Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: tale
Friday, 25 April 2014 00:00

Road to Her Mother

Lan takes the train every month, from Shanghai to the provincial capital where her mother lives, in a nursing home. The high speed train dongche gets to her destination in a few hours, unlike the "fast train" kuaiche that took more than twice as much time. It is sparkling clean and orderly, compared to before when people used to play cards noisily and eat sunflower seeds spitting out the shells in order to kill time. All around her, travelers are listening to their earphones, playing with their cellphones, or reading their magazines. She has slight motion sickness, which prevents her from reading, but has enough on her mind to keep busy. Last time when she called, the nurse told her that mother had been upset because she could not find her mother.

- Your mom - my grandma, died a long time ago, remember? Lan explained patiently over the phone.

- Is that so? Mom answered meekly and sadly.

Lan felt sorry for her. Mom was not always this soft. She had a sharp mind and a sharp tongue. Lan used to be afraid of her. Dad tried to keep peace.

- Your mom's tongue can be as sharp as a knife, but her heart is as soft as tofu.

That is a well-known Chinese expression, almost a cliché. Mother's heart did not need to be quite as soft as tofu, but they would all have been better off if her tongue weren't as sharp as a knife. Mother's condition did not become noticeable to Lan and her big brother until after their father's death three years ago. Poor dad had always acted like a buffer between mom and the children. The doctor diagnosed early onset of Alzheimer's disease, which has progressed rather quickly due to her diabetes.

At first, Lan's brother, who lived in the same city, took her in. But mom became increasingly difficult: she refused to take her medications, accused sister-in-law of stealing her money, and ran away several times. Humiliated, sister-in-law refused to be alone with her, and caregivers they hired would quit after a few days. Although Mom had always found something to complain about during each of her previous visits, Lan proposed to get her to live in Shanghai with her. She had bought a better apartment with a spacious guestroom. She would find a capable caregiver. Mom was thrilled to go back to Shanghai, her hometown. Her happiness lasted less than 12 hours. In the middle of the night, she started to scream and demanded to go home.

- Ma, this is your home, your own daughter's home.

- No, it is a hospital! I want to go home!

After a sleepless night, Mom was energetic and wanted to go see her older sister. Relieved, Lan left her there and went to work. Before lunch break, her cousin called. Mom and auntie had a huge fight and would not talk to each other anymore. They were both crying.

- What for?

- About how their big brother died, and whose fault it was.

Mom's big brother died during the 1937 Japanese bombing of Shanghai. Lan never knew exactly how. When grandma died, Lan saw him on an old picture in a keepsake box. It was a black and white family photo that had turned partly yellow. He looked about ten years old, and wore a dark suit like grandpa. No one was smiling. People did not use to smile on photos. Mother wore a little qipao dress and clang to grandma. Lan had a hard time picturing grandma running away from bombing with three children.

Lan picked up her mother from her auntie's home. Mom insisted on finding the home at Hongkou where grandma used to live. The entire neighborhood was demolished.

- This is not Shanghai! You are deceiving me!

Mom yelled loudly. People walked by, some stared at them frankly as if they were nobody, while others casted them their annoyed side glance. Lan hailed a taxi and took mom to the Old City God Temple and the Yu Garden, in order to prove that they were, in fact, in Shanghai. They had some raw-fried buns with ground meat filling (shengjian bao), and mom was in a spirited mood again.

Three days later, Lan was on the brink of exhaustion and the neighbors were complaining. Brother came to get mom. He had found an upscale nursing home for her.

At the beginning, mom cried and fought with the nurses, and then she gradually calmed down. Lan was not sure if it was due to her medications, or because her deteriorating condition made her humble. Last month, Lan was too busy to make her visit. When mom complained about having not seen her for a long time, Lan just muddled through:

- I was there last week, don't you remember?

- Oh, really?

Lan felt guilty, but somehow she enjoys talking with mom more, now that she is no longer afraid of her. She even plays with her over the phone, as if she were a little girl.

- Who am I?

- You are my daughter.

- What is my name?

- Oh, of course I know your name. Stop testing me.

Sometimes mom would try to show off her memory, or what is left of it.

- I know you have two husbands. Don't worry. I will not tell anybody else.

She laughed mischievously. Lan smiled sheepishly. There is no point reminding her mother that she does not have two husbands at the same time. But mother seems to be obsessed with Lan's husbands. Despite her promise, she keeps telling Lan's brother:

- Poor Lan. She has to cook for two husbands after work.

It feels wonderful that your mother is on your side, complicit, no matter how badly you mess up. It did not use to be that way.

Lan was in fact raised by her grandma, her mother's mother, who lived in Shanghai. Lan's mother followed her dad when he was assigned to work in the provincial capital. When Lan was about five, her parents decided to let her live with grandma, who was then widowed. Since they both "voluntarily" gave up their Shanghai resident cards (hukou) to support an "interior city", a (temporary) policy allowed them to leave one child in Shanghai, provided there was a relative as a guardian. Of course they did not tell her that right away. Instead, grandma came for a visit, and took Lan with her when she went back.

- You want to visit Shanghai with grandma? Asked dad.

Of course she did. Lan always liked grandma. She was the best-looking old lady she had ever seen, always impeccably dressed and put together. Best of all, she never yelled at Lan, unlike her mother. Lan went to the train station with grandma and dad.

- Are you going to miss us? Asked dad.

- No.

She brought her best "friend", a doll with a blue dress and big dark eyes that she always went to sleep with. She did not start to miss her parents and brother until weeks later, when she was told that she was to live in Shanghai for good. She cried for a while, but with a lot of "big white rabbit" candies, a five-year-old got over things. It proved to be a brilliant decision: Lan got a more and more coveted Shanghai hukou, and her older brother, who graduated from high school in 1976, did not have to go to the countryside, as the only child living with his parents. It was meant to be: Lan bore a closer resemblance to grandma than to either of her parents.

