“In youth, it was a way I had, To do my best to please. And change, with every passing lad To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know And do the things I do, And if you do not like me so, To hell, my love, with you.”
An August Midnight
by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
A shaded lamp and a waving blind, And the beat of a clock from a distant floor: On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined— A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore; While ‘mid my page there idly stands A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands…
Thus meet we five, in this still place, At this point of time, at this point in space. —My guests besmear my new-penned line, Or bang at the lamp and fall supine. “God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why? They know Earth-secrets that know not I.
I don’t remember a summer where the drum beat of doom has sounded so regularly from the encroaching jungle. I can’t hardly listen to NPR anymore, every news item goes from bad to worse, from drought to flood, from fire to furnace, from peace to war, it takes its toll on optimism. I keep reminding myself, yes, its dry and its been dry before. Likely it will rain again and refill the wetland that lays to the north of my driveway; more likely it will do that than dry up completely. In the interim, the sky is blue, the purple loosestrife is purple and the trumpeter swans swimming on what remains of the lake are white, just like last year and all is just as beautiful. I have to remind myself that of all the things I should be feeling with all the bad news around the world, the one that stands is out in my mind is gratitude. I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position to pick and choose what I allow to enter my mindset because I have choices, something most people around the world do not.
Today’s poems are a bit of fluff to enjoy on a late summer day. I was struck by the word dumbledore in Hardy’s poem, given that anyone who is a fan of the Harry Potter books thinks of that word in the context of a character in the book. It sent me looking it up in the Oxford dictionary and discovered the word dumbledore is synonymous with bumblebee or a type of beetle, which also makes a sound when it flies, in my mind’s eye I hear the likes of a June bug. The Parker poem is easier to connect with if you know the definition of the word slattern – which means harlot. Parker has a tendency towards a self-deprecating style. I think of her use of the word like a current female rapper using the word “bitch”; it’s possible to call yourself all manner of things without taking offense.
I found Parker’s poem took on more interesting ideas if I read it several times through, putting myself in as the person experiencing the words, writing the words, with eyes as weeds, and new lilac sprouts pushing up through my heart….
by Dorothy Parker
When my eyes are weeds, And my lips are petals, spinning Down the wind that has beginning Where the crumpled beeches start In a fringe of salty reeds; When my arms are elder-bushes, And the rangy lilac pushes Upward, upward through my heart;
Summer, do your worst!
Light your tinsel moon, and call on Your performing stars to fall on Headlong through your paper sky; Nevermore shall I be cursed By a flushed and amorous slattern, With her dusty laces’ pattern Trailing, as she straggles by
If you had come away with me
into another state
we had been quiet together.
But there the sun coming up
out of the nothing beyond the lake was
too low in the sky,
there was too great a pushing
too much of sumac buds, pink
in the head
with the clear gum upon them,
too many opening hearts of lilac leaves,
too many, too many swollen
limp poplar tassels on the
It was too strong in the air.
I had no rest against that
The pounding of the hoofs on the
stayed with me half through the night.
I awoke smiling but tired.
One of the true blessings of where I live are all the lakes and parkways near by with walking and biking trails. It’s a pleasure to be out and moving during these strange days. We have had our first real taste of spring weather, early bulbs and perennials poking through and trees beginning to leaf out. Grass is starting to turn green and the smell of earth worms is in the air. The spring peepers are singing in the ponds and on an evening stroll last night several large toads joined me in hopping along the path on their way to their summertime destinations to hide under their favorite patch of rhubarb leaves.
There are many writers who were prodigious walkers. Wordsworth, Dickens, Ben Johnson, Walt Whitman among many others were said to have daily rituals of walking many miles during the day to clear their thoughts and then write in the evening and on into the night. Walking is such a relaxing form of transportation. It is astounding how far one can go at a pace that allows for pleasant conversation and the ability to day dream. During this pandemic, a daily walk is one of the highlights of my day.
What’s your favorite walk? What cityscape, landscape, hike or neighborhood do you most enjoy exploring in your vicinity? What adventure awaits you when we get back to being able to go where your heart desires? On a walk with my sister around a lake last week, she mentioned she was watching videos of people walking in Paris, she found it oddly soothing to see normality on an everyday stroll in a place she has visited many times and recalls fondly. If you’re feeling stressed get out for a walk and if that’s not possible find a virtual walk to have an out of body experience.
Rom: On The Palatine (April, 1887)
by Thomas Hardy
We walked where Victor Jove was shrined awhile,
And passed to Livia’s rich red mural show,
Whence, thridding cave and Criptoportico,
We gained Caligula’s dissolving pile.
And each ranked ruin tended to beguile
The outer sense, and shape itself as though
It wore its marble hues, its pristine glow
Of scenic frieze and pompous peristyle.
