Thoughts on “A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes” by Madhur Anand

I’ve been meaning for a few years now to write down some thoughts on Madhur Anand’s 2015 collection of lyric poems A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes. Since I was a child reading Sagan and Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe and therein discovering the poetry of Yeats, I have known that the mythical division between Art and Science is a false one. The Ancient Greeks (I want to channel Matthew Arnold and write “Sophocles long ago . . .”) saw no division: Astronomy had its Muse just as did Dance and Lyric Poetry had each their own divine patron and inspiration. The Greeks had it right: eight Muses for History, Dance, and various Poetries; one for what we would now call a science. Today we creep slowly back toward a balanced view, slipping (at times) an “A” for “Art” into STEM to advocate (at times) for STEAM education. I heartily wish for a better, unconscious, common-sense attitude amongst artists and scientist to these sadly divided pursuits of which we all, by virtue of our very humanity, are devotees. It is a vanishingly rare person who does not feel the twin urges — however repressed or supressed, to create (Art) or to find out (Science). And I doubt there is a “Scientist” who is not Artful, an “Artist” who does not use Science.
I’ve been running on a bit.
Madhur Anand is a Poet and a Scientist and is unashamedly — proudly both at the same time. And her New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is a marvelous, challenging, beautiful, and remarkably coherent collection of poems about being human in a world begging for careful exploration and sensitive understanding.
Anand begins her volume with two graphic illustrations of a glucose molecule facing twin epigrams, Adrienne Rich’s “Is it in the sun that truth begins?” and Democritus’ “Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” Democritus has, as I am sure professional Ecologist Anand well recognizes, anticipated and distilled (with significantly less poetry) the essence of Darwin’s The Origin of Species into a single line.
But what of the sun, truth, and the glucose molecule?
Turn to Section One and the answer should begin to come into focus: “What We Don’t See in Light’s Dark Reactions”. And the poem of the same name begins with a sentence in little less than two lines:
The rejection of reds, a gap of blues, chlorophyll
absorbing necessary wavelengths.
Chlorophyll’s necessary response to photons it meets: rejection of some wavelengths, absorption of others — the “necessary” ones. And, from that simple chance and necessity, the rest of the poem’s description of nature, Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” And how have these forms been evolved? This poem’s final sentence:
Something winged, ringed molecules, sugar from light.
Look back at the winged, ringed molecules drawn as a graphic epigram. The chlorophyll has, by chance and necessity, used the light of the sun to make this ringed, winged sugar which has made the wings of the peacocks and of the bird of paradise and the rings and circles of brooches, chandeliers, oranges, and non-zero-sum games. And right there is Truth, from the Sun, through the chloroplasts of a leaf, and through the poetry on the page, and from one human mind to another.
This one poem would be more than enough for a happy book of poems, but Anand has more, many, many more “most beautiful, and most wonderful.” Many of her poems have been evolved in a way somewhat different from the usual poetic practice of relatively modern times. Some of these poems were made not by struggling over single words. Anand has made some poetic collages of passages from scientific papers. I’m reminded of the Dada poet Tristan Tzura who constructed poems from random lines clipped from newspapers. I suspect, however, the evolution of Anand’s poems is the result of a greater selective pressure than were those of Tzura. I feel that Anand is tapping into something very ancient, the now largely lost but once widespread poetic technique of formulaic poetry, originally oral. Anand is constructing poems from pre-existing elements of a scale larger than the single word, as “Homer” used the multi-word metrical formulae which were the shared poetic heritage of his culture when composing The Iliad and The Odyssey. In these poems, Anand is using ourscientific culture’s shared heritage, the heritage of shared scientific discovery and open communication to make and communicate her own discoveries.


So many wonderful poems. My copy of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is 20190309_1914383031408838012166888.jpgliberally punctuated with those little brass book darts (I order them in bulk). What to quote? The overwhelming density of reference of “The Origin of Orange”, with a richness to fill many years of contemplation? (cf. Pliny the Elder, Book XXVI, xiii.) Or the return to Orange in “Three Laws of Physics:

Two glasses sit side by side
on the table like windows
one filled with sunshine
one with melting ice caps . . .
Or maybe the marvelous linking of poetry, botany, Chinese calligraphy, and interior design of “Will it?” How about the unbearable and unbearably restrained eroticism of “What to Wear”?
I want you the way
a gold border wants
a red silk sari
I want you to be the blouse
tailored to my breasts, fastened
from behind by your eyes . . .
Too many. Too rich. Anand’s poems are too rich to paraphrase, too varied to describe, dauntingly allusive and joyfully elusive, and ultimately as concrete and as mutable as Art and Science and Human existence.
A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is a volume to read from cover to cover, to read again, to make notes on, and to return to again throughout a life.
Seek it.
Find it.
Savour it.

Thoughts on Burns Night: Haggis, Scotch, and Authenticity

The cottage leaves the palace far behind
– “Cotter’s Saturday Night”, l. 168

Every January 25th unknown numbers of people around the world, for largely unknown reasons, gather to celebrate something called “Burns Night”. Usually these celebrations involve the drinking of Scotch whisky, the eating of something called “haggis” and (sometimes) the reciting of a brief bit of poetry about the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race” in the 18th Century Scots dialect of English, pronounced with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. The whole thing is usually great fun, which is likely the reason the traditions continues: there simply aren’t that many actual Scottish, poetry-loving haggis-eaters in this world and I suspect the vast majority of celebrants know little about haggis, Scotch whisky, Scotland, or the rakish farmer-poet from Alloway, Robert Burns. Certainly few are able to call to mind even a single line of Burns’ verse apart, perhaps, from “Auld land syne . . .”.

Here are a few more lines:

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
– “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose”, ll. 5-12.