When Lan was in college, majoring in English, she watched Sophie's Choice. She cried and cried, and in the most unfair way, identified herself with the daughter that Sophie had to sacrifice for the sake of her son. She knew she was being ridiculous and a little hypocritical, because she would not have wanted to give up all the privileges that come with a Shanghai hukou, She never asked why her parents sent her away instead of her big brother though. It was obvious: a son is a son.

Lan's parents came to Shanghai every year for their Chinese New Year break, until grandma passed away when Lan was in college. After that Lan took the train every year to visit them during her winter break. The rest of the time, dad wrote letters. Only once, right after Lan's divorce, Mom added a few lines at the end of the letter:

"Do not come back for the New Year. Now is not the right time. Divorce is such a shame for us; none of our ancestors has ever done it. Now that you are no longer young, almost thirty, you need to find a suitable husband quickly, before it is too late. You need to be realistic. Older man is better, but no more than ten years older. Divorced man is ok as well, but with no children.
Mother"

That Winter Break, Lan spent her endless free time listening to an Elvis Presley Christmas CD offered by an American visitor. Her favorite song was "I will be home for Christmas". The more Elvis repeated himself, the more she had a hunch that he would not be home on Christmas, not even in his dream, because you do not get to order your dream. There should be some sad songs for Chinese New Year as well. How could a billion people all feel happy on the same day?

Lan did not go visit her parents until three years later, husband in tow and a baby girl in her arms. Her brother had a son, so her parents were ecstatic with a granddaughter. She apparently did better than her mother's commands: her husband was four years older. She never told her that he had a son from a previous marriage, who lived in Singapore with his ex-wife. Life finally smiled to Lan who, strangely enough, started to have a recurring nightmare.

She was with a panic crowd running away from some invading soldiers with guns, holding her baby girl in her arm. When they arrived at one side of the village, another group of soldiers were running towards them. The crowd screamed and ran in all directions...
Sometimes her husband would wake her up. She would be panting heavily and soaked in sweat. The nightmare kept returning, as her baby grew heavier.

-Next time you have your nightmare, make sure I am in it. At least I can carry our baby for you, her husband teased her.

Lan also felt it strange that her husband was never in the dream and stopped telling him about it. Luckily, the nightmare stopped when her baby was about five, quite difficult to be carried.

The train stops at the final destination. Lan steps into the station, the same one where she left for Shanghai when she was five, but completely renovated. Train station. Mom now thinks all the time that she is in a train station and insists on going everywhere with some clothes wrapped in a big scarf. Mirrors had to be removed from her room because she got upset whenever she saw "an old woman" there.

Lan arrives at the "Red Sunset Nursing Home" in late afternoon. People are doing Taiji with an instructor, and a few are taking a stroll. Her mother is standing alone under a banyan tree, a cloth wrap clutched in her hand. She gazes into the distance and does not see Lan until she walks near her.

- Mommy!

Lan is startled. Her mom throws her arms around Lan, tears running down her wrinkled cheeks.

- Mommy! What took you so long? I have been waiting and waiting...

 

Drawing by Bendu


Friday, 22 November 2013 11:46

Grateful Reminiscences

There are moments in life when we feel backed into a corner and at the end of our rope. It seems only by near-miracle that we somehow managed to find our way. As important as we knew they were, we could not have immediately grasped their full impact. It is only over the years, as we revisit those moments through our grateful reminiscences, that we come to realize they have crystallized into points of no return and gradually transformed how we live the rest of our life.

I spent my last day in China frantically running up and down, round and round. It was early September 1989. I had a scholarship from Boston College to pursue my graduate studies. Already two week late for the semester because passport application had been halted for months due to the June Fourth movement, I had finally received my visa the day before. There was only one last task left to do: I needed to cancel my resident registration (hukou) and my food quota in order to receive the exit permit. The process was supposed to be straightforward for people with all the required documents.

When I went to the neighborhood police substation to cancel my resident registration, a grumpy women behind the front desk told me to cancel my food quota first; when I arrived at the local food station, a bunch of chatty staff asked me all sorts of nosy questions (WHO in their right mind would give up a Beijing hukou? Why would the Americans offer YOU a scholarship?) before announcing that I should cancel my resident registration first. After spending hours running between the two places and getting the same response no matter how pitifully I pleaded, it finally dawned on me that the employees from the food station made more sense: as long as I was a resident, I should be entitled to my food quota, which can only be cancelled when I ceased to be a resident.

I paced and paced desperately in front of the police station, where an inexplicably hostile woman seemed to hold the key to my future. Going anywhere else would be as pointless as getting inside once more to face her. My flight was to depart the next day, I needed to return the key to my apartment early in the morning, and I had even sold my bed. Even worse, as a required step, I had quitted my job, because unlike those who were officially sponsored by the government with state scholarships, I applied to study abroad with "private" funding... I looked at the sun in the sky, bright and scarlet, wishing it would never set. Tomorrow would be a terrible day.

A solid-built man walked towards the police station and asked me what was wrong.
- You look distressed, he said.

I explained why and he told me to follow him inside where he asked the woman to process my paperwork, right away, before walking into his office. I only knew his last name was Wang; he was the head of the station.

You need to know how things work, or don't, in China, in order to appreciate how unbelievably lucky I was on that day, and how much hardship would await me otherwise. The event changed my life in the most obvious way as I left for Boston the next day, but slowly and imperceptibly, it also altered my outlook on life. In my naïvely rationalist mind, I used to believe we reap what we sow and I worked hard to deserve things I wanted, but I could not have possibly "deserved" Mr. Wang's timely intervention, a pure gift. Deus ex machina: I would not have written a play this way, but that was how it happened. Looking back on that day and recognizing we do not necessarily deserve what happens to us remind me to be more grateful, more forgiving and more compassionate.

Years later, my daughter was born when I was a beginning assistant professor in a small Midwestern town. My husband, who still worked in Boston, took a leave to care for us and was driving back to Boston on the day Lydia turned one month old. She would have to go to a baby-sitter we barely knew during weekdays.

- Don't go downstairs to see me off. You would have to climb back upstairs with the baby, he said.

