The male gaze & Paul Blackburn: The Once-Over

"Persimmon" by Robert Rauschenberg (1964). Taken in the Art Institute of Chicago... by ME!

The "male gaze" is an important concept. However, the phrase often diminishes the sense of power held by the person being gazed at. Beauty and social hierarchy has its privileges, and its nuisances. "The Once-Over" by Paul Blackburn from the late 1950s holds that sense nicely.

"Stirring dull roots with spring rain" alludes to "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot (which I wrote about here), putting Eliot in the role of Blackburn's "preacher". While attending a religious service with T.S. Eliot holds some novel appeal ("Hey, that's T.S. Eliot!" would be my recurring thought), I'm not sure Eliot would hold my heathen attention for more than a few minutes on the topic of religion. Maybe if he talked about his banking instead I'd be rapt for longer.

The Once-Over
By Paul Blackburn

The tanned blonde
                                    in the green print sack

in the center of the subway car

tho there are seats
                                    has had it from
I           teen-age hood
I           lesbian
I           envious housewife
4          men over fifty
(& myself),     in short
                                    the contents of this half of the car

                                     Our notations are :
long legs, long waists, high breasts (no bra), long
neck, the model slump
                                    the handbag drape & how the skirt
cuts in under a very handsome

                                                      set of cheeks
“stirring dull roots with spring rain”, sayeth the preacher

            Only a stolid young man
with a blue business suit and the New York Times

does not know he is being assaulted.

She has us and we have her
all the way to downtown Brooklyn
Over the tunnel and through the bridge
                                    to DeKalb Avenue we go
all very chummy

She stares at the number over the door
                                    and gives no sign
Yet the sign is on her


April is National Poetry Month, here's a short one to fire up the writing pistons:

By Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

There's a recording of Carl Sandburg reading the poem. I came across it during a long drive while listening to an anthology of poets reading their own work - part of an effort to make myself smarter by choosing literature over listening to podcasts of comedians talking to other comedians about that one time they did that one thing.

Anyway, the recording is on several videos people have posted on YouTube, but here's an adorable reading that appealingly has images of cats throughout. Including a photo of a cat in the fog!

Craft & memory: "Ithaca" by Louise Glück

Penelope at Her Loom, John William Waterhouse (1912)

A poem about memory, art, trickery, and devotion. Odysseus was away from his kingdom of Ithaka for twenty years. Ten years fighting the Trojan War, another ten struggling to come back after earning the ill-favor of Poseidon. His clever wife Penelope fended off suitors for her hand by weaving a tapestry, telling the suitors she would marry as soon as it was done, then undoing each day's work in the night.

By Louise Glück

The beloved doesn’t
need to live. The beloved
lives in the head. The loom
is for the suitors, strung up
like a harp with white shroud-thread.

He was two people.
He was the body and the voice, the easy
magnetism of a living man, and then
the unfolding dream or image
shaped by the woman working the loom,
sitting there in a hall filled
with literal-minded men.

As you pity
the deceived sea that tried
to take him away forever
and took only the first,
the actual husband, you must
pity these men: they don’t know
what they’re looking at;
they don’t know that when one loves this way
the shroud becomes a wedding dress.

Trojan War-time poem: "On the Walls"

Rhina Espaillat

Rhina Espaillat

It's the gossip-y parts of the Helen of Troy myth that often get lost. Though, in re-re-reading The Iliad there are plenty of moments of character sighing ruefully "I wish I weren't so into this" and "Player's gotta play" moments. Other than the Catalog of Ships (made easier when you imagine a cheering room when an ancestor is mentioned), The Iliad remains a good read. The poem below is prosaic but still struck my fancy. My fancy fancy. Can fancies be fancy? "Fancy" kind of loses meaning by the third time you say it in a row. Give it a try.

On the Walls
By Rhina Espaillat

From the first look I knew he was no good.
That perfumed hair, those teeth, those smiling lips
all said, "Come home with me." I knew I would.

Love? Who can say? Daylight withdrew in strips
along those vaulted archways waiting where
the slaves would hear us whisper on the stair.
Not smart, not interesting — no, not the best
as anything, all talk and fingertips.
The best I left behind; they're in those ships
nosing your harbor. You can guess the rest.
The heart does what it does, and done is done.

Regret? What for? The future finds its Troys
in every Sparta, and your fate was spun
not by old crones, but pretty girls and boys.

Wartime poem - "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Listening & reading stories about the increase of veterans committing suicide evoked the phrase "guttering, choking, drowning" from a poem I could not fully recall. So I looked it up. It's below. Wilfred Owen was a World War I era poet who died in 1918, killed on the front lines at the age of 25 in the last week of the War.

To save you the trouble (as I had to look it up to verify) "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is from Horace's Odes and means "It is sweet and good form to die for your country."

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Home loam

Several conversations and experiences with friends along the lines of "I'm not where I grew up" have led to these thoughts. I didn't spend much time on this.

Home loam

My lungs and brain compress when in my hometown.
Every block drizzled with treacle and sour gravy.
Enough! Defy as it saps your bigness down to slavery
Until a forgotten tether tugs and summons you.
Red brown sleeping mouth draws in the box with corded tongues.
Ground fluffed stuffs it shut, you step away with others to quibble over funds.
Cede it all care for nothing,
Eager to get yourself away.
Eat as a guest with caution, deny the soil and stores that
Nourished you. Strive to not let the location of
Death define you. Vainly
Evade that someone's home loam will compost you.