Robert Burns, the man whose “Imortal Memory” tradition has us toast on his Night, was born a tenant farmer in 1759 in the village of Alloway in the Western Lowlands of Scotland. His father was a bit of a self-taught polymath and made great effort to support his family and to educate his children, with greater success in the latter endeavour. Robert was schooled, both at home and more formally, in Latin, French, and English literature. This learning helped him little in escaping the back-breaking and fairly hopeless life of the tenant farmer, but it certainly provided him with forms and fodder for his poetry. Many of his most accessible pieces are love poems written in the early years of a short life. Burns spent a great deal of time, it seems, trying to convince servant girls, barmaids, and female farm workers to be his muses and lovers. At least three of his illegitimate children – not counting the four children his future wife, Jean Armour, bore him out of wedlock – are the product of his “encounters” with such “muses”. A modern sensibility can’t help but be disturbed by the power dynamic of Burns’ first reproductive success, in 1785, involving Elizabeth Paton, a servant girl in his mother’s household. Was this what we would call love? Or was it rape, one of uncountable #MeToo moments of history?

By whatever name, these “seductions” soon became a pattern of Burns’ life. In November 1788, a few years after his encounter with Elizabeth Paton, after Burns found himself sexually shut out by a lady who struck his fancy, her servant, Jenny Claw, perhaps unsurprisingly, in due course, bore Burns a son in November, 1788. In March of the same year, Jean Armour, still not married, had borne Burns twins again. The children sadly did not outlive the month. At this point, Burns had just eight more years to live and was to father six more (known) children, five by Jean Armour and one by a Dumfries barmaid, Ana Park, in 1891. The last child, a son, was born four days after his father’s death in July of 1796.

Burns was clearly, if not selflessly, devoted to sex. He was also devoted to drink and to good, simple, hearty food. But Burns also made desperate attempts to continue to make a living as a farmer, a habit which remained with him even after his poems brought him success in Edinburgh. His first volume of poems, descriptively titled “Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”, caught the eye of an Edinburgh publisher who brought out an edition in the big city in April of 1787 and paid Burns quite handsomely. Burns was, for a time, the toast of the town, hobnobbing with the gentlemen and ladies and ladies’ maids particularly. He abandoned plans to emigrate to a new life in Jamaica, apparently thinking Scotland had become more hopeful for him. In time, however, he alienated many of his new friends with his common man republican sympathies, first for the American Revolution, and later for the revolution in France. He turned from city life, bought a new farm and continued to write. But this farm failed too, as had so many for his family. He moved to Dumfries, fathered a last child, joined a volunteer military unit in 1795, apparently to prove his loyalty to the Crown, and died a year later at the age of 37.

Some blamed drink. Some blamed the hard labour of his life. He had declined a position at a newspaper in London. He had declined a candidacy for the Chair of Agriculture at Edinburgh University. He had, quite simply, declined.

Is it this fairly melancholy life that we celebrate on Burns Night? An old mentor of mine, Dr. R. J. S. Grant, wrote a study of Burns titled “The Laughter of Love”. But where is this laughter? Where this love? In this life? Perhaps Burns tells us himself what to celebrate in his “Epistle to James Smith”, a letter in verse to his good friend and companion in drink and the seduction of the women of Mauchline:

Some rhyme a neibor’s name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu’ cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash,
An’ raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun.

The star that rules my luckless lot,
Has fated me the russet coat,
An’ damn’d my fortune to the groat;
But, in requit,
Has blest me with a random-shot
O’countra wit.
– ll. 25-36

Burns says clearly here that whatever other reasons he may have for writing verse – he certainly wrote his share of political pieces – always the prime driver of his work is fun. He is quite clear that his fortune in life has been meagre, but there’s that random-shot of country wit he’s been granted, and he is determined to use it. Burns seems never to have had much ambition beyond ploughing a straight furrow, getting enough to eat and drink, satisfying his lust, and, most of all, writing verse.

Then farewell hopes of laurel-boughs,
To garland my poetic brows!
Henceforth I’ll rove where busy ploughs
Are whistlin’ thrang,
An’ teach the lanely heights an’ howes
My rustic sang.

I’ll wander on, wi’ tentless heed
How never-halting moments speed,
Till fate shall snap the brittle thread;
Then, all unknown,
I’ll lay me with th’ inglorious dead
Forgot and gone!
– ll. 49-60

Perhaps the only ambition he ever satisfied in life was this quest for fun. And, although he claimed not to want it, he achieved a remarkably wide, if somehow shallow, fame in death. His goals in life were simple:

While ye are pleas’d to keep me hale,
I’ll sit down o’er my scanty meal,
Be’t water-brose or muslin-kail,
Wi’ cheerfu’ face,
As lang’s the Muses dinna fail
To say the grace.
– ll. 139-145

It is in his poetry, not his melancholy life, that Burns finds for himself and passes to us the fun he seeks in simple things, in food and drink and human companionship. It is here, in the poetry, that Dr. Grant hears “The Laughter of Love”. The memory of joy preserved and transmitted in his verse is the truly Immortal Memory that is toasted at any Burns Dinner worth its Salt:

On January 25th each year we drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of the poet of the laughter of love and for one brief, shining moment we are one with our dear ones, one with our fellow men and women, one with the little mouse with whom we share a common destiny and mortality.
– R.J.S. Grant, The Laughter of Love: A Study of Robert Burns, p. 168

This unity is surely the hope gestured to at Burns Night Dinners, but what does the obscure national dish of a small country have to do with sharing “a common destiny and mortality” with the people of the world?