I stood in the middle of my second floor apartment, now so big, so empty, with Lydia in my arm, terrified by the realization that if I ever messed up my life, it would hurt her as well. I felt twice as vulnerable, yet at the same time, filled up by a tremendous love for this little life I brought into the world and for whom I would be irrevocably responsible.

Then, with amazement, I saw Lydia smiling, a smile of quiet contentment and calm assurance. As she smiled for what appeared to me a long time, I became less scared and more determined. I vowed that I would do my best not to hurt anyone or let anyone hurt me. Together we would prepare the background colors for the canvas of her life, so that whatever landscape she would decide to paint, the time she would have spent with me leave no stain of bitterness. Through complex situations and imperfect decisions, I have steered my heart to remain true to the silent promise I made to her on that day. I used to associate parental love with toil and sacrifice, but alone, literally a thousand miles from the nearest family support, during the nine months that I took care of her by myself while juggling a demanding career, I experienced it as a pure joy, and its intensity took me by surprise.

What is the chance that a baby would smile when her mother feels panic and helpless? Lydia was a sensitive baby who cried no less than most others. Some people think little children can sense how their mothers feel, perhaps that is not always true, or somehow, through an unfathomable connection, she was the one to anchor me.

What if Mr. Wang had not appeared at the moment when I was hopelessly stranded in front of the Police station? What if, instead of smiling, Lydia had cried, as babies often do? I probably would have coped, but I am grateful things happened as they did, without rhyme or reason, when I did not even know what to hope for and likely did nothing to deserve them. Those moments of grace are not something we can expect, or even wish for, but only to receive with utmost surprise and gratitude. They make mere happiness dull and uninspiring, as we ponder on the incredible mystery which is life.

Drawing by Bendu


Wednesday, 23 October 2013 10:36

Lonely Venus

She is beautiful and resides comfortably in a magnificent palace, but feels terribly lonely and constantly slighted. Each and every day, visitors from all corners of the world keep pouring in. The room where she stays is always packed with people who quickly pass by her as if she were invisible, because they are there to see her sister, Venus de Milo. When they can gaze at the most famous and the most beautiful of all Venuses, why would they waste their precious little time on anything less than that?

The contrast can be ego-shattering. Venus de Milo attracts so many admirers that she cannot help but looking somewhat fed up. She also suspects that some of them are there not due to their discerning appreciation but because of her widespread reputation. They push and squeeze to get near her even though there is not a remote chance anyone would ever get a moment alone with her. It is even difficult to move around to view her from various angles. Some raise their camera way up high so that they can take a picture of her from afar, while others manage to get close enough to take a picture with her amid the crowd, with a proud smile on their face, as if they were saying to the world: "Look at me! I am with her!"

I decide to spend some quiet time with Venus Cesi (do not kick yourself if you do not know her name; she is really not that famous), allured by her slightly downcast melancholic look and her modest silhouette, as if I wanted to assuage her self-consciousness and vulnerability. As I linger in the empty space in front of her, a few people become mildly curious and granted her a passing glimpse.

- She is just as beautiful, and she has all her limbs! A man said to his companion while hurrying away.

Venus Cesi would much prefer a moment of his silent attentiveness to his witty and indifferent compliment. She does not aspire to be as beautiful as her famous sister, but feels beautiful in a different way, shaped and molded lovingly by her creator. She has noticed the shifting standards of beauty over time and senses that her proportions may not appear as desirable now as they once did.

A few chitchatting women were thrilled to discover a quiet spot to take their own picture. They stood by Venus Cesi and put on their perfect fake smile facing the camera, as if they were telling the world: "I am in the Louvre! Look how pretty I am!"

Venus Cesi cringed. She is in no way trying to compete with Venus de Milo for the number of admirers, but she resents that people who are already in the same room do not at least take a good look at her to determine for themselves if she appeals more or less to their taste. If they only look at one Venus, how can they feel that she is the most beautiful one? Venus Cesi does not know that busy and important people only have time for the best. She is tired of being displayed in the world's best art museum, where her marginalized existence is almost always mortifyingly ignored in the company of her more famous siblings. She would rather live in the ruins of a port town with flowering wild grasses, where warm sunlight and sea breezes would caress her cold shoulder, and leisurely passersby would accord her a moment of their genuine attention. Some young men might even have a fancy for her, or some maidens would confide to her their joys and sorrows.

Not far away stands Athena, divinely serein with a pinch of irony. Because of the silly tale about her being born from her father's head, people seldom notice she is no less beautiful than Venus. Like Venus Cesi, she does not command a crowd around her either. Not that she cares anymore. The only mistake she has ever made in her entire immortal life was to have entered that ridiculous beauty contest which led to the Trojan War. How could she have subjected herself to the judgment of an impulsive young man with a questionable motive? She has since observed the vanity and peril of human obsession with superlatives, the never-ending race to become number one in each and every category: the most beautiful woman, the tallest building, the richest person, the most expensive wine, the most powerful country, the most devastating weapon, the fastest pie eater... If the lonely Venus can grow out of her silent suffering, she might even become friend with Athena, who is no longer her rival.

Athena

Photos by Jin Lu


Monday, 26 August 2013 14:38

Impromptu on Chopsticks and Cuisine

While directing an immersion program in Blois, France for American students from a Midwestern university, I have become friends with some of the French host families, who invite me to their home for dinner from time to time.  During one of those evenings, the hosts and I were sitting in the veranda surrounded by a small and lush garden, while the evening breeze was filled with the familiar scent of climbing honeysuckle.  They told me how pleased they were of the student I placed with them that year.

- Compared to Korean students we had before, Americans are so much easier.

I became intrigued, and asked why.

- The Koreans seemed so uncomfortable, poor things.  Imagine, since they did not have their chopsticks, they often dropped their forks and knives, and that makes them so embarrassed.  With the Americans, their culture is much more similar to ours, and they get more easily used to what we eat.

