Saturday, June 11, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 11, Robert Service, "The Cremation of Sam McGee"

Today, it is quite warm here - although my house is reasonably cool. Still, what better on a hot day than a poem about bone chilling cold? 

Robert Service is the poet of the Yukon Gold Rush, and this is one of his two most famous works - "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" is the other one.

There is a decent chance that you've read this poem in school. It has a complex rhyme scheme which makes it relatively easy to memorize, and a compelling narrative format that makes it easy to analyze. Also, it is amusing, which is key. 

The Cremation of Sam McGee

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There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows. 
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows. 
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell; 
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell." 

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail. 
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail. 
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see; 
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee. 

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow, 
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe, 
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess; 
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request." 

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan: 
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone. 
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains; 
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains." 

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail; 
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale. 
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee; 
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee. 

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven, 
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given; 
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains, 
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains." 

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code. 
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load. 
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring, 
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing. 

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow; 
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low; 
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in; 
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin. 

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay; 
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May." 
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum; 
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum." 

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire; 
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher; 
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see; 
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee. 

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so; 
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow. 
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why; 
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky. 

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear; 
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near; 
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside. 
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide. 

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar; 
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door. 
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm— 
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm." 

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 10, Psalm 23 (English and Hebrew)

I learned this morning that my grandfather has died. It's sad, because he was my grandfather, and I liked him. At the same time, he was old, and suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's - I'm not really sure, but he was losing his memory, and wasn't able to do the things he loved, like gardening. Also, I haven't seen him in a long time - he lived in England, and so I haven't seen him in almost 20 years. Also too, as a Universalist Christian, I believe he is in Heaven, and I'll see him again at some point in the future. Or I'm wrong about an afterlife, and I won't. Anyway, here's a poem for loss - one of my favorite psalms, in Hebrew and English. I don't read Hebrew, but I find the script delightful. Also, I'm not usually a King James Version person, but this feels right in that translation:

Psalms Chapter 23 תְּהִלִּים

א  מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד:    יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר.1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
ב  בִּנְאוֹת דֶּשֶׁא, יַרְבִּיצֵנִי;    עַל-מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַהֲלֵנִי.2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
ג  נַפְשִׁי יְשׁוֹבֵב;    יַנְחֵנִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי-צֶדֶק, לְמַעַן שְׁמוֹ.3 He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name's sake.
ד  גַּם כִּי-אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת, לֹא-אִירָא רָע--    כִּי-אַתָּה עִמָּדִי;
שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ,    הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; {N}
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
ה  תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי, שֻׁלְחָן--    נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי;
דִּשַּׁנְתָּ בַשֶּׁמֶן רֹאשִׁי,    כּוֹסִי רְוָיָה.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; {N}
Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
ו  אַךְ, טוֹב וָחֶסֶד יִרְדְּפוּנִי--    כָּל-יְמֵי חַיָּי;
וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה,    לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; {N}
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. {P}

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 9, D.G. Jones, "Beautiful Creatures Brief as These"

You might know - I don't know if I've mentioned it, but if you know me outside of this blog then you know - I'm Canadian, and my first degree, which is in English Literature (I'm qualified to write this stuff, y'all!), came from a Canadian university. Part of that degree was a course on Canadian poetry, and the text we used was 15 Canadian Poets X2, edited by Gary Geddes. It contains, as the title suggests (in an oddly convoluted sort of way) the work of 30 poets. Here is one by D.G. Jones, chosen at random:

Beautiful Creatures Brief as These 

for Jay Macpherson

Like butterflies but lately come 
From long cocoons of summer 
These little girls start back to school 
To swarm the sidewalks, playing field 
And litter with colour. 

So light they look within their clothes 
Their dresses looser than Sulphur's wings, 
It seems that even if the wind alone 
Were not to break them in the lofty trees 
They could not bear the weight of things

And yet they cry into the morning air 
And hang from railings upside down 
And laugh, as though the world were theirs 
And all its buildings, trees, and stones 
Were toys, were gifts from a benignant sun. 


This one is lovely to read aloud, there are subtle little half-rhymes and the rhythm is pleasing. The images are delicate, and remind me of various campuses in Fall (and, also, in the Spring as it happens). 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 8, Elizabeth Alexander, "Narrative: Ali"

Today, for Muhammad Ali, a poem by Elizabeth Alexander. I don't actually know a great deal about Ali, but this seems like an interesting snap shot.

Narrative: Ali

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a poem in twelve rounds

My head so big 
they had to pry 
me out. I’m sorry 
Bird (is what I call 
my mother). Cassius 
Marcellus Clay, 
Muhammad Ali; 
you can say 
my name in any 
language, any 
continent: Ali. 


Two photographs 
of Emmett Till, 
born my year, 
on my birthday. 
One, he’s smiling, 
happy, and the other one 
is after. His mother 
did the bold thing, 
kept the casket open, 
made the thousands look upon 
his bulging eyes, 
his twisted neck, 
her lynched black boy. 
I couldn’t sleep 
for thinking, 
Emmett Till. 

One day I went 
Down to the train tracks, 
found some iron 
shoe-shine rests 
and planted them 
between the ties 
and waited 
for a train to come, 
and watched the train 
derail, and ran, 
and after that 
I slept at night. 