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
– “To a Haggis”, ll.1-2

Much wailing and face-pulling can be heard and seen at any mention of haggis-eating. This rather ordinary food product has acquired, due, I suspect, to a great deal of manly-Fear-Factor-inflation of the gross-out possibilities of organ-meats-I-have-eaten-in-my-life when good buddies get together – this haggis has acquired a bit of a reputation for being inedible or, at the very least, somehow disgusting. But consider: a principle ingredient is onion, one of the most common vegetables in almost any national cuisine. Another is minced liver, considered a delicacy under the name “paté”. Perhaps haggis needs a French accent to be acceptable to food snobs. Oatmeal goes into the beast as well, that common, warming breakfast staple. Perhaps heart is not so common in the North American diet as it once was, but a wonderful, flavourful muscle nonetheless, and one that any steak-lover would be foolish to ignore. It’s all stuffed into some bit of an animal’s digestive tract (traditionally the stomach, they say) exactly as the finest sausages are stuffed.

“But”, you shout, still anxious for the gross-out, “what about the lungs?!”

Yes, much is made, particularly by the Scottish National Chamber of Commerce and such protectors of all things Scottish, that haggis must contain the lungs – the lights as they’re also known – of the animal. Well, I have news for all living Scots at home and abroad: a dead Scot says you’re wrong. On page 160 of F. Marion McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Recipes, published in 1929, in a “Traditional Cottage Recipe” for haggis, we read “A little lean mutton may be substituted for the lights.” To further destroy the tyranny of modern haggis convention, Ms. McNeill also suggests on the very same page that haggis may be made in a jar, or in a pan “like a stew”. Haggis is beginning to look a lot like that paté after all. To be honest, when I am asked about haggis (as, odd to say, I often am) I ask back “do you like paté?” If their face scrunches up and they say “no” I tell them “you won’t like haggis”. But if their face brightens and they say “yes” I’ll say with confidence, “give it a try.”

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
– “To a Haggis”, ll. 25-42

While Burns’ Address “To a Haggis” is great fun and a bit of a hype-machine itself, the dish described is no mystery. It is exactly what Burns says it is: a hearty, filling, satisfying, rich, and flavourful dish fit for the taste of a hard working rustic. It isn’t meant for those who want their “authentic”, vegan, freegan, gluten-friendly (although haggis usually is that), organic, hipster, fashionable fricassees and French ragouts. Haggis is for quelling hunger, and that is why Burns praises haggis, the “Great chieftain o’the pudding race”, as “honest” in the first line of his poem. Haggis is not, and should not be, pretentious. It is rustic food, food made with what is on hand in an 18th Century Scottish farmer’s simple home, authentic with no need to be labelled such.

This life, sae far’s I understand,
Is a’ enchanted fairy-land,
Where Pleasure is the magic-wand,
That, wielded right,
Maks hours like minutes, hand in hand,
Dance by fu’ light.
– “To James Smith”, ll. 67-72

And consider Scotch Whisky, “O thou, my Muse!” as Burns names it in the invocation of “Scotch Drink”. Today, Scotch Whisky, even of the most inferior blended sort, is a premium product. A fairly fine bottle can easily cost a day’s labour at minimum wage, and it wouldn’t be hard to drop two days’ wages for something only a little better. In Burns’ day, in contrast, Scotch Whisky was the labourer’s drink, “the poor man’s wine” (“Scotch Drink”, l. 40). Compare Canada today, where a more than decent wine can be had on sale at Superstore for less than an hour’s labour. When Burns celebrates Scotch Drink in the poem of that name, he is celebrating the home-grown, common people’s, inexpensive, consoling tipple at the end of the working day. “Scotch Drink” and the “Address to a Haggis” are nothing other than celebrations of what would today be termed Food Security, By Local, and the One Hundred Mile Diet.

For loyal Forbes’ charter’d boast

Is ta’en awa!

“Scotch drink”, ll.113-114

After the Scottish nationalist rebelion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie had been brutally crushed at Cullodden, the English Crown rewarded families who had remained loyal with gifts such as charters of excise tax exemptions. On the basis of such a loyalty exemption, the Forbes family dominated the Whisky industry for over a century from their distilleries at Farintosh. But in time the Crown recinded the Forbes’ charter. When Burns laments “Thee, Ferintosh, O sadly lost!” he is not lamenting the closure of a distillery that made his favourite, authentic, small batch three-hundred-dollar-a-bottle Scotch. He is lamenting, rather, the loss of a large scale distillery that produced copious quantities of affordable (cheap) hooch that flooded the Highlands and the Lowlands and helped to keep the labouring classes happy for at least a century. Ferintosh was the common man’s drink, a dozen levels below Johnnie Walker Red Label, sort of the two-four of Lucky Lager of the day.

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an’ barkin hoast
May kill us a’ . . .
– “Scotch Drink”, ll. 109-12

Take the haggis of Burns’ day, with neeps and tatties if you wish, add his affordable Ferintosh whisky, and compare these to the great pomp and formal ceremony of one of the umpteeen Burns Night Dinners at fancy hotels around the world each January. Would the Burns we have seen, the Burns of the common people, the Burns who turned down a job in London and a University position to return to the rural plough – would this Burns, “our Rabbie”, be comfortable at that fancy hotel, do you think? Perhaps briefly, but he would soon be in the kitchen, harassing the waitresses, sharing a box lunch with the dishwasher, and singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of his drunken lungs!

Burns was a respecter of neither pretension nor of authority. He was of rustic stock and never lost his love for the simple things of a working man’s life. If you want to celebrate Burns Night in the true spirit of Burns, don’t seek out haggis or Scotch whisky (unless they’re the sorts of food and drink the ordinary working people would eat and drink where you live) and don’t read 18th century Scottish verse if you only read it once a year and don’t understand it anyway. In my town a true Burns Night would probably involve something like beer and pizza with friends and family with whatever music brings you and your dear ones together. Maybe even something about the old sod by Spirit of the West.