It had never occurred to me that switching from chopsticks to forks and knives could be such a dramatic challenge.  Growing up using chopsticks, I do not even remember the first time when I ate with a fork and a knife.  So direct and intuitive, it is one of those things that I fancy we do not need to “learn”.  My embarrassing secret is that I actually do not hold chopsticks quite so “correctly”, although I use them “fluently”.  It is barely noticeable, so my parents did not become aware until I was in third grade. They went into a panic mode attempting to correct it, but by then it was too late to change my habit.  My father signed in frustration:

- If you cannot even learn this, what else can you learn?

Decades later, I told my father what he had said to me. He had completely forgotten it and by then could not care less about how I held my chopsticks.  We both laughed.  He did not know how lucky he was though, because I remained a Chinese daughter, or else I could have blamed him for scarring me for the rest of my life with his negative comment about my learning ability. I have stopped telling my American friends as jokes certain things that my parents said to me, because instead of finding them funny, they were invariably horrified.

When my daughter Lydia was three, we took a family vacation in China. At Pudong airport in Shanghai, my sister-in-law came to pick us up and we all got into an airport shuttle bus.  We had barely sat down when Lydia said something in delight that astonished me:

- We all have black eyes and black hair!

I had never thought she would notice such details, but then I realized that appearances did matter.  In a primitive way, it may be the first thing that determines how comfortable we are with others.  Children are just more candid in verbalizing what we feel deeply inside and may go into great length to mask.  Rebekah Nathan, an American anthropology professor, spent her sabbatical year as a freshman living in a college dormitory (Cornell University Press, 2005).  She observed that students typically socialize along racial or ethnic lines, and while most of them reported having at least one close friend of a different race, very few of them actually do.  Perhaps Lydia’s generation will improve, because she regularly gets together with friends from nearly all the ethnicities in her high school. 

During that trip, Lydia and I spent several weeks in my hometown in Sichuan.  While eating in a crowded restaurant with my sister and brother-in-law, Lydia suddenly pointed to the chopsticks people were using:

-  I want that too!

Up to then she had been using only spoon and fork.  Worried that she would make a mess in public, I suggested we first start at home, but she insisted on right there and then.  She had always seen her dad and me eating with chopsticks at home, but did not show any interest until she was in China, with a roomful of people who were using them.  For me, this incident shows the powerful human desire to conform to the social environment surrounding us.

The poor Korean students in the French host family were in an unfamiliar environment for which they may not have been fully prepared.  Their discomfort was likely greater than that of my American students, because of greater differences between home and host environments, such as lack of chopsticks, or left unspoken, different physical appearances.  American students do not have as many visible differences with their French hosts, which makes them easier to fit in, at least at the beginning.

When I was a student majoring in French at Peking University in the early eightieth, our language instructors spoke beautiful French but had never been exposed to French cuisine, having received their degree during the Cultural Revolution.  Once they told us a story about how they had been invited by the French embassy for a banquet and came back still hungry.

- Only five dishes! We thought there must be more to come, so we ate very little when we were served a dish. Then they took each one away! By the time we realized there would be no more, we were still hungry. The food looked beautiful, but did not taste as good as Chinese food.

In a Chinese banquet, people usually take very little when a dish is served, because you can expect a table full of dishes.  It is always a good idea to save room for more and you can go back later because all the dishes stay on the table. 

My instructors’ misadventure stemmed from the fact that they did not know how a French meal was structured.  They did not complain about forks and knives, which must have been the easy part for which they were prepared.

However, as tempting as it is to believe that cuisines that use forks and knives (such as American and French) are more similar with each other than with those using chopsticks,  allow me to be contrarian here and explain why I think, beyond all appearances, it is easier for Chinese than for Americans to adapt to French cuisine.

Except for people who refrain from pork for religious reasons, where would you find more people who agree with the French that “tout est bon dans le cochon” (everything is good in a pig)? Generally speaking, like the French, Chinese from most regions eat tripe, offal, and giblets, and do not need any adjustment faced with andouillette, boudin, tripes, cœur, rognon, langue, gisier, which I do not even want to translate into English. Foie is more acceptable, at least in certain circles, because of the prestige of foie gras, although it would be wise not to translate it as “goose liver paste”, the way it is rendered candidly in Chinese without shocking anyone. There are even many Chinese recipes for cervelle – most Americans would be “totally grossed out”. There is certainly a much higher percentage of Chinese people willing to taste the tête de veau.  Like the French, Chinese tend to have their meat from a greater variety of sources than Americans. In Sichuan, frogs and rabbit are common sources of meat.  How about eating a whole fish? That is commonplace for most Chinese but a monumental task for most Americans.  Chinese and French share the same taste in pastries, and most of them would find American pastries much too sweet.  When I follow a French recipe for dessert, I put exactly the same amount of sugar, but use less than half with an American recipe.

Mayonnaise can serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between American and French cultures.  American and French mayonnaises have the same name, but taste so different that when you like one, it does not mean you would like the other.  The same goes for mustard.  If you enjoy French salad, do not ever, ever choose “French dressing” when you eat in an American McDonald…Between the two cultures, so similar on the surface, there are undercurrent of differences which anthropologist Raymonde Carroll devotes an entire book to analyze (Evidences Invisibles).  Just as outward differences may prevent people from recognizing the profound resonance that unites them, apparent similarities can also lead to bitter misunderstandings, because they make people least prepared to deal with their real differences.  

In fact, regardless of our background, we can always learn to enjoy a new cuisine, especially if we understand its language and culinary culture.  In terms of French cuisine, there is a great variety of dishes from different regions, which makes it possible to find what we like and gradually expand our food repertory. When I first learned to make French dishes, I started by watching my friends and helping them in their kitchen, and realized that our ways of cooking were based on very similar principles.  Our own taste can evolve as we explore different foods, embracing new ones or giving up others harmful to our health.  For me, yogurt and cheese are acquired tastes.  While I continue to enjoy spicy food, unlike my friends who stay in Sichuan, I do not need to put chili peppers in nearly all the dishes because I have learned to appreciate other types of flavors.  Being true to ourselves does not mean to remain unchanged.  Let our heart be free, and then we can choose the ingredients of our life and create our own recipes.   

