Archive for January, 2011

The King’s Speech

This weekend we saw the movie, “The King’s Speech,” that has been nominated for a slew of Oscars. Enjoyed it very much. Although the history was prettified (the British administration’s attitude toward Hitler was more ambivalent than shown), this did not detract from a moving story. I was only a toddler when King George VI made the famous war speech that climaxes the story, but I must have heard excerpts, the sound of the words was so familiar. My earliest memories are of the hush in our New Zealand home when the BBC news came on. First the stately chimes of Big Ben. Then the announcer’s voice, orotund and crackly over the long-distance airwaves: “This is London calling. Here is the news, read by …” Pictures in the newspapers of King George and Queen Elizabeth inspecting bomb damage in London and comforting the survivors. They were our king and queen, and we loved them too.

The story of “The King’s Speech” is of the future king’s terrible stammer, and of his relationship with the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, a World War I veteran who stayed in England after that war ended to help soldiers whose powers of speech were traumatized by their experience.

One scene hit me hard. Logue, an aspiring actor and Shakespeare enthusiast, is auditioning with a local dramatic society. Their snobbish rejection, based on his Australian accent, thrust me painfully back to the years I lived in England during the 1960s. The English class structure was rigid. My accent pigeonholed me as a colonial, a box from which I could not escape.

Whether fictional or not, the king’s loyalty to Logue the Australian, in the face of his advisors’ disapproval of the fellow’s humble origins and lack of proper credentials, endeared me further to His Majesty.

Blennosperma

In this unseasonably gorgeous January weather, I started thinking about wildflowers. This morning I took a walk at Glass Beach to look for Blennosperma. Sure enough, they’re up. Not yet the carpet of gold,  but a few bright yellow stars dot the green of our  coastal prairie, the uplifted strip of land at the edge of the cliffs. Like many of the California wildflowers we amateur flower seekers call “little yellow jobs,” the Blennosperma flower is daisy-like and shiny. Our variety, Blennosperma nanum var. robustum,  is on the Endangered Species list. It grows only on the Glass Beach Headlands and at Point Reyes.

Glass Beach, now part of MacKerricher State Park, is a popular place to walk. There is talk of putting a cycling trail through it. Seeing those early flowers, I realize again that we’re in danger of loving this place to death. I try to be careful where I walk.

Season Words

A small group meets at my house once a month to talk about poetry. We take turns to choose the topic and lead the discussion. Yesterday’s topic was haiku, a classic Japanese form. We considered the arguments about Robert Hass’s poems in recent issues of Poetry, and agreed that the small fragments quoted have to be considered in the context of the whole poem. They should not be thought of as haiku. We read translations, by Hass, Jane Hirshfield and others, of the great Japanese masters. We pondered Gary Snyder’s comment:  “I do not think we should even ‘think’ haiku in other languages and cultures. We should think brief, or short poems. [Haiku] has elements that can indeed be developed in the poetries of other languages and cultures, but not by slavish imitation. To get haiku into other languages, get to the ‘heart’ of haiku, which has something to do with Zen practice and with practiced observation—not mere counting of syllables.” We read some of Snyder’s haiku-like fragments and some of Hirshfield’s “Pebbles,” her tiny poems that she describes thus:  “A pebble … is seemingly simple, but also a bit recalcitrant: it isn’t quite completely present until it has been finished inside the reader’s reaction.”

We also talked about some of the rules of classical Japanese haiku: the “turning” that often occurs, from outward observation to inside the poet’s mind, and the use of kigo, words or phrases associated with a particular season. We decided it would be fun to come up with a set of season words that would fit the environment of the Mendocino Coast. Here’s the start of our list. We’d welcome additions.

Whales swimming south

Whales swimming north with calves

Blennosperma spreading gold over Glass Beach Headlands

Edge of the Creek

High tide was at dawn. By noon, the breaking waves are far distant, and the creek on its way to the sea has cut a miniature cliff through damp sand. A reflection of sun on water ripples along the vertical face, fluted already by tiny sand-falls. As I watch, more sand avalanches skitter down to where, about half-way to the water, an undulating line with a little thickness to it, like a welted trim, defines where the vertical cliff gives way to a more gradual slope. The damp sand grains bounce off the ridged line and spread out down-slope, coming to rest at about forty degrees, their angle of repose. The scene is a microcosm of the world’s geological processes, the lifting up of land masses, the crumbling away. But what strikes me most is the beauty of it: the rippling light, the fluted cliff, the flurries of sand. I am mesmerized by pattern.

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