A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Rude, Lewd, Crude, and Here to Stay...

There once was a lady named Cager,
Who as the result of a wager,
Consented to fart,
The entire oboe part
Of Mozart's quartet in F-major.

Recognize this poetry form?  Let's see...vulgar humor (check), impolite wordplay (check), AABBA rhyme scheme (check), why it must be a limerick!

Limericks appear throughout the broad span of the English language, from pubs to Shakespeare.  Don Marquis, the humorist and playwright, stated that there are three types of limericks:  limericks to be told when ladies are present; limericks to be told when ladies are absent but clergymen are present; and LIMERICKS!  This comment well illustrates the bawdy and lewd notoriety limericks have.

Although its history is obscure, some say the limerick originated in France during the Middle Ages, then crossed the English Channel.  An alternative origin is said to be the pubs of the Irish town of Limerick, but most likely that's where the name originated, but not the concept.  Other sources claim a 14th century origin from pubs.  Wherever they began, the limerick is here to stay.

Mother Goose rhymes associated the limerick forever with children's literature:

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating of curds and whey;
There came a great spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

In 1846, over a century after the Mother Goose rhymes were published, Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense was published, somewhat of a benchmark for the form.  Lear preferred the word "nonsense" to "limerick" no doubt because of the limerick's reputation.  One of his famous ones was:

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several times with her chin.

Composed of five lines, the limerick has a strict rhyme scheme and a catchy rhythm.  The first two lines rhyme, the third and fourth lines rhyme, and the fifth either rhymes with the first two, or repeats the first line.  Simply put (or "dumly" put) it follows an AABBA rhyme pattern like this:
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM
da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

(Note:  one of my favorite jokes is a limerick, but I will not publish it here.  It is only for pubs.)

Punch magazine in the 1860s, inspired by Lear's book, ran limerick contests and for a while limericks became a big craze.  Although the fad died out, the limerick still lived on.  A remarkable roster of  authors have engaged in limerick writing:  Ogden Nash, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and Mark Twain were among them.  But perhaps most surprising is Isaac Asimov's book, Lecherous Limericks, published in 1975.   It contains 100 limericks he wrote, of which the following was the first:

There was a sweet girl of Decatur,
Who went to sea on a freighter.
She was screwed by the master,
- An utter disaster -
But the crew made up for it later.

That limericks have been constructed by a wide sweep of people, from pub crawlers to formal poets, makes them folk literature.  They are also truly an English poetry and literary form, since the rhyme scheme and rhythm make them difficult to write in other languages.

I like this modern limerick by Sheila Anne Barry:

There was an old puzzler, Ben Ross,
Who died - doing crosswords, of course,
He was buried, poor Ben,
With eraser and pen,
In a box six feet down, three across.

My favorite limerick story is my own.  One holiday season when I was able and did work a lot of overtime, I had a night off which I needed to do some gift shopping.  My 13-year-old cousin cajoled me into taking him out to dinner (truth be told, I loved hanging out with him!), and I acquiesced with the caveat that we would be going to a bookstore first.  Once in the store he headed to a bargain display, and I walked around to the other side.  All of a sudden I heard his very loud voice call out:  "Hey, Linda.  What's a bl*w j*b?"  He had found a book of limericks.  In total panic I quickly thought, "Nobody knows I'm Linda.  Simply walk out of the store."  Just as I had this realization, the good-looking man standing next to me said, "Judging from how red you are turning, you must be Linda."  I spent the rest of the evening refusing to discuss the words I told him never to say in public, and referring him to his father for the answer, thus losing my coolest adult in the world status.

I will end with a limerick from the Bard himself (Othello, Act II, Scene III), just to balance the above with a loftier tone, even though as limericks go it's kind of a washout.  (BTW, a canakin is a small can used as a drinking vessel, from a Dutch word):

And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier's a man;
A life's but a span;
Why, then let a soldier drink.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wishing you good things...

This is the season for celebration, families and friends, and togetherness.  However, for some people it is the season of loneliness - not necessarily of being alone, but feeling alone.  One can be in the midst of a large, noisy crowd and feel alone.