Drawing by Bendu


Wednesday, 19 June 2013 18:48

Little Umbrella

As Little Umbrella opened her eyes for the first time, she found herself hanging on a hook near the exit door of a bright and spacious convenience store. The space around her was filled with toothpaste, sandwiches or cold drinks, and was enlivened with the concert made by tinkling coins, automated musical doors and cashiers’ greetings. The lights and the voices both hurt and stimulated her senses, not yet used to the hubbub of the world.

The rain was pouring outside… It was not long before a middle-aged lady came into the shop and bought Little Umbrella, finding her the cutest of all the umbrellas gracing the shop with the rainbow of their colors. Balancing in the streets over the head of the lady, Little Umbrella felt very joyful: she had found someone to whom she could dedicate her existence, making sure that her owner, well protected from the rain, would never catch a cold. The lady had a soft and firm grasp on her handle. Little Umbrellas looked at storefronts together with her friend and possessor, while waving to the other umbrellas nearby – and in that kind weather there were many, many of them.

The lady got into a bus, and carefully folded Little Umbrella, whom she placed at her side. Then, both the lady and Little Umbrella fell half asleep. The lady suddenly woke up just when the bus was reaching her usual stop, and she went off in such a haste that she forgot Little Umbrella on the seat... When Little Umbrella opened up her eyes, the lady was not here anymore. Instead, an old man was looking at her with perplexity. She was certainly a cute and brand-new umbrella, but she was unfit for a man, especially a man of his age. Still, he took her with him, and soon they both arrived at his house.

This was a large house, a house for an extended family. The old man fetched his granddaughter and gave her Little Umbrella. The little girl was overjoyed and brought her to her bedroom. She was duly introduced to Teddy Bear, to the dolls, the giraffe, the miniature lion and the she-duck. That night, lying at the foot of the bed, Little Umbrella felt deeply happy, and she entered naturally into all little umbrellas’ dreamland.

They spent a very happy weekend together. The little girl was incessantly folding and unfolding her umbrella, posing with her as a ballerina or a princess. The following Monday was one of these Rainy Mondays, and the girl went to school with Little Umbrella, who arose much envy from the girls’ schoolmates. Still, on the last day of the same week, it was a boy – the bully of the class – who stole Little Umbrella from the schoolbag of her young owner, and started to parade with her on the streets, handling her brutally, and threatening people with her as if holding a sword.

One day, he went too far: in a fit of rage he raised his weapon against his mother. She immediately confiscated Little Umbrella, without ever asking where she came from and how she happened to be in the possession of the boy. The mother was a busy and rather impatient woman, with little time left for her son. She put Little Umbrella deep into the big bag that she always carried, and took her in all her travels, from the plane to the hotel, from an appointment to a business meeting, unfolding her from time to time when the rain was really too strong. Handled without care, treated with much indifference, Little Umbrella was not feeling happy at all, but she did discover the world, and grew both in weariness and wisdom.

It just so happened that, after one of these intercontinental travels she was now used to undergoing, Little Umbrella found herself on a chair, in an outdoor café of southern Europe; in a sleepy back street of an ancient city. The storm had now receded. Her owner, exhausted by her unceasing business trips and lost in her thoughts, had paid the bill, and she was now leaving the place without turning back - forgetting Little Umbrella on the chair where she had absent-mindedly placed her after the rain. The cat of the café slowly approached her.

She was a good and playful cat, who knew how to use her paws. She made Little Umbrella fall from the chair, took her cautiously with her teeth and transported her into the adjacent garden. With a few skillful moves, she unfolded Little Umbrella, kept the handle between her pawns, and laid down under her shadow, with a purr of satisfaction. Little Umbrella felt happier she had ever felt, standing right between the cat and the sun, and dancing to the rhythm of a tune coming from the house bordering the garden.

From then on, the cat and Little Umbrella spent all their days together – the rainy days, the sunny days. The cat who was always holding the umbrella became so famous in the neighborhood that the café was adorned with a new post sign, showing the affectionate embrace of the two friends. But the cat and the umbrella were not concerned with their newfound glory, and, carefree, continued to enjoy the sun, the rain and their own company. And they lived happily ever after.


Thursday, 05 August 2010 00:00

George Psalmanazar, the famous fraud of Formosa

One of the more entertaining characters I’ve run across in my studies of Taiwan has been George Psalmanazar, one of the famous hoaxers of all time. Born around 1680, nothing factual is known about his early life, even his country place of birth, although he later claimed it to be somewhere in southern France, which was allegedly corroborated as likely by those who had heard his French dialect, while doubted by those who were familiar with his ability to impersonate such dialects.

Regardless of where he spent his early years, upon completion of his education Psalmanazar began traveling around Europe, attempting to scam his way to Rome by impersonating an Irish pilgrim. Upon realizing that Ireland was neither exotic enough to elicit much interest from potential marks nor far enough to be entirely unfamiliar, he began instead impersonating a rare pilgrim from the distant land of Japan, and later to the even more exotic and lesser-known island of Formosa, which we now usually call Taiwan.

His wild tales of alien customs and bizarre foreign lands were popular, and after a detour through Rotterdam he arrived in London in 1703, where he became a minor celebrity. Banking on his fame, in 1704  he published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. “Originally written in Latin by Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa was translated into English and quickly went through two editions. A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfort in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.”

This book provided a detailed description of the island of Formosa, including its history, geography, flora and fauna, religious customs, language, and so on. And virtually every single word of it was completely fictional. Psalmanazar knew all of this, he claimed, because he was himself a native of Formosa. Having been named after the great Formosan “Prophet Psalmanaazaar, who delivered the Law to the Formosans” as well as their writing, Psalamanazar was bringing knowledge of his exotic homeland to the credulous and curious people’s of Europe. In fact, not only had he never been to Formosa, or Asia at all, he knew nothing about it.

Although there were a handful of Jesuits who had been to the real Formosa, their denial of Psalamanazar’s fantastic claims were largely ignored due to the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England at that time. While it might seem absurd to us today that people would have believed such outlandish tales, consider how unreliable information on foreign lands was in the days before the photograph, the telegraph, and even regular long-distance trade to many regions. We may find it unbelievable that the English believed that a man with Western European features similar to their own could have been a native of the East Asian land of Formosa, but how many Londoners would have ever seen an Asian face themselves?

