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Old 09-07-2018, 01:03 AM
Daniel Kemper's Avatar
Daniel Kemper Daniel Kemper is offline
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Default Meditation on Russian Hill

Meditation on Russian Hill

That baleful flicker of light that was to play
at Moscow on Napoleon,
who of the nameless drones that trot today
Pamplona-like, the Metreon,
or SF-MOMA, or what side-walks they
occupy and brusquely lead me on
could care or understand about that day?

Twilight does not come to this foreboding place
in the natural color of gold.
The sea of darkness comes with a peculiar grace
like a driftwood-gathering, old,
old lady, who having once turned round her face
will look no more into the cold,
but backs that way, like sunset's final trace.

Ancient phosphorescent bits that seem to splash
are flecks from dying cigarettes,
and neon signs for sex and liquor that flash
and flicker to ensure no one forgets.
They're remnants that old lady stirs from ash
as she burns the driftwood that she gets
from nettled souls like yours to humble ash.

Dark, ethereal ocean; porous abstract wood,
such eerie flames: she used to be
La Belle Dame Sans Merci, if you've not understood
or recognized her, or the sea,
or dreams born of her might--though you've stood
deserted from that strain-ed, Grand Armee,
and seen her scavenge what used to be their food.

Both eloquent generals and homeless know--
George Marshall to Mitch Snyder-- in the end
a comradeship exists among each human foe,
they know that time is not man's friend,
made love to Baba Yaga and would do so
yet again. All the Alexanders bend
to some Diogenes who cackles from below.

For all that, for all the terrible dark retreats,
the doleful fires, the innumerable slow
and broken caravans that occupy the burned-out streets:
they are not visible from here, nor Moscow,
nor the Metreon, nor the graves beneath those streets,
whose baleful light continues to grow
in every lamppost and never quite completes.
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Old 09-07-2018, 07:58 AM
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Don Jones Don Jones is offline
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The is a riddle poem to a point. Not as arcane as Geoffrey Hill but not hip like Paterson or Muldoon. Nor should it be. I’ll give my read on each stanza to see how close or far I am from your intent. It’s obviously an intellectual poem, even academic. As craft it’s quite good. As a poem I’m not so sure.

That baleful flicker of light that was to play
at Moscow on Napoleon,
who of the nameless drones that trot today
Pamplona-like, the Metreon,
or SF-MOMA, or what side-walks they
occupy and brusquely lead me on
could care or understand about that day?


The setting is San Francisco. Russian Hill is a posh center in that city. SF’s Museum of Modern Art: refinement, culture set up to contrast with the squalor that proceeds. Napoleon is ready to enter Moscow as the baleful light flickers on his face.

The denizens are worker bees. Ordinary folk who, like those running with the bulls at Pamplona, are trotting about every which way on that day. Not sure that trotting and running with the bulls are equivalent enough for the simile.

I’m not sure what “that day” is that the drones could not be called upon to understand unless it is the day Napoleon entered an abandoned Moscow. But why would SF denizens care about that? Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa would be closer in time. But that would ruin your conceit: the poem’s setting is Russian Hill, not "German Hill." Maybe it might be any day of the year one sees social injustice as hinted in the following stanzas?

Twilight does not come to this foreboding place
in the natural color of gold.
The sea of darkness comes with a peculiar grace
like a driftwood-gathering, old,
old lady, who having once turned round her face
will look no more into the cold,
but backs that way, like sunset's final trace.


Is the elderly woman the Baba Yaga? The reference to an eastern European folktale aligns with Moscow as far as I can tell. But not yet how.

The sunset isn’t golden. It’s not pretty or breathtaking. The air is ominous as was Napoleon’s entrance into Moscow? Our old woman is like the encroaching dark, she is looking backwards, away from the cold of the setting sun but retreats into it.

Ancient phosphorescent bits that seem to splash
are flecks from dying cigarettes,
and neon signs for sex and liquor that flash
and flicker to ensure no one forgets.
They're remnants that old lady stirs from ash
as she burns the driftwood that she gets
from nettled souls like yours to humble ash.


The sun has set and cigarettes light up the place along with flashy neons. I’m a bit confused here. I don’t know where I am. Cigarettes are a bit depassé and California got that ball rolling years ago. I would think something more in the way of Times Square circa any date before 1995. How many people smoke cigarettes in such numbers and hang around sex shops in Russian Hill? I would take this to be a posh center of SF. What am I missing?

“Nettled souls” are pangs of conscience, the reader’s. Do we hint at class distinctions? A reader who reads this poem on Eratosphere, for example, is privileged to do so. She’s not out smoking near sex shops in a lurid section of a metropolitan center. The driftwood could be the detritus of our consumerist culture. “Ash” . . . “to humble ash” is the standard Biblical invocation of mortality. Things aren’t looking up.