When lo, swift hands, on strings nigh over-head,
Began to melodize a waltz by Strauss:
It stirred me as I stood, in Caesar’s house,
Raised the old routs Imperial lyres had led,
And blended pulsing life with lives long done,
Till Time seemed fiction, Past and Present one.
And the robin flew
Into the air, the air,
The white mist through;
And small and rare
The night-frost fell
Into the calm and misty dell.
And the dusk gathered low,
And the silver moon and stars
On the frozen snow
Drew taper bars,
Kindled winking fires
In the hooded briers.
And the sprawling Bear
Growled deep in the sky;
And Orion’s hair
Streamed sparkling by:
But the North sighed low,
“Snow, snow, more snow!”
The Year’s Awakening
by Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)
How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clamy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling; . .O vespering bird, how do you know, . …How do you know?
How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb; . . O crocus root, how do you know, . . .How do you know?
While I watch the Christmas blaze
Paint the room with ruddy rays,
Something makes my vision glide
To the frosty scene outside.
There, to reach a rotting berry,
Toils a thrush, – constrained to very
Dregs of food by sharp distress,
Taking such with thankfulness.
Why, O starving bird, when I
One day’s joy would justify,
And put misery out of view,
Do you make me notice you!
Thankfulness is my theme for Christmas every year. Fortunately I don’t have to find it in dregs of food, rather in indulgence with family and friends. Christmas for me has become about traditions. One of those traditions is the magic of making peanut brittle with my Dad. My Dad is a great cook and a chemical engineer, which comes in handy in the art and science of making the best peanut brittle in the world. Commercial peanut brittle that you buy in a store is a monstrous thing invented by dentists to suck filings out of teeth and break old molars in half. The peanut brittle tradition in my family is an aromatic caramel peanutty confection, wonderfully crunchy and filled with a million air bubbles to make it brittle but light.
There’s three keys to making the world’s best peanut brittle.
1). Buy a good heavy duty candy thermometer that can clip on the side of your sauce pan.
2). If at all possible, don’t make it alone – four hands come in handy at several key steps in the process and besides its more fun to share in this with someone else.
3). Don’t stop stirring, its how you stir in all the love that makes it taste good.
Here’s the ingredients to make one batch:
(You will make more than one batch when you realize how fantastic this stuff tastes so have extra of everything on hand. By the way Trader Joe’s peanuts come in 1 lb bags and are a good deal).
1 1/2 cups of white sugar
1 cup of corn syrup
3/4 cup of water
1 lb of roasted peanuts – salted or unsalted is your preference. I like salted. Don’t scrimp a little over a lb works even better.
3 – 4 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon of baking soda
1 tablespoon of vanilla
1 teaspoon of water
1). Prepare a typical full size cookie sheet with edges by spraying it with PAM, covering it with confectionery paper or covering it in non-stick aluminum foil. (We actually have sheets of silicon rubber that we line the cookie sheet with for the pour, but not many of you probably have access to salvage rolls of silicon sheeting.)
2). Lay out all your ingredients and proportions or have your helper do it while you start the first step. Be sure to have a good hot pad glove to cover your stirring hand to prevent getting burned, particularly on the last step. Be safe – this is going to be 300 degrees of burning hot brittle at the end, be careful.
3). In a typical 4 quart sauce pan with a sturdy handle add the 1 1/2 cups of sugar, the 1 cup of corn syrup and the 3/4 cup of water. On high heat, stir a bit. Fix your candy thermometer on the side of your sauce pan. It will start out milky and turn clear as the water evaporates off. Stir slowly to stay engaged at this point, but don’t be trying to do two things at once while making brittle or you will screw it up.
4). Let this clear mixture rise to 240 degrees F. It will go slowly up to about 220 and then fairly quickly the last 20 degrees so pay attention. At 240 degrees add your butter, stirring for 30 seconds and then your peanuts. The temperature is going to go back down, that’s normal. Keep stirring slowly but mixing all the time so that peanuts don’t burn on the bottom or behind your thermometer. This is when the rich caramel flavors are going to form with the butter. Inhale deeply. Throw a party, fill up your kitchen, let your friends in on these smells, have them bring a bottle of wine, set out some crackers and cheese. Make it an event. This is what your kitchen is supposed to be like during the holidays, smelling great and filled with people.
5). Either measure out ahead of time or have your helper in a small dish or measuring cup measure out the vanilla, the baking soda and the teaspoon of water. Don’t skimp on the baking soda a heaping tablespoon. Stir this mixture together and have a little spoon or rubber spatula handy for your helper to mix it up again right at the end and be ready to add it to your sauce pan for you.