Perhaps you can't be near the ones you love, or perhaps the ones you love are no longer available for whatever reasons.  Maybe you are in a time of change in your life, and the forlorn feelings are part of the growth you are going through.  Change can hurt and bring on feelings of isolation.

To all of you who are yearning for the good feelings this season promises, I send you my love and the thought that you will get what you want.  It will get better.  In the meantime, look around and see all the good things - a sunset or a bird singing.

I've been there.  I know.

Happy thanksgiving...


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fanning the Flames of War and Ardor

"Five Fans" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hand fans were once (and still are) used to create airflow to cool and refresh oneself.  Since they can be folded and made of light materials, they are eminently portable and easy to stash.
Painting by Yi Yuanji, 11th C.
Gibbons in tree on a fan

The earliest known fans are from China from the 2nd century BCE.  A “fixed” or “flat” fan, one that does not fold up, was called a pien-mien, meaning “to agitate the air”.  Fans became showcases for artwork, and came to signify status.  There was much social significance in Asia regarding fans.  The wielding of the fan became a feminine skill that was highly esteemed. 

Japanese samurai
solid iron signal fan
Fans were even used as weapons in China, Japan, and Korea.  Foremost, they were effectively used as signaling devices by commanders to issue commands to their troops.  Soldiers used different types of fans.  One folding type was used to cool oneself off during battle (think of all the armor they wore).  Another type was made of spokes of iron designed to look like a cooling fan but functioned as a club, enabling the user to take it where weapons weren’t allowed.  These could also be used like a shield for fending off darts and arrows.  Officers would carry solid open fans that usually were made with iron or metal parts, also used as shields, as well as to signal and for shade from the sun.
Woodcut (Ukiyo-e) of Japanese
 fan with poem

They were used in both Chinese and Korean martial arts, but the Koreans really turned them into lethal weapons.  The Korean fighting fan was made from a type of birch that was extremely hard.  Depending on the owner and maker, there might be metal strips along the outer edge that were flexible and could cut, or there might be feathers that hid small razors whereby the wielder could rake the flesh of an opponent.  Some fighting fans concealed poisons, either on a part that would contact an opponent, or in chambers that would open when the fan was spread, spraying out a short distance.

Some time in the 6th to 8th century, a court fan, called Akomeogi after Akome, a dress of the women of the court, was invented.  This was the first known folding fan.  It became immediately popular, and laws were enacted restricting its appearance.  The thin pieces of wood revealed the status of the owner by their number.  They were introduced to the West by Portuguese traders.  Still in use during hot weather, they are now made of paper and bamboo.

Fan by Georges Barbier, 1912
Meanwhile, in the West, although the archaeological record shows that fans were used in ancient Greece, perhaps since the 4th century BCE, any trace of the fan in Europe disappeared until the crusaders reintroduced them from the Middle East, and then the Portuguese from China.  These were rigid fans.  It wasn’t until the 17th century that the folding fan became popular in Europe.  These were rather crudely made but regardless became status objects.

Detail of fan on
upper left
By the 18th century specialized craftsmen were making fans that involved greater artistry and design.  At some point, perhaps starting in the courts of Europe, fans again became used as signalers, but this time not for the art of war, but the art of love.

In Victorian times, fan were about the only way a woman could express her feelings without bringing shame on herself and her family – if she did it slyly and well.  Fans had open spaces near the bottom, which allowed a woman to peep and spy while holding the fan over her face.  Some fans had poems or riddles written very tiny on them.  This was one way a gentleman could sit very near a woman to admire the details of her fan.  The “language” of fans was written down for Victorian women, and both Godey’s Lady’s Book and Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management printed the significance of each fan gesture:

Fanning oneself quickly -                                                I am engaged.
Fanning oneself slowly -                                                 I am married.
Fan wide open -                                                             Love
Fan half open -                                                             Friendship
Fan shut -                                                                         Hate
Twirling fan in right hand -                                                 I love another.
Twirling fan in left hand -                                                We are being watched.
Fan with left hand in front of face -                                    I am desirous of your acquaintance.
Fan carried in open right hand -                                    You are too willing.
Fan carried in open left hand -                                     Come and talk to me.
Fan with right hand in front of face -                                     Follow me.
Fan open and shut  -                                                            Kiss me.
Fan drawn slowly across the cheek -                                     I love you.
Fan resting on right cheek -                                                 Yes.
Fan placed behind head -                                                 Don’t forget me.
Fan touching left ear -                                                 Go away.
Fan placed near heart -                                                You have won my heart.
Closed fan touching right eye -                                     When will I see you again?
Fan showing a certain number of sticks -                        An indication of what hour to tryst.
Fan closed and moved threateningly -                         Do not be so imprudent.
Fan half-opened and pressed to lips -                         You may kiss me.
Fan open with hands clasped together -                         Forgive me.
Open fan cover left ear -                                                 Do not betray our secret.
Hiding eyes behind an open fan -                                    I love you.
A fully opened fan shut slowly -                                     I promise to marry you.
Fan drawn across the eyes -                                                 I am sorry.
Touching finger to tip of fan -                                     I wish to speak with you.
Letting fan rest on right cheek -                                    Yes.
Letting fan rest on left cheek -                                     No.
Fan opened and closed several times -                         You are cruel.
Fan dropped -                                                                        We will be friends.
Fan handle placed to lips -                                                 Kiss me.
Fan opened wide -                                                             Wait for me.
Fan drawn across forehead -                                                 You have changed.

How fun it must’ve been to flirt so!  And it’s even rather erotic.  Nice to know our Victorian sisters had their game on, despite society’s rules for them.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The First Women Composers of the West

In the Occitan during the 12th and 13th centuries, court women were expected to sing, play instruments, and write jocs partis or partimen (debates and dialogues written in poems.)  Women, at this time in this part of the world, had some power, some control over land ownership, and played a bigger role in society.  One reason for this was the crusades, when women had more responsibilities and took charge of running things while their menfolk were away.

Comtessa de Diá, Bibliothèque Nationale,
MS cod. fr. 12473, 13th C
Trobairitz were female troubadors who composed, wrote verses, and performed for the nobility. They are the first known female composers of secular music in the West, although there were female composers who wrote sacred music before them.  The trobairitz were from the courts and were born of nobility, as opposed to their male counterparts, the troubadors, who sometimes came from humbler beginnings.  Both trobairitz and troubadours wrote about courtly love, or fin' amors. Trobairitz mostly wrote tensos (debate poems) and cansos (strophic songs - ones whose verses share the same melody).  Tensos was a common form, for in the tradition of courtly love, poems were often written as an exchange of letters, or a debate. 

The majority of information on the trobairitz comes from their vidas (bios) and razós (explanations of their songs).  These were compiled in chansonniers, or collections of their songs.  The vidas are not reliable since they contain embellishments from info gathered from their poems.  Not much is extant of the troibairitz or their work:  about thirty-two works from twenty known trobairitz.  But it is hard to determine whether a piece was written by a man or a woman.

Since the poetry was so stylized, when a poet wrote as a woman it is not clear if the poet was actually a woman, or a man speaking as a woman.  Often times the poet’s name gave no clue as to gender, and could be an alias, or a poem was written by the ubiquitous “anonymous”.  The chansonniers who compiled the works did not seem to distinguish those from the trobairitz from those from the troubadours.  In the case of tensos between a woman and a man, credit is given to the man as the originator of the dialogue, which may not have been so.

There is a feeling of sexual equality, and sex as a mode of pleasure and not sin in their songs.  With women experiencing more freedom with their lords and masters off to war, it is not surprising to to think of them as wanting to express themselves creatively.  Their geographic proximity to Muslim Spain may have been an influence as well – Muslim Spain was more sophisticated and perhaps liberal in this age.
"A chantar m'er" in modern musical notation.  (Courtesy of Makemi.)

Only one set of lyrics survives with musical notation, "A chantar m'er..." by Comtessa de Diá. She lived in the 1200s, and was the daughter of Count Isoard II of Diá.  Her vida states that she was in love with Raimbaut of Orange, but married to Guilhem de Poitiers, Count of Viennois. She wrote the following song entitled "Estat ai en greu cossirier" ("I was plunged into deep distress"):

I was plunged into deep distress by a knight who wooed me,
And I wish to confess for all time how passionately I loved him;
Now I feel myself betrayed, for I did not tell him of my love.
Therefore I suffer great distress in bed and when I am fully dressed.