Dark, ethereal ocean; porous abstract wood,
such eerie flames: she used to be
La Belle Dame Sans Merci, if you've not understood
or recognized her, or the sea,
or dreams born of her might--though you've stood
deserted from that strain-ed, Grand Armee,
and seen her scavenge what used to be their food.


Baba Yaga and the merciless woman. Both known to live in the woods. Both femmes fatales.

Now Napoleon comes back. His Grand Armee must scavenge for food as the Russians abandoned Moscow, leaving the conquering French soldiers to fend for themselves. They have been lured, as the narrator of Keat’s poem, into the lair of what would seem a victory (or the successful seduction of a knight/soldier by a woman that is yet to turn deadly), only to have the tables dreadfully turned.

Why “strain-ed” to tell the reader to utter two syllables for your IP? Why not a grave accent? As we have from Keat’s poem “And there she lullèd me asleep,”?

Both eloquent generals and homeless know--
George Marshall to Mitch Snyder-- in the end
a comradeship exists among each human foe,
they know that time is not man's friend,
made love to Baba Yaga and would do so
yet again. All the Alexanders bend
to some Diogenes who cackles from below.


Not sure what Marshall is doing here. He certainly was no Napoleon. He was a builder, not a destroyer. Mitch Synder was a “warrior” for the homeless. Why would Marshall and Synder be referred to as “human foe[s]”? This opposition doesn’t work, especially as “comradeship” has the whiff of the Russia of Marshall’s and Synder’s century. Still not sure what to do with this dichotomy. But it's obviously political.

The opposition assumed between these men is resolved by their eventual absorption into the feminine night, into death. Every man must die. I assume as “a” is to “b” so “c” is to “d” as Alexander is to Diogenes, who told the general to get out of his light. Whether warrior or academic, whether warrior or social activist, we all bed with death as a moth is drawn to a flame. If we can’t be comrades via radical egalitarianism we can at least be equal in death. Nature, the she-wolf, has the last word. But this commonplace truth has no resonance here. For me, the poem doesn’t earn that conclusion.

For all that, for all the terrible dark retreats,
the doleful fires, the innumerable slow
and broken caravans that occupy the burned-out streets:
they are not visible from here, nor Moscow,
nor the Metreon, nor the graves beneath those streets,
whose baleful light continues to grow
in every lamppost and never quite completes.


A whiff of Prufrock. That’s not a slur. Who can help but be influenced by Eliot? Or it's deliberate on your part.

“Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,/The muttering retreats”
Something of Boston’s squalor is redolent here. And the idea of spiritual desolation.

The comparison again seems to be that between Russian Hill in SF and Moscow or any globalized metropolitan center with a war-ravaged city. “Burned-out streets,” “broken caravans,” and the “doleful fires” to keep a soldier warm in that Russian winter or a homeless person if you’re out in the cold.

But SF is generally warm. It’s not New York in winter. I’m not making the connection and while one may fault my literalism, I would wager that a simile, as with a metaphor, must have something of the logically concrete to take off into the sphere of ideation and association.

The last line is intriguing. The light fails to illuminate the lampposts. Supposedly, the disaster that is our civilization is not equal to the task of having us see our way in the dark.

The poem is well written and good enough to have me journey through it. It is a political poem but is shy about its politics. Perhaps it too much enfolds its internal message in balance with its external imagery. Others may find more connections and mine are not the final word.

Last edited by Don Jones; 09-07-2018 at 06:30 PM. Reason: Copyedits/replace "diametric" with "opposition"/Spelling of "egalitarianism"
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Old 09-07-2018, 09:14 AM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
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Don, I admire your very close, very informed reading of this. It helps break me out from my relatively limited knowledge of the references that are imbedded in it, as Daniel does it so well. I can, however, read this and enjoy the loveliness of the images and the skillful rhymes (such as in the whole of stanza 2.)
You suggest that this reads a bit like a riddle (I think that's a weakness of the poem) and has intellectual/academic footing (it does). For me, what keeps it from being pedantic might be the same reason why I think you were able to "journey" to the end. That is, there is a fervor to the telling of the story and a skillful handling of the language that gives it a classical feel that draws me in and keeps me (as do most of what I've read of Daniel's poems).

Daniel, I like the language and the execution of rhyme and the warmth of the telling of it. But, like Don says, it's something of a riddle to me and because I can't find the clues easily and so I am deterred from understanding it fully. But it still works for me because I like the writing. Always do.
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Old 09-07-2018, 09:22 AM
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Don Jones Don Jones is offline
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Jim,

I was going to add to my critique that the homeless situation in California is the worst in the nation. Terrible thing. Property values in SF and such enclaves as Oakland are outrageously high. Even high-salaried tech employees find the rents/mortgages quite prohibitive. Russian Hill may have lots of homeless people there, pointing to the extreme socioeconomic contrast. It may or may not help the poem to state that explicitly. Or, it's just one of those things we should know.