If you are at a Burns Dinner this January 25th, or any January 25th, please take a moment to read “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, and raise a glass of something affordable to a poet of the common people, a poet devoted to fun above all else, and stuff your face with comfort food, whatever that may be in your country, with your family and friends.

Wave that magic-wand of pleasure he mentioned to his friend James Smith, and have fun in the fairy-land of life!

We wander there, we wander here,
We eye the rose upon the brier,
Unmindful that the thorn is near,
Among the leaves;
And tho’ the puny wound appear,
Short while it grieves.
– “To James Smith”

Witches. In a Church. On a Winter Evening.

                               Wyrd oft nereð
unfaégne eorl      þonne his ellen déah.

There’s something magical about walking through an Edmonton winter evening snowfall to live theatre.  Strathcona theatre-goers are blessed to have available to them the walking part.  But all of Edmonton is blessed by The Malachites (and their friends at The Grindstone) and their hosts, Father Chris Pappas and the Holy Trinity Anglican community who bring us the now-annual winter tradition of Shakespeare in a most beautiful space.  This year it’s a riveting, tempestuous, three-hours-in-a-hard-church-pew-that-feels-like-an-exhilarating-forty-five-minutes-in-a-comfy-chair psychological thriller called Macbeth.

Director Benjamin Blyth has his Anglo-Albertan Malachites fill the space of Holy Trinity’s sanctuary with both external and internal struggles with swords and ambition, drawing the audience in (“come, come, come, give me your hand” says Danielle LaRose’s sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, and she crouches to take an audience member’s hand).  Swords clash, blood flows (a little), and we all, characters in terror and audience in fascination, seem inexorably pulled along by the spun, spinning, and yet to be spun life-fate-threads of the Wyrd Sisters (Monica Maddaford, Jaimi Reese, and Kaleigh Richards).  Sarah Karpyshin’s set design has T-shaped risers thrust the action into the audience down the nave of the church while also dividing this “public” space from the characters’ “private” space in the choir.  And the Witches are ever enveloping all with eerie sound from the aisles.  And so, I must mention the remarkable musical selections and sound design by Danielle LaRose wearing her non-Lady Macbeth hat.

The battle and murder scenes show off Janine Waddell’s wonderful fight choreography without unnecessarily bathing the stage in blood.  (Full disclosure: Ms. Waddell very generously provided fight training for the cast of Guenevere at the Fringe last year, so I’m biased. And some of the sword’s in Macbeth look comfortably familiar.)  Dana Luebke’s costumes are exquisitely Medieval and provide effective shorthand for identifying more minor characters played by doubling-up supporting actors.

Yes, some of the supporting actors are a touch too quiet at times, but there ends my negative criticism. Colin Matty’s Banquo is a twin-like complement to Byron Martin’s Macbeth, Bob Greenwood turns in stalwart and varied performances as Duncan, the Porter and a few other character parts. Young Anna MacAuley is charming in the dual child rolls of Macduff’s daughter and Banquo’s son Fleance (watch for her magical apparition in the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene).  And all the rest do some enchanting things with very original tableaux and expressive backchat.  No matter where you glance, there always seems to be something fascinating happening.

Of course, the centre of the play is the descending spiral of LaRose’ Lady Macbeth and Martin’s Fate-marked Thane of Glamis.  They are wonderful, and — those eyes! On both of them.  Through all their terror, rage, determination, indecision, ambition, laughter, madness, and, yes, moments of tender love, LaRose’s bright and Martin’s melancholy, the eyes of these two brave, tragic souls so marked by the Wyrd spinners of Fate will haunt you as you walk home through the snow.


Go see Macbeth.

Wednesday to Sunday at 7:30 until January 19th at Holy Trinity Anglican Church.


Thoughts Arising from an Endnote in Hofstadter’s Translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”

I love the writings of Douglas Hofstadter. For many, many years I’ve been inspired, influenced, and provoked to unexpectedly deep thought by those writings. On many subjects, not least translation and mourning, I feel his words are essential reading. After seeing Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre I was in equal measure startled into surprise and overcome with excited anticipation to learn that Hofstadter had translated Pushkin’s masterpiece. And somehow I had never noticed.

Translation is an endeavour of the human spirit that has fascinated me, haunted me, and obsessed me for most of my life, at least since the summer of 1967, riding the Montreal Metro and hearing the oddly understandable-to-a-five-year-old-anglo announcement of arrival at “Expo soixante-sept!” Translation, from Old English, Latin, and, more recently, Greek, is daily in my thoughts. I have at times helped friends and relatives puzzle out passages of Swahili and Nahuatl, because friends and relatives have the impression that I “just know stuff”. There is no experience quite like working out the expression of the human mind behind a text and helping another make a connection to that mind.

Translation is important to me, an ongoing challenge, mystery, and joy.

In his translation of Pushkin, Hofstadter is in near constant with another great mind, the Goliath-like figure of Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly, Hofstadter, a native English speaker, fluent in French, and with a journeyman knowledge of Russian, is a David figure in the face of such a brilliant native Russian-speaker and exquisite English wordsmith as Nabokov. The battle of these two, both giants to me, is almost as entertaining as the glittering work of Pushkin which has brought them — the three of them — together across time.

So much to consider, but I will focus on one (and maybe a moment with a second) endnote in Hofstadter’s glittering “novel versification” of Pushkin’s “novel in verse”, Eugene Onegin.

acacias and cherries: Nabokov, in his commentary, flies into a botanicolinguistic paroxysm here, heaping pages of bile and scorn on previous translators’ renderings of черёмуха (“a kind of cherry tree”, says my dictionary), and акация (“acacia”, says my dictionary), and going into all the profound and elusive cultural nuances of these words (and which, it is tacitly implied, are universal among Russians). After over four pages of ranting, Nabokov winds up revealing to his faithful readers what “the correct way” to translate these words is – namely, as “racemosas and pea trees”. Obviously, he would consider my dictionary-lookup methodology of “translation” of tree-names beneath contempt.