I need to train 
around people, 
hear them talk, 
talk back. I need 
to hear the traffic, 
see people in 
the barbershop, 
people getting 
shoe shines, talking, 
hear them talk, 
talk back. 


Bottom line: Olympic gold 
can’t buy a black man 
a Louisville hamburger 
in nineteen-sixty. 

Wasn’t even real gold. 
I watched the river 
drag the ribbon down, 
red, white, and blue.    


Laying on the bed, 
praying for a wife, 
in walk Sonji Roi. 

Pretty little shape. 
Do you like 
chop suey? 

Can I wash your hair 
that wig? 

Lay on the bed, 
Girl. Lie 
with me. 

Shake to the east, 
to the north, 
south, west— 

but remember, 
remember, I need 
a Muslim wife. So 

Quit using lipstick. 
Quit your boogaloo. 
Cover up your knees 

like a Muslim 
wife, religion, 
religion, a Muslim 

wife. Eleven 
months with Sonji, 
first woman I loved. 


There’s not 
too many days 
that pass that I 
don’t think 
of how it started, 
but I know 
no Great White Hope 
can beat 
a true black champ. 
Jerry Quarry 
could have been 
a movie star, 
a millionaire, 
a senator, 
a president— 
he only had 
to do one thing, 
is whip me, 
but he can’t. 

7. Dressing-Room Visitor

He opened 
up his shirt: 
“KKK” cut 
in his chest. 
He dropped 
his trousers: 
latticed scars 
where testicles 
should be, His face 
bewildered, frozen 
in the Alabama woods 
that night in 1966 
when they left him 
for dead, his testicles 
in a Dixie cup. 
You a warning, 
they told him, 
to smart-mouth, 
sassy-acting niggers, 
meaning niggers 
still alive, 
meaning any nigger, 
meaning niggers 
like me. 

8. Training

Unsweetened grapefruit juice 
will melt my stomach down. 
Don’t drive if you can walk, 
don’t walk if you can run. 
I add a mile each day 
and run in eight-pound boots. 

My knuckles sometimes burst 
the glove. I let dead skin 
build up, and then I peel it, 
let it scar, so I don’t bleed 
as much. My bones 
absorb the shock. 

I train in three-minute 
spurts, like rounds: three 
rounds big bag, three speed 
bag, three jump rope, one- 
minute breaks, 
no more, no less. 

Am I too old? Eat only 
kosher meat. Eat cabbage, 
carrots, beets, and watch 
the weight come down: 
two-thirty, two-twenty, 
two-ten, two-oh-nine. 


Will I go 
like Kid Paret, 
a fractured 
skull, a ten-day 
sleep, dreaming 
alligators, pork 
chops, saxophones, 
slow grinds, funk, 
fishbowls, lightbulbs, 
bats, typewriters, 
tuning forks, funk 
clocks, red rubber 
ball, what you see 
in that lifetime 
knockout minute 
on the cusp? 
You could be 
let go, 
you could be 
snatched back. 

10. Rumble in the Jungle

Ali boma ye, 
Ali boma ye,
means kill him, Ali, 
which is different 
from a whupping 
which is what I give, 
but I lead them chanting 
anyway, Ali 
boma ye, because 
here in Africa 
black people fly 
planes and run countries. 

I’m still making up 
for the foolishness 
I said when I was 
Clay from Louisville, 
where I learned Africans 
live naked in straw 
huts eating tiger meat, 
grunting and grinning, 
swinging from vines, 
pounding their chests— 

I pound my chest but of my own accord. 


I said to Joe Frazier, 
first thing, get a good house 
in case you get crippled 
so you and your family 
can sleep somewhere. Always 
keep one good Cadillac. 
And watch how you dress 
with that cowboy hat, 
pink suits, white shoes— 
that’s how pimps dress, 
or kids, and you a champ, 
or wish you were, ‘cause 
I can whip you in the ring 
or whip you in the street. 
Now back to clothes, 
wear dark clothes, suits, 
black suits, like you the best 
at what you do, like you 
President of the World. 
Dress like that. 
Put them yellow pants away. 
We dinosaurs gotta 
look good, gotta sound 
good, gotta be good, 
the greatest, that’s what 
I told Joe Frazier, 
and he said to me, 
we both bad niggers. 
We don’t do no crawlin’. 


They called me “the fistic pariah.” 

They said I didn’t love my country, 
called me a race-hater, called me out 
of my name, waited for me 
to come out on a stretcher, shot at me, 
hexed me, cursed me, wished me 
all manner of ill will, 
told me I was finished. 

Here I am,
like the song says, 
come and take me,

“The People’s Champ,” 


Ali, of course, was also a poet himself:

Ding! Ali comes out to meet Frazier
But Frazier starts to retreat
If Frazier goes back any further
He'll wind up in a ringside seat 
Ali swings to the left
Ali swings to the right
Look at the kid
Carry the fight 
Frazier keeps backing
But there's not enough room
It's a matter of time
Then Ali lowers the boom 
Now Ali lands to the right
What a beautiful swing!
And deposits Frazier
Clean out of the ring 
Frazier's still rising
But the referee wears a frown
For he can't start counting
Till Frazier comes down 
Now Frazier disappears from view
The crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up
He's somewhere over the Atlantic 
Who would have thought that
When they came to the fight
That they would have witnessed
The launching of a coloured satellite! 

His poetry tended to be full of bragadaccio, a dressed up trash-talk; the dozens, but with class and verve. Maybe next month I'll take a look at an Ali biography for one of my books.