I wouldn't call the poem pedantic. My points to the degree that they are accurate indicate a not yet successful embedding of clues/signs to the overall effect and import of the poem. It certainly was worth the read.

Best,

Don

Last edited by Don Jones; 09-07-2018 at 09:30 AM.
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Old 09-07-2018, 09:26 AM
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Ignore this. An accidental double post with the slow processing time at this website.

Last edited by Don Jones; 09-07-2018 at 09:29 AM.
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Old 09-07-2018, 01:26 PM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
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Don: I wouldn't call the poem pedantic.

No not at all. Nor did you, having made the "journey" through to the end : )

You are right to note the homelessness that exists side by side with extravagant living in SF. The same holds true in all of our major cities. Every day on my way in and out of Boston's tech-rich medical district and surrounding enclaves of townhouses, condos, apts. I pass by growing numbers of homeless that spill out from every corner. It's an epidemic that goes under-reported and certainly under-funded.
I'm not a religious person, but do think any religious organization that doesn't take action to help the poor, the homeless, the forgotten, etc. should have their tax-exempt status ripped from their hands. The government, too, should put their best minds together to help. And private enterprise, too. All they have to do is figure out a way to make a profit in doing it and we'll be set.
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Old 09-07-2018, 10:44 PM
Erik Olson Erik Olson is offline
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Daniel,

You have a lot here. I only comment for now on the first two stanzas and then restricting myself to only some few technical aspects. I shall get to the rest of it later as I am able.
That baleful flicker of light that was to play
at Moscow on Napoleon,
who of the nameless drones that trot today
The sentence structure is too-too. In the first place, one would think the subject 'the baleful flicker' quite naturally; yet only to be thrown off the next clause starting at the next line. Indeed ‘who’ is not, as grammatically default to assume, modifying the ‘flicker’ ; it is actually the subject of a question, which can only be deduced later in retrospect. How you get from the flicker to the who question is syntactically confusing. This sentence is overcharged with commas and subsidiary clauses so that the contours of the superstructure are all too easily lost, not a desirable feature.
Pamplona-like, the Metreon,
or SF-MOMA, or what side-walks they
occupy and brusquely lead me on
could care or understand about that day?
The first two lines are, unintuitively, an appositive element, and the difficult to parse main part of the sentence is twofold:
Who among the drones that trot the Metreon (or SF-MOMA) and lead you on could either care or understand that day, where the baleful flicker of light acted on Napoleon ; or what sidewalks (that the drones occupy) could either care or understand the same?
Is this sentence over a stanza entier not convoluted to a fault? I will look again tomorrow but it has a crazy amount of or's and I am inclined to doubt this works. 'Or' appears so many times, it almost looks as if intended to add complication on complication to impress with technique. But the result is, though involved, not elegant; it may be a puzzle, but by being conspicuously overwrought.

It appears that this sentence of the second stanza is incorrectly punctuated. The comma is due indeed but after ‘who’ and not before it. Also, you need a comma after ‘will.’ The ones that you put after ‘cold’ and ‘way’ are both not grammatically requisite yet permissible if only on stylistic grounds. Having so many already, I would reduce the number of commas where grammatically possible, if it were me. To show the punctuation I would have as well as the necessary placement of the commas in the third verse:
The sea of darkness comes with a peculiar grace
like a driftwood-gathering, old,
old lady who, having once turned round her face,
will look no more into the cold
but backs that way like sunset's final trace.
Is the way 'that way' refers to clear or not? Maybe; maybe not. How about eschewing the second 'old'? I am not a fan of it repeated twice in a row. I prefer the line metrically without a second, also.

Best,
Erik

Last edited by Erik Olson; 09-07-2018 at 11:59 PM.
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Old 09-10-2018, 04:56 PM
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Jan Iwaszkiewicz Jan Iwaszkiewicz is offline
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Some absolutely beautiful poetry here Daniel. It will take me a few more reads to allow me to get an overall picture.

'baleful flicker' seems a little too 'dark and stormy' and could be off-putting to someone not knowing your work.

Unlike Erik I like the repetition of 'old'.

Net connections willing I shall return.

Jan
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Old 09-10-2018, 09:43 PM
Erik Olson Erik Olson is offline
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Daniel,

A brief fly-by note, lest I forget. I want to qualify that I do not feel all that strongly against or for old twice, but I am neither without some hesitation about it. It might be alright. In any case, I am less positive about the matter than I might have let it appear. For what it is worth. Or not.