6). Now is when you are going to be glad you bought a good candy thermometer. You want one that is sturdy enough to stay engaged with this thick peanut sugar mess you are heating up to 300 degrees. Cooking it to only 290 is going to make the final result soft and gooey and not a pleasing texture. Cooking it to 305 degrees is going to begin to introduce off flavors and make the end result darker. Cook it to exactly 300 degrees. This is chemistry. It will go very slowly from about 220 to 270 and that’s where you can get a little tired of this, but then it goes pretty quick the last 30 degrees. Like real fast, so pay attention.
7). As it hits 300 degrees or slightly over, turn off your burner. Be careful to not burn it on the edges. Keep stirring right until the end. Remove your thermometer using your hot pad. Wearing your gloved hot pad in the hand that is going to stir, have your helper quickly stir up the baking soda/vanilla concoction with a few whips of the spoon and spoon it all into your pan. Stir it into the brittle mixture vigorously. It is going to shoot up steam and if you aren’t wearing your hot pad glove you are going to burn your hand. Mix for about 20 seconds and then stop mixing or slow down mixing. The baking soda and water/vanilla is going to react in the heat to create millions of tiny air bubbles. Begin walking over to where your cookie sheet is waiting with your spoon. Let the mixture rise right up to the top of the sauce pan, it will only take a few seconds. Using your spoon to suspend the peanuts more evenly begin pouring it out on the cookie sheet. Start on one edge and poor back and forth moving down the sheet coaxing out peanuts uniformly. Spoon out all the peanuts that are at the bottom, going back to where you started with this last bit, because it is probably a little light on peanuts where you first poured.
8). This next step is the hardest. Over come your urge to take your spoon and spread the mixture out on the cookie sheet. LEAVE IT ALONE Spreading it pops the air bubbles that are the key to making this the world’s best peanut brittle. Let gravity do its thing. It will spread out all on its own to a relatively uniform level as it cools. Do not leave this cookie sheet on a surface that can be damaged by heat. Either have it on a wood cutting board or a cooling rack. Remember it’s still close to 300 degrees as you do the pour. We take ours outside after about 5 minutes and put it on our metal patio table to cool in the 20 degree December air, unless its snowing.
9). It is going to need to cool for 30 to 40 minutes. It’s ready to break apart when its cool to the point that it will fracture easily in chunks by just breaking it apart with your hands. Take a bite and enjoy the magic. Be careful who you give this stuff to. They will be asking for more next year.
I found the letter in a cardboard box,
Unfamous history. I read the words.
The ink was frail and brown, the paper dry
After so many years of being kept.
The letter was a soldier’s, from the front—
Conveyed his love and disappointed hope
Of getting leave. It’s cancelled now, he wrote.
My luck is at the bottom of the sea.
Outside the sun was hot; the world looked bright;
I heard a radio, and someone laughed.
I did not sing, or laugh, or love the sun,
Within the quiet room I thought of him,
My father killed, and all the other men,
Whose luck was at the bottom of the sea.
My Grandfather’s luck was better. He served in both World War I and World War II. But because he was a civil engineer, he was never assigned to combat duty, his skills in building bridges and roads more highly prized behind the front lines. He was also fortuitous in the timing of his enlistment in WWI, finishing boot camp and embarking for France only months before the end of the war. I am glad my Grandfather’s was not only unfamous history but also unremarkable, coming home physically and mentally intact with only a finer appreciation of european beer.
But luck and War have always been connected. Maybe it’s why I have an aversion to the omnipotent presence of technology in our lives. Technology that seems so benign in peace time will be the scourge of luck in war-time. The next world war will be fought with such inhuman precision that luck won’t stand a chance.
Let’s honor the brave and the fallen in World War I on this 100 year anniversary of the end of the war, but let’s not glorify it. The battle field poets certainly didn’t on both sides of the conflict. Let’s save some of our patriotic fervor to hold accountable our current leadership. Hold them accountable to value diplomacy and reasoned avoidance of conflict as just as critical to a strong national defense, as the bloated budget for the Department of Defense. Let us hope that the lessons of the past informs our leadership of tomorrow and that pride and ego do not plunge us into war that could have been avoided with a touch more humility and a lot less bombastic lunacy.
The Man He Killed
by Thomas Hardy
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”
When you shall see me in the toils of Time,
My lauded beauties carried off from me,
My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,
My name forgot of Maiden Fair and Free;
When, in your being, heart concedes to mind,
And judgment, though you scarce its process know,
Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,
And you are irked that they have withered so;
Remembering mine the loss is, not the blame,
That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,
Knowing me in my soul the very same
One who would die to spare you touch of ill!
Will you not grant to old affection’s claim
The hand of friendship down Life’s sunless hill?