Welcome to Letters From Quotidia – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
What is it about us as a species? We love to scare ourselves, with stories, games, rides on roller-coasters, dares about visiting that haunted house at the end of the lane at midnight. Horror movies, the howling werewolf, black-cloaked vampires with preternatural strength, swamp monsters, assorted trolls, goblins and giants from grim folk tales peopled?…no, creatured my hungry, youthful imagination fed by books and movies that seem quaint beside that series from the 90s and early noughties, Buffy- the chic- ironic, yet puerile, slayer in designer clothes wisecracking to befuddled, barely-comprehending adults as demons explode in colourful pixels against the point of her post-modern wooden stake.
And more contemporaneously, the walking dead and countless gore-fests from Netflix and other streaming services. Another generation’s hunger for information about the dark side is nourished by a flashier special- effects menu than was available to mine. And those years of feeding at the table of horrors wasn’t preparation enough to enable me to comprehend the real horrors that lurked in recent history.
I remember when Eichmann was captured by the Israelis and tried in Jerusalem. I looked in vain for the mark of the Beast on those bland features. I had read The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Russell of Liverpool a couple of years before Eichmann was hanged, having plucked it from an attic hoard during a holiday back to Cushendall from Aruba. I stared at stark photographs of black-booted sinisters, some smoking nonchalantly, standing over pits of murdered people in sharp-cut uniforms.
Like so many others watching the man behind the transparent bullet-proof screen, I struggled to fit his image with my ideas of what monsters ought to look like. Could this bespectacled clerk be the author of so many deaths? Yes. At the behest of his Master. In concert with others of his bureaucratic kind who were in on the secret. Aided and abetted by the minor functionaries who enable the infrastructure of modern society. Made possible, finally, because so many people could look away and later deny any knowledge.
But the answer still doesn’t make sense. All our resources of language, all our intelligence, sensibilities, sensitivities, imagination fall short of the task. And even our greatest poets despair at delineating the horror that was the Holocaust- still the pattern par excellence for the bland-featured sociopaths who have a plan that doesn’t include so many on this earth and whose solution is every bit as final as that proposed at the Wanersee Conference so many years ago.
When I was 22, I read Paul Celan’s great poem about the Holocaust, The Fugue of Death in translation and from that time I have remembered the savage, splintered imagery in times of stress and trauma. Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall/we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night/drink it and drink it/we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there/ But the English fails to capture the black angularities of the original: for that, go to YouTube and listen to the poet himself reading this work.
The world of the poem is one of shouting, digging, dark music playing, serpents, dogs, glittering stars, smoke, whistles, stabbing and two women: the golden haired Margarete and the ashen haired Shulamith. And there is also a man with eyes of blue, a man in the house your golden hair Margarete/your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents/He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a master from Deutschland/he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you shall climb to the sky/then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there. Have you supped full of horrors yet?
I am glad that my dish has been, largely, vicarious. My mind is not filled with the scorpions tyrants have to contend with nightly. C.S. Lewis, author of those innocent, those enabling fictions, the Narnia tales, also wrote The Screwtape Letters during the dark years of the Second World War. His readers, avid for more insights into the Satanic mind, were disappointed when he called it quits. He could no longer bear the burden of dwelling imaginatively in those dark regions. He feared for his very soul.
And rightly so. Human life needs light and love and natural things and if this means a quotidian existence where one has to forgo the depths of Faustian knowledge and the heights of Elysian experience, then, so be it. Limits are, often, not so much limiting, as lifesaving, after all. And again and again poets come to the rescue. One of my favourites, Carol Ann Duffy, comes to the rescue with a poem entitled Prayer, Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer/utters itself. So, a woman will lift/her head from the sieve of her hands and stare/at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift./Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth/enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;/then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth/in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
And another from James Arlington Wright entitled A Blessing where, with a friend, he greets two Indian ponies in their meadow, in itself a metaphor of love. One of the ponies has walked over and nuzzled his hand, the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear/That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist./Suddenly I realise/That if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom. A final prayer, that all those hurt and murdered blossom forever.
Listen now, to my tribute to the poetry and person of Paul Celan. Like a song earlier in the sequence inspired by the poetry of Sylvia Plath, I have used elements of Celan’s poetry to help me craft the lyric of the song, Paul. [insert song]
Our next trip to Quotidia brings us to the glitter-balled delights of Irish dance halls in the 50s and 60s of the twentieth century, so get on those dancing shoes, slap on the aftershave and let’s go and seek out the pretty girls in their glad-rags dancing round their patent leather handbags.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics and music (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Mark Dougherty has a co-writing credit for the song Paul. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter)
Microphone (for many of the songs) Shure SM58
For recording and mixing down 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used
Music accompaniment and composition software– Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2020 as well as- for some 20 of the songs of year 2000 vintage- I used a Blue Mountains, NSW, studio. Approximately 48 Banter folk songs and instrumentals recorded live (“in the round”) with a ThinkPad laptop using the inbuilt mic.