Beware the inexperienced expert

The road beside the river tends to flood
When autumn storms bring rainfall to the hills.
Your wagons and your horses, mired in mud
Are trapped until the water rises, and it kills.
The mountain passes close with winter snows,
The desert’s parched in summer’s white-hot days.
The road that looks the safest often goes
To nothing but a hovel, thick with strays.
A canny guide is worth her weight in gold
When maps are not enough, and no one knows
When caution suits and when you must be bold,
And when to give up on the route you chose.
You wouldn’t trust a guide who’d never been
Along the road, and learned from what she’s seen.

Originally posted on Making Light.

5 Little-Known Things About Me

Martin tagged me with this meme, after I took the pictures for his entry. No photos in mine, I’m afraid, but here are five things you probably didn’t know about me.

  1. The bass line
    I have a real affinity for the bass line in music. I love the way a well-written piece will use it to buoy up the melody. I first learned to appreciate it in high school, when I played the bass clarinet (ordinary clarinet didn’t suit my snobbish elitism). Now, although I am technically a soprano, I prefer to sing alto.
  2. Black? Not so much
    Although you can’t tell it by looking at me, black is not actually my favourite colour. I like wearing it, but I prefer looking at shades of green (not too bright) and purple.
  3. Not long all along
    Although I am known for my long hair, I haven’t always worn it this way. When I was 13, I had it cut in a Princess Di style. That lasted less than a year, before I decided I did prefer having it long.
  4. Feats of toughness
    When I was a teenager, I almost never wore shoes in the summer (“summer” being defined as April to October in California). Inevitably, I developed some amazing calluses on my feet. I used to be able to pirouette barefoot on concrete without pain. I gave it up when I moved to Scotland, mostly because we lived in a couple of areas where the dog owners have no manners.
  5. Fabric Fussiness
    I learned to sew when I was 13 or 14, and have been making clothes on and off since then (it’s handy when you don’t match the dominant body shape, or the current taste in styling). This means I’ve handled a lot of different fabrics, and learned a lot about their different properties. Each type of material has its own hand. Over time, I have come to prefer – strongly – the hands of natural fibres such as wool, cotton, linen and silk over synthetic ones. Synthetics have a perceptible greasiness that repels me. I rarely buy anything of artificial fibre now, particularly to wear against my skin.

Dear readers, now it is your turn. Surprise me.

The inevitable fate of a knitting blog

The threads on Making Light are known to drift —
In that, it’s just like any other place.
But they do more. They tangle, twist and lift,
Then knot and unknot, twine and interlace.
We spin threads out to unexpected length
And tug them sideways till they interact.
The intersections give the site its strength:
It stretches when it’s stressed, but stays intact.
And if our needled comments don’t create
Harmonious intarsial designs,
Our crotchets still keep threads from running straight,
Since we prefer to write with crooked lines.
When topics tangle, we rejoice. We’d whinge
If threads hung straight, since all we’d have is fringe.

Originally posted, astonishingly enough, on Making Light.

Caffeinated IV

Your coffee can open your eyes.
The finest Arabica bean,
Is grown where the morning sun lies
On mountainsides covered in green.

The finest Arabica bean,
The delicate Indian leaf,
On mountainsides covered in green
Is grown amid hunger and grief.

The delicate Indian leaf
To go in your afternoon tea
Is grown among hunger and grief
Of people whom you never see.

To go in your afternoon tea:
That dollop of pain in your drink
Of people whom you never see.
Before you enjoy, stop to think.

That dollop of pain in your drink
Is grown where the morning sun lies.
Before you enjoy, stop to think.
Your coffee can open your eyes.

Part of a post to a caffeine poetry slam on Making Light (starting at about comment 79).