Best,
Erik

Last edited by Erik Olson; 09-10-2018 at 10:02 PM.
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Old 09-11-2018, 08:44 AM
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Daniel Kemper Daniel Kemper is offline
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Don, first, thank you so much for your deep, close read and all the time you spent in response. Invaluable! I'm going to mention a few places that your read goes awry; however, it's not a critique of your read,
it's just a statement of my intent-- and an implicit indictment that had my skill more precise and accurate, it would not allow leeway for alternate understandings that don't flow with my intent.

The setting is San Francisco. Russian Hill is a posh center in that city.
SF’s Museum of Modern Art: refinement, culture set up to contrast with the squalor that proceeds. Napoleon is ready to enter Moscow as the baleful light flickers on his face.

***I title and open with Russian hill but have in mind the entire backdrop of SF. SF is geographically quite small. Easy to go neighborhood to neighborhood. But, it's my error: I've over-focused the reader.
***Denizens are 'people-en-masse' who can't/don't want to understand what's happening around them and are blinded by their headlong pursuit, can't care or understand about... ***
***“that day” is the day Napoleon EXITED Moscow.(That branch might reframe the whole poem.) Denizens should care as much as the poet. It's the baleful light of decay and desolation. Additional, but not essential
to connect. Napoleon did not devastate Moscow, the Russians themselves did. We do it to ourselves.***

***the twilight of emptiness***
***Baba Yaga -not sure if you gleaned that as you read the first time or, if after a full read you were wondering if this character was the same as later. If the former, AWESOME! That's what I had in mind.
If the latter, still awesome!***

***ominous exit from*** -for Napolean, not the Moscovites.


***I don't think it's warranted to conclude that there are so many cigarettes. But that's what I meant about lack of precision in my writing. Your reading is not truly ruled out. Definitely, I've wandered from Russian hill to Columbus avenue. about 1/2 mile***

***“Nettled souls” --just irritated, angry, not pangs of conscience. Even homeless people out there have mobile phones and access to libraries and can get to eratosphere. Just a footnote to "privilege", nothing more expansive or conclusive than that.***

the detritus of our consumerist culture.
***Baba Yaga and the merciless woman. Both archetypes. Later, you mention the ghost of Eliot, of which I am too often guilty. In retrospect, it looks like I've re-cast Tiresias, the true narrator, the observer and mocker of all those proud consumerists pamplonists in the Grand Armee ***

***They have been lured, as the narrator of Keat’s poem, into the lair of what would seem a victory (or the successful seduction of a knight/soldier by a woman that is yet to turn deadly), only to have the tables dreadfully turned. --to put it Biblically, "the deceitfulness of riches"***

***“strain-ed” = two syllables (minor fail, perhaps). grave accent -good idea, I just compose in plain text. (notepad++)

Both eloquent generals and homeless know-- George Marshall to Mitch Snyder-- in the end a comradeship exists among each human foe, they know that time is not man's friend, made love to Baba Yaga and would do so yet again. All the Alexanders bend to some Diogenes who cackles from below.

***Just wanted to list a great example of a general and a homeless person. Marshall was a great man. Marshall and Synder are not foes to each other-- classic example of my imprecision again. Your interpretation
is not ruled out, though not what I had in mind. I did not have in mind that they were foes to each other at all. Only that both knew that they had a comradeship with their foes. Mitch Snyder humanizing homeless
to other humans, not merely blasting the privileged. Marshall, the builder, as you note, rebuilding former foes, hence the comradeship.

***into death. Every man must die. [etc] Yes, via Diogenes radical rejection of materialism. For me, the poem doesn’t earn that conclusion. --I can understand that and take that with me back to work on this poem. ***

***A whiff of Prufrock. That’s not a slur.*** I love Eliot; I absorb his tone often and often sneak in quotes of his stuff. And sneak in quotes of others, as he seemed to have pioneered.***

The comparison again --> coming back to the literal from the vision. We're not actually in Napolean's places or time. A little Keats' nightingale here.

But SF is generally warm. Heh Heh "The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer in San Francisco."

***The last line is intriguing. The baleful light is contained IN every lamppost, and so it never dies. ***The connection, spritual if you will, beneath all of this, is still there.

*** I love your synopsis: our civilization is not equal to the task of having us see our way in the dark.

***I hope my commentary is useful. I see where I need to tighten up the text, esp the generals' comradeship, Napoleon exiting Moscow, the departure from and return to the literal. Again, again. Thank you for all your efforts!

Jim!
--It is a bit "thick" if you will. And I agree that limited skill has left this one in a riddled state, rather than an "a-ha!" state. back to work for me! Glad there's some enjoyment, but I can see the muddled parts much better now that I'm back from it a little bit.
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