He not only created fanciful, entirely invented, accounts of Formosa all the while portraying himself as a native of that exotic island, but also invented a Formosan language, in what must have been one of the very, very few pre-Tolkien attempts at such an endeavor. Psalmanazar’s creation of a fictional Formosa was actually very Tolkien-esque, not merely in the way that it included a fictional language, but in the way that the development of the language was linked to the invented history. Although the fantasy island was named after the real island of Formosa, and the title of the book claimed that it was “an Island subject to”  the very real island of Japan, the descriptions of the customs, geography, history, and language of these real places was very nearly as invented as that of Rivendell or Gondor.Psalmanazar describes the language of Formosa as follows:

The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, theplusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it is Jerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery’d as in the preterit. [...]

The Japan Language has three Genders; all sorts of Animals are either of the Masculine or Feminine Gender, and all inanimate Creatures are of the Neuter: But the Gender is only known by the Articles, e.g. oi hic, ey hoec, and ay hoc; but in the Plural number all the three Articles are alike. [...]

The Japannese wrote formerly in a sort of Characters most like those of the Chineses; but since they have held correspondence with theFormosans, they have generally made use of their way of writing, as more easy and more beautiful; insomuch that there are few now inJapan who understand the Chinese Characters.

 
Anyone with even the scantest knowledge of Japanese will instantly realize the absurdity of every word quoted above. In fact, the Formosan languages of his time (before it was extensively colonized by China) were the Austronesian languages still spoken by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples today, which have no relationship with Japanese.

He also provided a more significant sample of his Formosan language, amusingly in the form of a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the first five lines.

Lord’s Prayer
Koriakia Vomera

OUR Father who in Heaven art, Hallowed be
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe

thy Name, Come thy Kingdom, Be done thy Will
sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion

as in Heaven, also in Earth so, Our bread
apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada

daily give us today, and forgive us
nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant

our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers.
amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin.

(A longer excerpt of the chapter on language, including the full Lord’s Prayer, can be found online here.)

To get an idea of how famous Psalmanazar actually was in his time, consider that he was referenced very prominently in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which Swift uses him (albeit spelled a bit differently, perhaps due to imperfect memory and a lack of handy reference) as part of his case for the encouragement of cannibalism.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.

The fact that must be remembered here is that not only was George Psalmanazar a famous public figure in Swift’s time, but that by the year in which A Modest Proposal was published, 1729,  Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa was already been widely known as a fraud, the author having had confessed as much in 1707. While Swift’s essay is still widely read, virtually no modern readers will have any clue to what he is referring in this paragraph, and even fewer will realize that much of the basis for the humor in this section is due to the fact that the essayist is attempting to prove his case by referring to a a source that, at the time of publication, would have been recognized by Swift’s audience as not merely fraudulent, but famously and comically so.

While Jonathan Swift may be the most significant literary reference to Psalmanazar’s imaginary Formosa, it is not the only one. Many readers may be familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and hopefully not the abysmal film based on it), in which they spin a version of our world in which every fantastic story, character, and geography is integrated into a single tapestry. While the story proper is mainly told in the form of comic book panels, Volume Two  contains, in the form of  a lengthy appendix, a sort of gazetteer of this fantastic geography, which contains the following text.

We passed east of Zipang, or of Japan as it is these days called, and went south by way of Formosa, which possesses of its coast another smaller island of the same name, where the women and the men go naked save for plaques of gold and silver.
 
 
 

Zipang is in fact one spelling of the Shanghaiese reading of “Japan,” formerly used by some Europeans and thought to be the origin for the modern spelling. Moore here is obviously referencing Psalmanazar’s Formosa, as we can see from page 225 of the Description (first page of PDF Part II). By describing this Formosa as “another smaller island of the same name”, Moore is cleverly leaving room on the map for both the real and fantasy Formosa.

The great difference between the Japannese and Formosans, consists in this, that the Jappanese wear 2 or 3 Coats, which they tye about with a Girdle; but the Formosans have only one Coat, and use no Girlde. They walk with the Breast open, and cover their Privy parts with a Plate tied about them made of Brass, Gold, or Silver.

Incidentally, Moore’s reference to Formosa is located just above a large illustration of Laputa – which readers may remember from either theeponymous Miyazaki Hayao film, or its original source: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. When one considers that Swift was clearly a fan of Psalmanazar’s imaginary geography, it actually seems quite reasonable to wonder if perhaps the Description of Formosa was an influence on Gulliver’s Travels

Following the end of his career as a hoaxer, Psalmanazar used his celebrity to start a career as a legitimate writer, producing such works as The general history of printing: from its first invention in the city of Mentz, to its first progress and propagation thro’ the most celebrated cities in Europe. Particularly, its introduction, rise and progress here in England. The character of the most celebrated printers, from the first inventors of the art to the years 1520 and 1550: with an account of their works, and of the most considerable improvements which they made to it during that intervalpublished in 1732. As a now-respectable man of letters, he became friends with such luminaries as Samuel Johnson.

Although he revealed his fraud as early as 1707, details were not revealed until the year after his death. Naturally, this was in the form of a book, which is wonderfully entitled: MEMOIRS OF ****. Commonly known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; A Reputed Native of Formosa. Written by himself, In order to be published after his Death: Containing An Account of his Education, Travels, Adventures, Connections, Literary Productions, and pretended Conversion from Heathenism to Christianity; which last proved the Occasion of his being brought over into this Kingdom, and passing for a Proselyte, and a member of the Church of England.

The one thing that he never revealed, even in his posthumous memoir, was his real name. As far as I know, no details of his early life have ever been verified.