Caffeinated I

The two contenders joust with poetry:
A caffeine-fueled SF sonnet slam.
Fragano takes the part of honest tea
And Will is coffee’s advocate. Hot damn!
The verses fly. Will has the grounds to show
His drink produces forceful, urgent verse.
Fragano’s meditative sonnets go
To prove that tea leaves poets none the worse.
Now me, I drink them both, but take up arms
Against the two as well, if they’re not bought
From sources where the people on the farms
That grow them are rewarded as they ought.
So write your verse and drink your drinks, you two,
But just make sure it’s Fairtrade when you brew.

Part of a post to a caffeine poetry slam on Making Light (starting at about comment 79).

The Monkey Kings

This is a dark one. It came out of a conversation in mid-December, which strayed into a conflation between the three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and the three Wise Men. Everyone else was very lighthearted, but I have never found the monkeys joyous. That kind of denial of the world around them always saddens me.

O Melchior, you brought me gifts of gold
To make a crown that you refuse to see:
You hide your eyes lest kingship make me bold,
Seduce me on the heights, corrupting me.
And Balthasar, who gave me frankincense,
Is deaf to my pronouncements. Are your fears
That I’d usurp my Father so intense
That cowering, you cover up your ears?
My Caspar, bringing myrrh, forsees such loss
And closes fast his mouth, unreconciled
To thoughts of death, the shadow of the cross:
A monstrous gift to bring a newborn child.
Dear kings, this all was planned, and you might trust
I’ll do not what I choose, but what I must.

Technically, I am not very satisfied with this poem. The language is strained – I should have rewritten it a few times before posting it, but I doubt I will ever go back and do so. It’s a rare example of a sonnet where I haven’t used an octave and sestet structure, but rather three balanced quatrains summarised by a couplet. It fits the three-part structures of both of the stories that converge in this sonnet.

In content terms, I found it very easy to map the three kings to the three monkeys. Caspar, in particular, works well as the wise man foreshadowing the death of the infant receiving his gift, struck mute by the horror of what he has to convey. The others hide out of fear, but he does so out of pity. The point of the poem, of course, is that none of them have the full picture, which is deeper and more frightening than they can possibly imagine.

I do think, before I start doing these in my Christmas cards, that I will have to choose more cheery themes.

What to Name the War?

I wrote this in November, on a thread about what to call the war. It’s actually the second — the first was silly, and I am not minded to post silliness today.

Before I’d name the war, I’d ask to know
What I was calling “in” and calling “out”,
And how this situation’s like to grow.
It’s clarity we’ve been too long without.
New York, Afghanistan, Madrid, Iraq,
Guantanamo and London, Bali too;
Iran and North Korea, from the talk,
And then Peoria? and me? and you?
We move in darkness, as it seems to me
Not of fear only, but the shades of lie
That hide the places we become less free
And trumpet out the ways that we could die.
Until we get so used to constant strife
That we don’t call it war, but normal life.

This sonnet quotes quite extensively from one of my favourite poems, Mending Wall, by Robert Frost. It was one of my attempts to recast another poem into sonnet meter and rhyme. Both the octave and the sestet start off with Frost quotes, like a touchstone:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.


He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

I have always used Frost’s poem as a metaphor for the intellectual distinctions we make to parse the world, and the need to make those distinctions intelligently and thoughtfully. It is only now, writing this entry, that I realise that he wrote it in 1915, when the First World War was already underway. Though that conflict is far from his verse, I find this interesting.

Bench in the Botanics

Written today, for a picture taken yesterday.


Taken 9 January 2007

Beyond the hut, the gravel path turns right
To meet a branch that leads across the bridge.
And, nestled in its curve, a pleasant sight:
The wooden bench sits sheltered by its ridge.
Like half a hundred others in this place,
The seat’s a gift, and labeled with a name:
Our hostess here, whose memories still grace
This place she loved, and hoped we’d do the same.
Her unobtrusive presence here receives
Me with no ceremony, and we share
The silence as I sit and watch the leaves
Drop in the pond, and brush and braid my hair.
She is a gracious hostess, and her guest
Appreciates her gifts of peace and rest.

The only technical point I would make is that the transition between the octave and the sestet is, in this case, the transition from setting the scene to my entry onto the scene.