bouche…tire et tirera toujours aux Allemands) is certainly an apt one.

A cardiac catheterization lab. Picture source: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The Navy eventually sent me to school, and I finished my time in the service in a cardiac catheterization lab, which over the course of some rather bizarre decades led to me being a faculty member at a medical school, where I specialize in biomedical language.  Apollinaire caught a shell fragment in the temple (when a bombardment started while he was reading a literary magazine, they say); although he survived trepanning, he never fully recovered, and in his weakened condition, died in the flu epidemic of 1918.  Whenever I visit the Panthéon, I take a moment to slip away from my friends and find his name on the (long) list of writers who gave their lives for France–and to pay my respects.

English notes

bad motherfucker: One of the cute things about American English is that bad–and similar words, depending on the region of the country that you’re in–can have positive connotations.  (Connotation is the cultural meaning of a word, as opposed to its denotation, which you could think of as its “dictionary meaning.”  Connotation and culture both start with a C; denotation and dictionary both start with a d.  That’s how remember them, at any rate.)

So: a bad motherfucker is someone who is really tough, with some implication that this toughness involves fighting.  You would want to be called a bad motherfucker.  When I was a kid, it was common to use bad to mean something like cool, impressive–our favorite bands were “bad,” a nice leather jacket was “bad,” etc.

The spelling of “smart” as “smaht” here is important, in that it’s meant to reflect the stereotypical regional pronunciation of the Northeast US, where this use of “wicked” comes from.

Less common, but incontestably much cooler, is the use of wicked to mean “very” in front of an adjective, especially one with a positive meaning.  I believe it’s a Northeast thing, although I’ve seen it as far west as Oregon.  Scroll down for lots of examples.

Screenshot 2017-04-09 02.09.11


The spelling of “smart” as “smaht” here is important, in that it’s meant to reflect the stereotypical regional pronunciation of the Northeast US, where this use of “wicked” comes from.



Danse macabre: the illustrated version

fleurs du mal larousse
The Larousse version of Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs du mal.” Picture source: me.

Being old, bald, and fat, I don’t get a lot of admiring glances when I ride the train to work in the mornings.  I do, however, get a lot of funny looks when I pull out a book to read.  The reason: I’m fond of reading French literature, but I tend to read it in the sorts of annotated versions of a work that you would read if you were a middle-school student in France (collégien in French, I think–roughly 7th and 8th grades in the American system).  For me, they’re perfect–they have definitions in simple French of the kinds of words that the editors think will be difficult for a French child, which as a non-native speaker, I have trouble with myself.  (Think back to the footnoted versions of Shakespeare that you read in high school and college.)  If this kind of thing interests you, you can find them used by the score (see this post for an explanation of what by the score means) in boxes in front of the Boulinier bookstore on boulevard Saint Michel in the Quartier Latin.  They’re so cheap–typically one euro–that there’s no reason not to by multiple versions of a play that you’re planning to see.  (17th-century French theater is actually probably more intelligible than Shakespeare is in English, although as is the case with Shakespeare, it’s a good idea to read a play before you go see it.)  I find it interesting to see the contrast between the sorts of things that one would (not) dare to teach middle-school students in the US and the sorts of things that one can teach middle-school children in France–definitely edgier in France.

In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s some Baudelaire, from Les fleurs du mal.  Baudelaire popularized poetry about cities, as opposed to nature, glorified ad nauseum by Romanticism.  In his delightful book The flâneur, Edmund White describes him as “the great apostle of dandyism,” which explains a lot about the picture of him that you see below.  Odd 6-degrees-of-separation stuff: he went to high school across the street from the university where my grandfather would later study.

Danse macabre

Charles Baudelaire

A Ernest Christophe

Picture source:

Fière, autant qu’un vivant, de sa noble stature,
Avec son gros bouquet, son mouchoir et ses gants,
Elle a la nonchalance et la désinvolture
D’une coquette maigre aux airs extravagants.

Note the inversion that moves un soulier pomponné, joli comme une fleur to the end of the sentence, indicated only by the relative maker que rather than qui.

s’écrouler: to fall, e.g. le mur s’est écroulé, s’écrouler sur le canapé.

Vit-on jamais au bal une taille plus mince ?
Sa robe exagérée, en sa royale ampleur,
S’écroule abondamment sur un pied sec que pince
Un soulier pomponné, joli comme une fleur.

la ruche: a strip of pleated cloth (see picture above)

lascif: sensual, lascivious

lazzi: jibes, ribbing

appas: “charms”

La ruche qui se joue au bord des clavicules,
Comme un ruisseau lascif qui se frotte au rocher,
Défend pudiquement des lazzi ridicules
Les funèbres appas qu’elle tient à cacher.

frêle: fragile, frail

attifé: dressed, not necessarily well

Ses yeux profonds sont faits de vide et de ténèbres,
Et son crâne, de fleurs artistement coiffé,
Oscille mollement sur ses frêles vertèbres.
Ô charme d’un néant follement attifé.