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

The table of contents, as well as some all too brief excerpts of Psalmanazar’s first book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, can be found here, but until earlier this year it was very difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the English version of the book, at least outside of certain libraries. Although it was published in Taiwan a couple of years ago, that was a Chinese translation, which even if I could read well would hardly be as entertaining. Original copies are very expensive, with the English first edition going for US$1426 on a rare book site, and the French version selling at an even less accessible $1900! Copies of his memoirgo for a technically more affordable, yet still entirely unaffordable $600 or so. Luckily, not only has an affordable reprint edition of both his Description of Formosaand his Memoirsare available for purchase online. However, even better, just the other day I managed to locate a scanned electronic edition of both books, freely available in an archive of the British Library. As the online version only seems to be accessible from licensed institutions, such as libraries and universities, I am providing both of them for download as PDFs. Since their PDFcreator can only generate files up to 250 pages in length, both of them have been split into two files. Scans of 300 year old books, these files are as public domain as they get. Feel free to spread them far and wide.

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part II

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part II


Thursday, 21 May 2009 03:54

Cessation of our tale

Having just seen
the world’s worst decades,
we’re tortoised in our faith,
the world of Hades

and the cessation of
our tale; after all,
for light to come on
the curtain must fall,

it’s a fact, there’s
inner peace there. But as I
was saying we really
should obey the signs.

Conceding quietly
might just work out
for the best. What I
know without doubt,

what I seen with these eyes
lessoned by war,
is that it doesn’t matter
who you are;

what imports
in the end is the way
the body just knows
it’s time to decay.

 

Photo by C. Phiv


Thursday, 19 March 2009 00:00

The Man in the Mountains

When imagination replaces memory

The morning quiet is only troubled by the strong heat hitting on the iron roof of the shelter. He stretches his limbs and jumps on his feet. He can feel the accrued stiffness of his body week after week. That’s a bad sign- it means that the water is still rising. Like people who live in extreme territories, he is prematurely old and at the same time, ageless. He doesn’t know when he was born; in fact, he doesn’t remember anything that happened before the catastrophe. He goes out and feels the sun on his face. He ritually commences the day by making a tour around his “estate”, a complex of old sheds and buildings that seem to stand together only by the trash piled all around. He closes his eyes and tries to reassemble the puzzle of sensations and recollections: a great tumbling that sounds like a crash, a shrilling noise that drilled his eardrums and left him deaf ever since. Did he really feel the warm dashes of blood spilling inside his head before slipping into nothingness or has his mind made them real after dreaming of them so many times?

He realises suddenly the insistent presence in front of him: at his feet, the cat fixes him with its green eyes, asking for its daily ration of food. The cat is the only living being he has seen around for months and maybe years, he cannot be sure anymore as it’s been a while since he has completely lost track of time. “Old man,” the cat seems to say, “Stop brooding on the thoughts of the past that would not feed either of us.”

“Alright, smart pal, let’s see what’s fishy today…” the old man says while readjusting his straw hat on his head.

Together they follow the brook downstream, a brook that is formed like a gutter on concrete ground. Despite its muddy colour, the water is clean and fresh and it even tastes sweet. He can hear his heartbeat, following the rhythm of his rapid walk and the strong thumping just brings back other memories: a terrifying rumble and the sea thrashing the city like a gigantic whip. He has to stop for a moment; his head has started to hurt. He massages his temples to get rid of the salty after-taste in his mouth. During the first weeks, the plains were like a big hot pot: houses, cars, trees, animals and bodies were floating in a dense liquid made of tar and sea water. And the mixture was slowly being boiled by an unexplainable heat. Then the island started to sink and the few survivors had to reach higher heights in the mountains. The cat and the old man have arrived at the pond; the old man looks satisfied, two of the fishtraps are full. In one of them, there is a flat plastic box spotted with hardened tar.

3283397609_edc6806514_oOnce back home, he cleans out the catch, sticks the frogs on picks and puts everything on the grill. Then he shares his meal with the cat who eats the fish heads delicately before leaving as soon as it has finished. Usually, the old man would take a nap but he wants to examine his find, the flat plastic box, and he takes it to his “workshop”: a makeshift shelter where he stores all kinds of objects he found in the mountain- his treasures. Many of them are still piled randomly here and there, waiting to be washed, sometimes repaired and then classified. In a rather short period of time, he has built up a real museum but only a few shelves actually display some carefully chosen items. His favourite objects are well conserved lucky charms with a shiny golden colour. He likes to think that some other people before him hung these knickknacks in the entrances of their home, in front of their window, as the shadow of the magical and entangled character would dance on the walls like a crazy spirit. He himself carries one around his neck and tried some time ago to tie one to the cat who resisted with claws before escaping. Most of the things are strange to him and doesn’t trigger any memory; still, by cleaning them, repairing them and classifying them, he ends up by creating a familiar bound and he convinces himself that these objects must have been made to be used that way. Somehow, these altars are meant to be catalogues of the past civilization he used to belong to.

3283391645_967ea58a08_oHe scrapes carefully the tar on the plastic box and a photograph of faded colours appears. He reads aloud the characters: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. It’s the cover of a movie from the past century. A man with insane eyes looks over his right shoulder, his iron helmet contrasts with his blonde straggling locks. On his lap a young girl, also blonde, looks toward the same mysterious direction, she has an arrow stuck in her chest. On the other side of the box, he deciphers the text, scratching with his nail the remains of tar: “Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish soldier, leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in the deep jungle of Peru but his search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado, only leads him to madness and death”. The old man reads several times these few lines as if the repetition could unveil their mysterious signification. He feels strangely upset by Aguirre’s futile quest as it fails to arouse some forgotten memories but still moves something deep inside his mind. He can easily imagine these men struggling to open their paths into the thick tropical jungle of another world, but similar to the one that surrounds him now. He can experience in his own flesh the madness and the frailty of an existence lead by imagination.

He raises his head suddenly, the sun is high, burning his tired eyelids and stinging his wrinkled neck. His ears are buzzing again, he goes back to his shelter to lie down and he dreams of men with iron clothes, setting foot for the first time on this forgotten island.