This gives a bit of the flavour of things. Nabokov is portrayed by Hofstadter as a bit of a nitpicking, pedantic, know-it-all prone to paroxysms. Meanwhile, Hofstadter has his own defensive paroxysms about his dictionary-lookup, neophyte translation method.

And I stand outside with no Russian and little botany and consider . . .

What does “Acacia” mean to me? Not much more than “ акация”, to be honest. Acacias are not a type of tree I’ve met with, by that name, in my half-century of life in the forests and groves of Canada (with a bit of time in the wooded mountains of Basilicata and Chiapas). But “pea-tree” does mean something to me. I have a hedge at the front of my house of a certain leguminous shrub introduced to my part of the world a century and more ago. It grows wild in the ravine just by my house and throughout the River Valley at Edmonton’s heart. We call it “Caragana”, but I know that it was introduced from Russia, and that it is sometimes called “Siberian Pea-Tree”. Whatever Nabokov’s native-speaker’s intuition (prejudice?) or Hofstadter’s dictionary might say, “pea-tree” is evocative for me of far more than is “acacia”. “Acacia” is descriptive of something outside my experience, however botanically accurate it might be. On the other hand, “pea-tree” evokes springtime walks in the Mill Creek Ravine, of the history of my city, of the long-faded Edmonton, Yukon, and Pacific Railway, whose rail-bed is now a very popular and unbearably beautiful caragana-lined foot- and cycle-path through our wonderful urban forest. And, of course, “pea-tree” evokes for me that hedge I sit behind as I write these words, that hedge of pea-tree that connects me, through Hofstadter and Nabokov to Pushkin and Onegin, Lensky, Tanya and the rest. “Acacia” doesn’t quite do that.

So. Which is the “better” translation? And why?

Well, acacia sensu lato, are members of Fabaceae, the same family to which the pea-tree belongs, and acacias and pea-trees certainly bear a superficial resemblance to each other in some cases. It is perhaps understandable that the term акация has been applied to the pea-tree. And even more understandable that lexicographers have lazily transliterated rather than actually defined the term in Hofstadter’s dictionary. Nabokov’s paroxysm is a democratic shout: “every bloody Russian peasant knows to point to the pea-tree at the edge of the road when some Akademician from Petersburg asks about акация.”

I guess what I’m saying is that both translations are “correct” depending on what is meant by “correct”. But I can’t help feeling that Nabokov is more correct for me (and for English speaking Russians, perhaps) than is Hofstadter, in this particular instance. Unusually for Hofstadter, he defends a dry, unfeeling, dictionary-narrow, non-evocative understanding of the life in акация: “The dictionary says ‘acacia’. If it’s good enough for the dictionary, it’s good enough for me!” Meanwhile, Nabokov: “the people point to the pea-tree. The people live with the pea tree. The people eat the pods of the pea tree. The pea tree is physically in communion with the people. Акация is pea-tree, and pea-tree is part of a living, human narrative.”

As much as I love Hofstadter’s writings on life, death, consciousness, language, and translation, I must side with Nabokov on this not insignificant point: “pea-tree” is a better translation of акация than is “acacia”. “Pea-tree” is life; “acacia” is marks on the page on a dictionary.

I suppose Hofstadter doesn’t help his case for me when in the immediately preceding note he completely mistranslates the very common Latin word “alia”, claiming that “sed alia tempora” means “But time has wings.” Hofstadter seems to have lost his way in his Latin dictionary, mistaking “ala”, “wing” for “alius”, “other”, and thereby strangely grafting wings onto a transitional “but, other times . . . .” (Perhaps Hofstadter is thinking of the common translation of “tempus fugit” as “time flies”, despite the more clearly accurate rendering “Time flees”.)

The looking-it-up-in-the-dictionary translator must be ever vigilant. Translation is not about dictionaries: translation is about communicating one human’s expression of human experience to another human with as much fidelity as possible for the translator. Solutions to translational problems are many and various, and different translators and readers will find different solutions effective for the same problem. That infinitely varied challenge is something that constantly brings me to states of wonder as both a reader and a translator. What a wonderful conversation across cultures and times translation is.

Such joyful frustration and happy satisfaction a word can bring!

Of Anglo-Saxon Drink and Old-Style Philology

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery . . .
— Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, ll. 15-18


Part One

On the Taste and Strength of Anglo-Saxon Drink: A formal effort

Much ink has been spilled on the Old English words, beor, ealu, medu, and win, but little perhaps by critics familiar with both Old English and brewing. There has often been an underlying assumption that the words refer to some sort of standardized and distinct beverages, and so, we have a number of broad efforts to identify the qualities of the various beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons. When one considers that the Anglo-Saxon period covers at least five centuries of human development, defining Anglo-Saxon beverages should be at least as difficult as trying to pin down the distinctions between such products of the last five centuries as purl, lager, ale, claret, icewine, stout, beer, small beer, imperial stout, India pale ale, and bock.

It is clearly a mug’s game, but . . .