Would that my knight might one night lie naked in my arms
And find myself in ecstasy with me as his pillow.
For I am more in love with him than Floris was with Blanchfleur.
To him I give my heart and love, my reason, eyes and life.

 Handsome friend, tender and good, when will you be mine?
Oh, to spend with you but one night to impart the kiss of love!
Know that with passion I cherish the hope of you in my husband's place,
As soon as you have sworn to me that you will fulfill my every wish.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Lotophagi and Persimmons?

In the ninth book of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew encounter the Lotophagi, or Lotus Eaters, on an island off the coast of North Africa.  The Lotophagi feed on a plant that causes them to forget their homes, and makes them sleepy and dopey.  They have no interest in the world around them, they just lay about and feast on this plant. 

Odysseus taking his men away
18th Century French engraving, artist unknown

When some of the crew of Odysseus consume this plant, they don’t want to leave the island, and Odysseus is forced to lug them back to the ship and chain them until the ship sails away.  They are weeping bitterly at having to leave.

Japanese Hachiya persimmon
Watercolor by Amanda A Neton
1887, USDA
As to what plant Homer may be referring to, we just don’t know.  The Greek term lotos can refer to several edible plants, one of them persimmons, but none of them narcotic.  

Historians have been trying ever since to figure out what the plant was, and where the island is/was.  Some translators say Lotus Eaters, and certainly the roots and flowers of lotuses are edible.  But that is not perhaps the best translation.  There could be a plant that has become extinct, or which we are not familiar with as an edible.  But it would help if we knew where this island was.

One conjecture is that if this was based on fact, then perhaps Homer was purposefully obscure so others wouldn’t go to this island and become enticed to stay.  Herodotus claimed that the Lotophagi existed in his day in coastal Libya, but it was a peninsula, not an island.  This causes modern scholars to think it may be modern-day Djerba.  However, according to the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax, the Lotophagi lived in a peninsula in Illyria.  If this is true, then it puts a whole new twist on the Odyssey, as Odysseus wasn’t lost in the Mediterranean Sea, but the Adriatic.

“Plum” seems to be a fruit that pops up in a lot of conjectures.  Interestingly enough, many food historians think that this mystery fruit is a date-plum, a type of persimmon native to southeastern Europe and southwest Asia.  The Persian name is khormaloo, literally “date-plum”, and it is said to taste like both.

Persimmons have long been considered highly desirable fruits.  They are of the genus Diospyros, which in ancient Greek means “fruit of the Gods”.  They are the fruits of a perennial tree, and the word persimmon derives from Powhatan, an Algonquian language, meaning a “dry fruit”.

They are generally light yellow-orange to dark red-orange.  They can be round, or shaped like an acorn or a pumpkin.  There are anomalies to this, however.  A native of Mexico, the black persimmon has green skin and white flesh, and it turns black when ripe.  The Velvet-apple is Philippino and bright red when ripe.  It is found in China (called shizi), too, and is also known as the Korean mango.

The Japanese Persimmon is the most widely cultivated.  Although native to China, its cultivation was known in other parts of Asia before being introduced to southern Europe, and California.  We know this persimmon as fuyu, and it can be eaten crisp, but is more flavorful when slightly softened.

The Japanese hachiya is another commonly available type.  This is in the shape of a tear drop with a longer body.  These are used for cooking as they will make your mouth pucker (and not in a good way!)

Persimmons can be eaten fresh, dried, raw, or cooked.  To eat it fresh, you can peel it and quarter it like an apple, although I usually eat the peel as well.  If it is very ripe, you just cut off the top and eat like pudding.  The bitter hachiya pesimmons are often dried, then eaten.  The Koreans use these dried fruits to make a punch called sujeonggwa, and the ripe, fermented fruit to make a vinegar called gamsikcho.  Koreans also use the dried leaves from the fruit to make ghamnip cha, which is a tea.  These become more interesting facts when you consider that Herodotus claimed that the Lotophagi made wine from the fruit.

Whatever the mystery fruit may be, among the many authors intrigued by the Lotophagi, is Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), who wrote the poem The Lotus-Eaters, a stanza of which follows:


How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!