Note ivre here and enivré later.

armature: framework; also the underwiring of a bra, although I don’t know whether or not that sense was current in Baudelaire’s time

Aucuns t’appelleront une caricature,
Qui ne comprennent pas, amants ivres de chair,
L’élégance sans nom de l’humaine armature.
Tu réponds, grand squelette, à mon goût le plus cher !

éperonner: to spur, to spur on; also to ram

encor: an old literary spelling of “encore”

Viens-tu troubler, avec ta puissante grimace,
La fête de la Vie ? ou quelque vieux désir,
Éperonnant encor ta vivante carcasse,
Te pousse-t-il, crédule, au sabbat du Plaisir ?

Au chant des violons, aux flammes des bougies,
Espères-tu chasser ton cauchemar moqueur,
Et viens-tu demander au torrent des orgies
De rafraîchir l’enfer allumé dans ton coeur ?

aspic: asp

errer: to wander, roam, rove

Inépuisable puits de sottise et de fautes !
De l’antique douleur éternel alambic !
A travers le treillis recourbé de tes côtes
Je vois, errant encor, l’insatiable aspic.

Love the ne expletif after craindre!

Pour dire vrai, je crains que ta coquetterie
Ne trouve pas un prix digne de ses efforts ;
Qui, de ces coeurs mortels, entend la raillerie ?
Les charmes de l’horreur n’enivrent que les forts !

gouffre: gulf, chasm, abyss

Le gouffre de tes yeux, plein d’horribles pensées,
Exhale le vertige, et les danseurs prudents
Ne contempleront pas sans d’amères nausées
Le sourire éternel de tes trente-deux dents.

Pourtant, qui n’a serré dans ses bras un squelette,
Et qui ne s’est nourri des choses du tombeau ?
Qu’importe le parfum, l’habit ou la toilette ?
Qui fait le dégoûté montre qu’il se croit beau.

bayadère: sacred dancer from India

gouge: old word for a prostitute

offusqué: offended

musqé: musky

Bayadère sans nez, irrésistible gouge,
Dis donc à ces danseurs qui font les offusqués :
” Fiers mignons, malgré l’art des poudres et du rouge,
Vous sentez tous la mort ! Ô squelettes musqués,

Antinoüs: according to the footnotes in my middle-school-student version, jeune esclave d’une beauté parfaite, qui était le favori de l’empereur Hadrien

flétri: faded (beauty), withered, wilted (like the roses sitting on my table–I really need to toss them)

dandy: in Baudelaire, this is a compliment, as you might guess from the painting of him at left

glabre: clean-shaven, smooth-skinned (

lovelace: séducteur pervers et cynique, according to the footnotes in my middle school version of the poem

chenu: white-haired from age

le branle: a kind of dance.  (If you are French: you can just imagine what happens when you try looking for videos of this on YouTube)

Antinoüs flétris, dandys, à face glabre,
Cadavres vernissés, lovelaces chenus,
Le branle universel de la danse macabre
Vous entraîne en des lieux qui ne sont pas connus !

se pâmer: to faint; to swoon, either literally or in a state of strong emotion, whether good (with synonyms délirer, exulter, se griser, s’émerveiller, s’enthousiasmer, s’exalter, s’extasier) or bad (elle s’est pâmée de douleur).

béant: gaping, wide open, cavernous

le tromblon: blunderbuss

Des quais froids de la Seine aux bords brûlants du Gange,
Le troupeau mortel saute et se pâme, sans voir
Dans un trou du plafond la trompette de l’Ange
Sinistrement béante ainsi qu’un tromblon noir.

la contorsion: contorsion, but also “a face” in the sense of “to make a face”

En tout climat, sous tout soleil, la Mort t’admire
En tes contorsions, risible Humanité,
Et souvent, comme toi, se parfumant de myrrhe,
Mêle son ironie à ton insanité ! “

Returning of issue: the illustrated version

Henry Reed’s “Returning of issue” for Day 6 of National Poetry Month.

Returning of issue is the sixth and final part of Henry Reed’s Lessons of the war cycle.  Published two and a half decades after Naming of parts, it is in two voices, like the rest of the cycle, but they are difficult to tell apart.  The recording of the poem on the Sole Arabia Tree web site (follow the link and scroll down to the bottom of the page) differentiates the two voices very nicely; it’s also a somewhat different version of the poem, and you may find the differences interesting.  The version that you see here is the written one from the aforementioned site.

From a linguistic point of view, the most obvious (to me, anyways) thing going on in this poem is that Reed goes back to plays on the various meanings of the English word issue, and in the case of this poem–as opposed to his Unarmed combat–the sense of progeny is one of the meanings that he draws on, as the sadder parts of the poem are a dialogue with the trainee’s deceased father.  Here are a couple of the relatively obscure items of vocabulary–scroll down past the illustrations to find the poem.