Apparently very clear and important information, although much cited, has been largely misunderstood or overlooked. British Library MS Royal 12D17 was published in 1851 by Thomas Cockayne. This manuscript, commonly referred to as Leechdoms, from a bit of the title of Cockayne’s multi-volume work, provides a seemingly clear picture of the relative specific gravities of water, win, beor, and ealu, and so, as most home brewers would see immediately, a fairly clear idea of sweetness, and perhaps, of alcohol content, of the beverages familiar to the author of Royal 12D17. There certainly would have been regional variations we may never understand in beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons, but very clear information seems to have survived about one particular suite of libations:

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2
— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298

If one concludes, as may seem reasonable given the long history of 240 pence to the pound, whatever the actual weight indicated by “pund”, that there are 240 “penegum” to a “pund”, then it is a quite simple of matter of arithmetic to work out specific gravities of the Royal MS’s beor, ealu, and win:

Water: 240 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.00
Beor: 218 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 0.90
Ealu: 246 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.025
Win: 255 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.0625

Ann Hagen (p. 200) and Christine Fell (p. 84, etc.) argue that Beor is a sweet drink, “sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk” (Hagen p. 200). If the Royal MS is accurate this cannot be the case: Beor, at a specific gravity of 0.908 must be very dry or, if sweet, impossibly high in alcohol. A modern wine is considered to be sweet at a specific gravity from 1.010 to 1.025. A modern wine of higher gravity is likely made from concord grapes and either sacramental or kosher. The Royal win was apparently a very sweet wine and ealu either very sweet, very full bodied, or both. But Royal’s beor, no matter how high we might reasonably speculate its alcohol content, can never be argued to be a sweet beverage. Even at 40% alcohol, such a sweet modern drink as Cointreau measures at 1.040. At 0.908, Beor must have a sweetness equivalent to a modern dry wine or a strong beer such as an imperial stout or a barley wine.

Whatever the tastes may have been in other regions and periods of Anglo-Saxon England, at the time and place the information in Royal 12D17 was recorded – if accurate – the taste was for sweet wine and ealu and for dry, strong beor.

It must be noted that Hagen (p. 200) makes a patently false claim: “a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticably less than the same volume of water.” Despite the evidence of Cointreau mentioned above, I have myself tested Hagen’s claim with a nice bottle of Madeira standing in for the port she mentions. I measured the specific gravity of my Madeira by weighing equivalent volumes of both it and ordinary tap water and doing the simple arithmetic. The Madeira was noticeably heavier than was the water, despite the former’s 20% alcohol. Apparently Hagen neglected to consider that sugar is far, far heavier than alcohol and a small amount of sweetness easily outweighs a fairly high amount of alcohol.


Part Two

Revisiting the Land of Cockayne: A conversational effort

One evening (for the sake of the narrative I’m assuming it to have been an evening) I was sitting quietly reading Ann Hagen’s Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink when I was struck by a passage which included words “quoted” from Leechdoms:

An interesting passage from Leechdoms states that ‘a pint of ale weighs six pence more than a pint of water, and a pint of wine weighs 15 pence more . . . and a pint ofbeor weighs 22 pence less . . .’ (pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres . . . ond pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres). p. 200<

I’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the word “mare” has been dropped from Hagen’s transcription of the passage from Leechdoms – thing are dropped at times in every scriptorium.

As a homebrewer and home winemaker, I immediately recognized that if the numbers in this passage of Old English accurately represented a Medieval reality, it would be only a matter of simple arithmetic to roughly calculate the alcohol content of Anglo-Saxon ale, wine, and beor. Hagen is correct in stating “if we could be sure of the volume of an Anglo-Saxon pint, and weighed it against some Anglo-Saxon pennies, it would be possible to discover the alcohol content of beor”(p. 200) provided we can trust the numbers provided by the Anglo-Saxon scribe, but we may not need to know the volume of that old pint. But Hagen makes a sad and incorrect assumption when she states that “Alcohol weighs only four-fifths of the same volume of water, and a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticeably less than the same volume of water.” (p. 200) In fact, I have conducted the experiment and found that a nice Madeira (a convenient stand-in for Port), sweet by any standard, weighs 14% more than an equal volume of water. Even and extremely high alcohol liqueur such as Cointreau, at 40% alcohol, has a specific gravity of 1.04, making even such a high alcohol sweet beverage noticeably heavier than water.

Obviously, between transcription error and easily tested and dismissed false assumption, I was not going to take Hagen at her word for what was in Leechdoms – I both sought out the original passage she quotes and decided to do my own arithmetic.

The arithmetic first. Not being certain of the weight of the Anglo-Saxon penny or pound or the volume of the pound (pint), I thought, why not just assume for a moment that a pound (pint) is a measurement of both weight and volume. Furthermore, why not assume that there are a very British 240 pennies in a pund. One could run the numbers and see what one finds out.

As preliminary, lets look at ealu:

One pund of ealu equals 1 pund six pennies of water. If we assume that the six pennies are 6/240 of the pund of water, that would give ealu a specific gravity of 1.025, which is roughly equivalent to a Russian Imperial Stout.

So far so good. What about wine and beor? Long story short: Wine, 1.0625, Beor 0.95. These numbers put Beor into an American “lite” lager range and wine becomes something very sweet, in the range of a Reisling Icewine.

Hagen’s conclusions, based largely on evidence from other texts, in contrast, are that beor was sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk. Furthermore, she argues that was probably dry (p. 295). As mentioned, Hagen is drawing on many other lines of evidence than just the specific gravity measurements recorded in Leechdoms.

But why such a disparity?

Well, as it turns out, the numbers recorded in Leechdoms are manifestly and obviously inaccurate and unreliable, but to see this one must actually look at the entire passage rather than (mis)quoting an expurgated version from a secondary source, which Hagen has apparently done.

Christine Fell, in “Old English Beor” (Leeds Studies in English, 8(1975), p. 84, quotes the same passage from Leechdoms, with the same ellipsis Hagen includes (excludes?). Clearly Hagen didn’t bother in this instance to go back to Cockayne’s 1851 edition which she cites. If one examines the complete list of comparative weights in Cockayne’s edition (as I have), one finds that there can be little certainty about any of the numbers or comparative weights, and one is left with little more than a word list.

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2

— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298.


