Sunday, September 23, 2012


annual Patrick Kavanagh

I was reading some poetry aloud recently and remembered the wonderful work of Patrick Kavanagh (1905-1967).  He said of himself that his purpose in life was to have no purpose. As a young man, he walked out of Monaghan all the way to Dublin to meet the literary elite and was rejected out of hand. But eventually he found his way and his place. In a conversation with two Irish university students from Galway, I asked them what they knew about Irish literature, and while their knowledge was very limited they knew Patrick Kavanagh. That pleased me. Here is one of his early poems.

To the Man After the Harrow

Now leave the check-reins slack,
The seed is flying far today--
The seed like stars against the black
Eternity of April clay.
This seed is potent as the seed
Of knowledge in the Hebrew Book
So drive your horses in the creed
Of God the Father as a stock.

Forget the men on Brady's hill.
Forget what Brady's boy may say.
For destiny will not fulfil
Unless you let the harrow play.

Forget the worm's opinion too
Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins,
For you are driving your horses through
The mist where Genesis begins.

Beautiful as this poem is, in later life Kavanagh disowned it because it was too poetic, too much in the way of the things that the critics thought was good. He went on to write some very great poems in a very different manner. THE GREAT HUNGER is probably his best known work, and very powerful it is.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Touring through the great temples along the Nile, I felt enormous respect for the stone carvers who knew precisely how to incise the columns and the walls of the temples with representations of the gods who dominated the various Egyptian cultures for three thousand and more years.

How, I asked myself, could the nation have sustained such a high level of skill among artisans for such a long time, and how could they all have known how to perfectly represent these gods? There is some slight variation, but not as much as several millenia might have been expected to produce. Maintaining the same religion and its implied social stability over such a period of time is certainly astounding.

Of course, just as astounding is the feeling that none of these gods, and none of the narratives that they inhabit, have any serious claim to being true. In other words, they are mythic and not real.

They are the creations of a profound religious imagination. And more than that,they are the source of the power of the extraordinary priests who wielded power over the Pharaoanic elite. The revolution of Akhenaten was undone by the Priests -- and so, probably, was the brief rule of Tutankhamun.

As I went from temple to temple, I realized religion is a powerful force capable of using whatever gods are available.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


The Mayans seem to have used it years before the Spanish came. By the seventeenth century cocoa was a widespread drink, and in the nineteenth century, Cadbury had invented the candy bar. The connection with Eros anticipated St. Valentine by many centuries.  As an enthusiast of chocolate, I began to think about its presence in literature.

Joyce in Finnegans Wake, remarks, “Mine’s me of squisious, the chocolate with a soul.” And that made me remember all the references to Epps’s Cocoa, such as in Joyce’s letter to Nora when she was only 24 and much too thin for a mother of a 4 year-old. Joyce is away and tells her she must eat more to make her fuller and healthier.

In Ulysses Van Houten’s cocoa is mentioned frequently along with Epps’s cocoa, and chocolate takes on an aphrodisiac role in the Nighttown episode (Hades) when Bloom goes chasing after Stephen Dedalus. We see him, in his haste, “On the farther side under the railway bridge Bloom appears, flushed, panting, cramming bread and chocolate into a sidepocket.” That chocolate figures much later when he is in the company of Zoe, the accommodating lady of the night. Bloom is in an awkward position in the House of Bella Cohen, standing in a hallway not quite knowing what to say: “( A male form passes down the creaking staircase and is heard taking the waterproof and hat from the rack. Bloom starts forward involuntarily and, half closing the door as he passes, takes the chocolate from his pocket and offers it nervously to Zoe.)”

Zoe takes the chocolate only to return it a few lines later, when he has clearly understood where he is: “(a male cough and tread are heard passing through the mist outside. Bloom’s features relax. He places a hand in his waistcoat, posing calmly. Zoe offers him chocolate.)” The return of the chocolate is almost talismanic, and Bloom in his characteristic way begins to analyze the interchange, especially in light of the fact that he does not have anything more than social intercourse with Zoe: “(takes the chocolate) Aphrodisiac? Tansy and pennyroyal. But I bought it.” The chocolate implies a consummated deal, a metaphor for intercourse–the next best thing.

For an interesting detailed discussion of cocoa in Joyce see: Cocoa in the Wake