A sergeant-major is a very senior enlisted man in the US military; in the UK of Reed’s time, I think it was a warrant officer. The “RSM” of the poem is the regimental sergeant major, a leadership position that is held by someone who has been in the military for quite a while. The photo is of a British RSM; no date, sorry. Picture source:
In theory, “stupefaction” is the state of being surprised into silence. You’ll also hear it use to mean something like a state of silence or dullness from any cause whatsoever. Picture source:

Reed, Henry. “Returning of Issue.” Listener 84, no. 2170 (29 October 1970): 596-597.



Tomorrow will be your last day here. Someone is speaking:
A familiar voice, speaking again at all of us.
And beyond the windows— it is inside now, and autumn—
On a wind growing daily harsher, small things to the earth
Are turning and whirling, small. Tomorrow will be
Your last day here,

But not we hope for always. You cannot see through the windows
If they are leaves or flowers. We hope that many of you
Will be coming back for good. Silence, and stupefaction.
The coarsening wind and the things whirling upon it
Scour that rough stamping-ground where we so long
Have spent our substance,

As the trees are spending theirs. How much of mine have I spent,
Father, oh father? How sorry we are to lose you
I do not have to say, since the sergeant-major
Has said it, the RSM has said it, and the colonel
Has sent over a message to say that he also says it.
Everyone sorry to lose us,

And you, oh father, father, once sorry too. I think
I can honestly say you are one and all of you now:
Soldiers. Silence, and disbelief. A fact that will stand you
In pretty good stead in the various jobs you go back to.
I wish you the best of luck. Silence. And all of you know
You can think of us here, as home.

As home: a home we shall any of you welcome you back to.
Most of you have, I know, some sort of work waiting for you,
And the rest of you now being, thanks to us, fit and able,
Will be bound to find something. I begin to be in want.
Would any citizen of this country send me
Into his fields? And

Before I finalise: one thing about tomorrow
I must make perfectly clear. Tomorrow is clear already:
I saw myself once, but now am by time forbidden
To see myself so: as the man who went evil ways,
Till lie determined, in time of famine, to seek
His father’s home.

Autumn is later down there: it should now be the time
Of vivacious triumph in the fruitful fields.
As he approached, he ran over his speeches of sorrow,
Not less of truth for being much-rehearsed:
The last distilment from a long and inward
Discourse of heartbreak. And

The first thing you do, after first thing tomorrow morning,
Is, those that leave not been previously detailed to do so,
Which I think is the case in most cases, is a systematic
Returning of issue. It is all-important
You should restore to store one of every store issued.
And in the case of two, two.

And I, as always late, shall never know that lifted fear
When the small hard-working master of those fields
Looked up. I trembled. But his heart came out to me
With a shout of compassion. And all my speech was only:
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and am no more worthy
To be called thy son.’

But if I cried it, father, you could not hear me now,
Where now you lie, crumpled in that small grave
Like any withering dog. Your fields are sold and built on,
Your lanes are filled with husks the swine reject.
I scoop them in my hands. I have earned no more; and more
I shall not inherit. And

A careful check will be made of every such object
That was issued to each personnel originally,
And checked at issue. And let me be quite implicit:
That no accoutrements, impedimentas, fittings, or military garments
May be taken as souvenirs. The one exception is shirts,
And whatever you wear underneath.

These may be kept, those that wish. But the rest of the issue
Must be returned, except who intend to rejoin
In regular service. Silence. Which involves a simple procedure
I will explain in a simple group to those that rejoin.
Now, how many will that be? Silence. No one? No one at all?
I see. Very well. I have up to now

Spoken with the utmost of mildness. I speak so still,
But it does seem to me a bit of a bloody pity,
A bit un-bloody-feeling, after the all
We have bloody done for you, you should sit on your dumb bloody arses,
Just waiting like bloody milksops till I bloody dismiss you.
Silence, embarrassed, but silent.

And am I to break it, father, to break this silence?
Is there no bloody man among you? Not one bloody single one?
I will break the silence, father. Yes, sergeant, I will stay
In a group of one. Father, be proud of me.
Oh splendid, man! And for Christ’s sake, tell them all,
Why you are doing this.

Why am I doing this? And is it too late to say no?
Come speak out, man: tell us, and shame these bastards.
I hope to shame no one, sergeant, in simply wishing
To remain a personnel. I have been such a thing before.
It was good, and simple; and it was the best I could do.
Here is a man, men! Silence.

Silence, indeed. How could I tell them, now?
I have nowhere else to go? How could I say
I have no longer gift or want; or how describe
The inexplicable tears that filled my eyes
When the poor sergeant said: ‘After the all
We have bloody done for you’?

Goodbye forever, father, after the all you have done for me.
Soon I must start to forget you; but how to forget
That reconcilement, never enacted between us,
Which should have been ours, under the autumn sun?
I can see it and feel it now, clearer than daylight, clearer
For one brief moment, now,

Than even the astonished faces of my fellows,
The sergeant’s uneasy smile, the trees, the relief at choosing
To learn once more the things I shall one day teach:
A rhetoric instead of words; instead of a love, the use
Of accoutrements, impedimenta, and fittings, and military garments,
And harlots, and riotous living.