Part Three

In For a Penny, In For a Pound: a lot of numbers

Leechdoms lists Oil, Ale, Wine, Honey, Butter, Beor, Meal, and Beans. In the following chart I compare the Leechdoms’ specific gravity numbers to modern measurements. Oil, Honey, and Butter are fairly safe comparisons. Beans and Meal are less safe as there is no indication of what type of meal or beans is meant and the state of dryness (which makes a very significant difference of specific gravity for beans) is unknown. The Oil numbers look very promising, but both the Honey and particularly the Butter numbers are quite far from expectation. Leechdoms says honey weighs 34 pennies more than water and butter weighs 80 less but honey actually weighs 40% more than water and butter weighs just 9% less. I can see no way to reconcile these numbers from Leechdoms’ with physical reality, no matter the weight of the Anglo-Saxon Pennies and Pund.

               Leechdoms5               Actual

Oil          0.95                         0.92 (Olive)
Ale         1.025                        ?
Wine     1.0625                      ?
Honey   1.14                          1.4
Butter   0.666                         0.959
Beor      0.908                         ?
Meal      0.975                        0.61 (Oatmeal)
Beans    0.77                          0.64 (Fresh, Fava) 0.908 (Dry)

When examined in their textual context, it becomes clear that the apparent specific gravities preserved in Leechdoms, if they were ever to any degree accurate, have become garbled into hopeless inaccuracy in textual transmission.


Part Four

The Incredible Lightness of Being an Old-Style Philologist


The proper response to the hero on the beach is likely not a recognition of a familiar literary convention, but the recognition of a situation intimately known to every individual — for every [one] is at some point in [their] life “on the beach.”

— Me, “The Critic on the Beach,” Neophilologus 71 (1987), 118.

A long time ago I wrote a very pretentious and apparently unpublishable paper titled “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba: The Hero on the Beach and Faith in Eternal Life in the Popul Vuh, Arnold’s Dover Beach, and The Wanderer”. It was a study of what had first been described as an “oral-formulaic theme” in Old English poetry, but with the passage of scholarly time, the object of study came to be discovered so widely that if had become clear that the Emperor was somewhat underdressed, if he were an emperor at all, as I came to demonstrate in “The Critic on the Beach”. After an epigraph of a few lines from Arnold’s poem, I began my unacceptable piece with:

I can well remember sitting one evening in a cafe with friends discussing some books I’d just bought, including a copy of Virgil’s Eclogues. At the time I had been expending a good deal of energy wrestling with the concept of the Hero on the Beach, a staple of Old English oral-formulaic theory. It was with a certain amount of surprise that while reading aloud from Virgil my friends and I discovered that the old Roman poet had used the same elements in the same combination that Old English poets were thought to have used. I had by that time already finished a paper on the Hero on the Beach in The Wanderer and I had considered my little work to be modestly revolutionary, taking, as it did, the theme to be more metaphorical, or even allegorical, than merely descriptive. But here we had stumbled onto something much more revolutionary: Virgil seemed to be anticipating the Old English convention by about a millennium. Even if one does not accept the bilingual pun suggested by my friends in their paper on the subject, there is a suggestion of something not yet fully understood about the Hero on the Beach.

I went on for close to thirty pages and fifty-something footnotes referencing and/or quoting at length the popular music of Jane Siberry and The Bangles, the Quiché Maya epic The Popul Vuh, Eliot’s Prufrock, Sophocles’ Antigone, and, perhaps most satisfyingly, my own published scholarly work. It’s a rambling, impressionistic piece which concludes, after a few more cups of coffee and tea:

One of the first incidents which lead me to question the conventional view of the Hero on the Beach occurred as I sat at a traffic light with an old friend I had not seen for some months. We were at a crossroads, about to turn from a country road onto the main road into the city. As I sat, I realized that we were ourselves “on the beach”. The question in my mind became, is the significance of the theme dependent on the details being written down, on being described? Or can the details be significant on their own? It has been recently that I have seen that the details make up a vitally malleable situation, a situation which is magically able to express a perhaps infinite number of profound meanings, often a number of meanings in a single work. In the three works discussed in the present study, the Hero on the Beach is a means of expressing a faith which must necessarily be a paradox: a faith in a form of eternal existence in the face of a painfully evident human mortality. Whether the theme’s ability to express profound meaning is merely a wide-spread coincidence or a result of the inherent wiring of the human brain is a question I do not feel qualified to address. But it should be pointed out that C. G. Jung suggested that there is an underlying principal in man’s universe which leads to “meaningful coincidences.” Perhaps my discoveries in the cafe with Virgil, while listening idly to music, and while sitting at traffic lights are examples of Jung’s synchronicity. The speculation tells us little about The Wanderer as an independent entity, but it suggests a wealth of questions about The Wanderer, and literature in general, as expressions of mankind’s relationship with, and understanding of his universe. These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.

Of rejection letters I’ve received over the years, one of those I received for “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba” stands out as my favourite because of the included anonymous peer reviewer’s comments. They are truly a wonderfully funny piece of literature, and so, I include most of them:

On the validity of the argument, dependability of the method and data:

This is a shockingly untheorized paper. There is no sense (at all) of where things are going or why. I did like the informal style, however inappropriate for an academic discussion, since it is lively and irreverent. But underneath all the fizz, there lurks an old-style philologist with an old-style textual problem: He has discovered some analogies and wants the world to know. One might, in the author’s personal mode, compare the procedure to an [sic] weary beachcomber, staggering along, dried up in the sun, rancid from the heat, but spraying himself with Old Spice. (He could also be imagined, given the egotistic self-reference of the discussion, as singing love-songs to himself.) There is simply no concpetual [sic] map provided here. Why are analogies significant? Do they show something about the commanalities [sic]/banalities of the human “wiring”? Or merely the restrictions of a narrow genre (if the hero is on the beach without a bright light then he isn’t a HERO ON THE BEACH but something else, like Leopold Bloom or Edgar, perhaps)? Or an archetype? But if the latter, there should be empirical, as well as textual, evidence to show its true universality.