 

Download here the short story in pdf

All photos by Roy Berman
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Saturday, 08 December 2007 00:00

The Appeal of poetry

People express and communicate ideas and messages through language. Before the invention of alphabets and hieroglyphs and other symbolic ways of preserving and communicating, such as the pounding on hollow logs by African natives, the smoke signals of American Indians and pictographs drawn on cave walls, language was expressed only by gestures and spoken sounds. Nowadays we are bombarded not just by conversations, but by barrages of words spewing out of radios, TV sets, and phones and an endless array of newspapers, magazines and books. Some of these communications are mainly utilitarian, relating news events, imparting information, recording data, instructing, etc. Others are intended for pleasure or amusement, like stories, humor, drama, musical lyrics and finally poetry, which is what this is mostly about.
 
Written language is generally divided into “prose” and “poetry”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “prose” as “ordinary speech or writing, without metrical structure.” It is the type of expression generally found in books and newspapers. Some prose, however, is considered to be “literature” in the sense of “imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value (American Heritage Dictionary).” This kind of literature does more than just narrate facts. By its choice of words and the way it describes a scene or event, it portrays colors and evokes feelings and moods and brings out a wealth of subtle, hidden meanings between the words. It is a pleasant aesthetic experience.
 
Take for instance the famous first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities”:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Contrast that with the way a journalist or reporter might have put it:

It was the year 1775. To some people everything was as good as it could get. To others things were as bad as ever. Those who had it good wanted nothing to change. Those who had it bad wanted to overthrow everything. There was hope on one side and despair on the other. Just like modern times it generated a lot of tension and uneasiness.
Both versions express more or less the same idea, but Dickens is much more graphic and sensitive and moving. The second one could serve as introduction to a book or article and who knows it might eventually receive a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, but ordinarily literature that is acclaimed artistically is full of color and vivid descriptions and feelings. The reader is left not just with a mass of detailed information, but a sense of pleasant aesthetic experience arising from images created by the writer’s choice and crafting of words.
Take another example, this time the first part of the first paragraph setting the scene for the first episode in the famous novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. An unimaginative writer might have begun like this:

Two men are sitting in a forest. The trees are so close to each other the sun’s rays barely pass through, but there are some open sections through which a person can easily see for some distance.

Contrast that with what the novelist wrote:
In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. …

The sun was setting upon one of the rich grassy glades of that forest, … Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copewood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to interrupt the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas, in the intimacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of sylvan solitude. Here the red rays of the sun shot a broken and discoloured light, that partially hug upon the shattered boughs and mossy trunks of the trees, and there they illuminated in brilliant patches the portions of turf to which they made their way. …

The human figures that completed this landscape, were in number two, partaking, in their dress and appearance, of that wild and rustic character, which belonged to the woodlands of the West-Riding of Yorkshire of that period.

Sir Walter’s description is much more vivid. A mood is created and we have details with which to create a mental picture of the scene.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “poetry” as “a piece of literature written in meter; verse”. There are several things that distinguish poetry from prose. Traditionally poems are written as a series of lines in each of which the words are arranged in more or less identical patterns of accented and unaccented syllables (the meter), which gives the poem a cadence when read aloud. The last words of each line are usually expected to rhyme. Another important thing that distinguishes poetry is its choice and use of words. To fit the meter, the order in which words are presented is often different from that in ordinary prose, but even more significantly, the words are often selected for the way they sound or they are given underlying meanings and nuances or evoke images that create a mood or symbolically express ideas about reality that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Poetic diction often uses verbal devices like assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm, which often leave the poem deliberately vague, ambiguous, suggestive, mysterious, ironic, or symbolic.
The reader of a poem is not only entertained by the poet’s literary style, but is moved to see reality in a new light. As one expert put it (Polish historian of aesthetics Vladyslaw Tatarkiewicz in an article “The Concept of Poetry”, quoted in “Poetry,” Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia) poetry is “an art based on language” and “expresses a certain state of mind”. According to poet Archibald MacLeish (same source) “A poem should not mean / but be”.
Here are several examples illustrating the differences between prose and poetry. In the first, look at a brief observation someone might make about trees:
No poem is as nice as a tree, which rooted in the ground lifts its branches to the sky, alternately washed by rain or covered with snow. Sometimes birds build their nests in it. Anybody can write a poem, but only God makes trees.

That is all very true, but so dull and ordinary, no one will ever remember it or quote it. Not so the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

As a second example, look at what this person who is not a poet might have written in a letter to his mother:

I was walking along and came upon a lot of flowers on the edge of the lake under the trees. There were thousands of them blowing in the wind. It was a very pleasant sight that I recall with pleasure.

Contrast that with the poem “Daffodils” written by William Wordsworth:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the Milky Way, They stretch’d in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Finally, here is how a rather dull preacher might express himself about man’s disregard for God’s creation:

Why don’t men recognize or heed the signs of God’s presence in the world like the flashes of lightning, the reflections of light or the properties of oil? Men are spoiling and destroying the world by the senseless ways they act. In spite of all this God continues to renew and bless nature with his loving care.

Compare this with the way that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says the same thing in his moving poem “God’s Grandeur”.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Not everyone appreciates poetry. Collections of poems seldom, if ever, rate high on bestseller lists. Many readers of fiction and non-fiction and subscribers to magazines that cater to special interests look down on poetry, consider poets as idyllic dreamers at best or soft and unmanly at worst. They lack the patience and the inclination to waste time on such pretension for playing around with words.
 
They don’t know what they are missing and have no desire to find out.
 
The earliest poetry that has survived to the present is the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamish from the 3rd century B.C. There were many epics in ancient times. The poetic form might have made them easier to remember and recite by storytellers. Since then poetry has evolved into many forms including free verse, that is, poems with lines of unequal length, no rhyming and sometimes no meter. Their emphasis is on expressing ideas in a poetic way. There are also examples of prose that are considered poetic because of the way the ideas are expressed in language similar in style or content to what is found in poems.
 
There are many kinds of poems. Some tell stories; some are meant to instruct; some are meant to convey the writer’s feelings or reflections about reality; some just use meter and rhyme as ways to entertain saying things that are clever or satiric or are whimsical or funny.


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