On the style:

The author’s style is informal and self-referential, but lively. There is some fizz (but lots of fluff) to decorate the dead(ly) body of philology. The chief objection to the paper is more a question of method than style; it lacks any theoretical grounding, it is mapless, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of the problems (some interesting) that it touches upon but does not take up. . .

Well. This was the 1980s when Theory had at last become fully ensconced and fortified in Academia, and I was about to give my academic sandals a few good shakes and move on to fresh forests and pastures new. Academia had determined that the time for young Old Philologists had passed.

But now I am become old, and I find I like being an old philologist, with leisure and no ties to the fashions and fetters of theory-bound academia. A philologist is a bit of a magpie. A philologist outside academia is a free-range magpie, able to gather information where ever fancy is struck. Because I am a homebrewer, I recognized the potential of that old list in Leechdoms. Being a philologist, I dug into the source. Unlike many contemporary scholars, who seem to merely quote each other’s references rather than consulting the primary sources, I looked at Cockayne’s full transcription. And I did the arithmetic. And I conducted actual real-world experiments. And out of the happy fizz and fluff, I drew some conclusions: Leechdoms is unreliable as evidence of the character of Anglo-Saxon drink; theory is no substitute for the leisurely collection of and rumination on evidence; theory is too often a hammer for which everything must be a nail; there is still lots of beach combing waiting for an old-style philologist.

Pass the Old Spice, please.

We have to go down deep to play this game of literature and literary criticism. But it is a game, a game of searching for questions and then searching for answers. I think that anonymous reviewer knew well that it is a game, and I take his playful comments less as criticism and more as a hat tip to a fellow player. But his apparent dismissal of old-style philology troubles me. “These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.” Or only in the context of theory. Or only in the context of reused quotes from tertiary sources. Experiments call out to be conducted. Old texts wait to be read and reread. Arithmetic must be done and redone. And, always, we sit on the shoulders of a vast and various army of giants.

The poetry that goes by this misleading and unfortunate title attracts occasionally from afar people of various sort — philologists, historians, folklorists, and others of that kidney, but also poets, critics, and connoisseurs of new literary sensations. The philologists (in a wide sense) have as usual done most of the work, and their ardour has not more than usual (probably less than in Beowulf ) been diverted from at least intelligent appreciation of the literary value of these documents.

It is unusually true here that a real judgement and appreciation of these poems — whose obscurity and difficulty is such that only the devoted labour of many philologists has made them available — is dependent on personal possession of a knowledge of the critical, metrical, and linguistic problems. Without the philologist, of course, we should not know what many of the words meant, how the lines ran, or what the words sounded like: this last is in old Scandinavian verse of possibly more importance even than usual. . .

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, p. 16.

Now and then we each bring a little tidbit to the meticulously crafted groaning board of human expression. I am happy with participation, whether it ends in rejection or acceptance. I have no interest in throwing over the banquet table of the ages in favour of a rickety TV tray of this week’s theory. If I am to sit at this banquet, on the shoulders of these giants, I would prefer to look to the horizon now and then as I pick at the philological crumbs on their bibs, rather than turn my blindfolded eyes to a wall, untouched by experiment, trailing flatulent clouds of theory.



1Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

2Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

3Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

4Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

5Based on 240 pennies to the pund.

Guenevere: A Tragedy

A long time ago, before Netflix or Google, almost before the Internet, when I was a young man, and people read books and used typewriters, I set myself an exercise. I was on the cusp between university and the real world, steeped in Classical and Medieval Literature, wanting to write something that might last. I set myself the task of writing an Aeschylean Drama. And I chose as my subject the last days of Camelot. Yes, a Medieval Classic Greek Tragedy. Sort of like attempting to write an Elizabethan Tragedy featuring Vladimir Putin (my current work-in-progress).

So, I sat down and wrote a thing called Guenevere. Some bits had been around for a while — a nostalgic bit of a lament addressed by Lancelot to Guenevere is the earliest kernel. All of it came out in verse, some of it, the odes of the Chorus, with an elaborate rhyme scheme emphasizing the strophic structure. It all came out quickly, a function of a few intense years of learning ancient languages by studying ancient poetry. Punctuation was inconsistent, like old manuscripts. Speeches were not always attributed to specific characters, again like old manuscripts. Stage directions were entirely absent, like — you see the pattern. I figured Guenevere would never see a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, and if it did, it would be interpreted as whatever group of thespians might perform it might wish.

Well, this August, at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, my little exercise will be performed and interpreted. I would be very pleased if you went to see Guenevere. My play is deeply rooted in some very old traditions, is deeply conventional, is at once both very unfamiliar and extremely accessible, and is, I think, not quite like anything you have likely seen before.

Camelot is an empty shell. King Arthur and his knights have long been at war in a grey and fading landscape. Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot, is a monk. Guenevere, with all the ladies of Camelot, has gone to a nunnery. The Holy Grail has been found, but, is it too late? Golden memories of youth and dreams of happiness stand against a reality of war, decay, incestuous betrayal, and inevitable death. Guenevere, the woman, and Guenevere, the play, resolve to Myth, to human meaning in the face of universal meaninglessness, to the Life that lives in memory in the face of the endless Death of forgetting.

Just a little something I tossed off as a young man back in those mythic times of typewriters, fountain pens, and real books. I’d love it if you would give it an hour of your Fringe time. I guess I’m blowing my own horn, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Times and tickets will be available at the Edmonton Fringe webpage.

For those who remember real books, a limited number of printed copies of the play will be available for purchase.