Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 194– 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.
Have you felt the ground shifting beneath you? In a time of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, fires, floods, hurricanes, and pestilence you might think that human beings would hang together and support one another. Some, of course, do and it is heartening to see such compassion and love at work in the world. Others, unfortunately, have decided that war, division, exclusion, and hate-filled rhetoric is more the go for themselves, and everyone else they can reach. I know I do not need to give geographical or personal identifiers for you to understand just what and to whom I am referring.
The day after the publication of Letter 193, I was casting about for an idea that would provide a unifying thread through the weave of the follow-up post-to no avail. I gave up trying to force the process and decided to sleep on it, knowing that this is a well-tested stratagem for solving a variety of conundrums: for example- Kekule’s dream of a snake eating its own tale thereby unlocking the mystery of the benzine ring and kick-starting the petroleum industry or example two- Coleridge’s dream that gifted the world with that marvellous poetic fragment, Kubla Khan,
You know the one I mean, In Xanadu did Kubla Khan\A stately pleasure-dome decree:\Where Alph, the sacred river, ran\Through caverns measureless to man\ Down to a sunless sea.\So, I hit the pillows with the highest of hopes…only to find myself the next morning entangled in sweat-stained sheets- the sole product of my nocturnal labour! With no clear way forward, I determined to find a folksong that would provide a commentary on the situation that is vexing so many of us today. I went through my store of songs that day and the next to see if one might stimulate some way forward for this letter which was stuck in a rut as deep as those left by tank-treads in the churned-up mud of the Ukrainian steppes and I happened upon a song released 37 years ago: A Pair of Brown Eyes written by Shane McGowan of The Pogues.
This anti-war song is out of left field, really. It is set in a London pub where a drunken youth listens to an old war vet’s account of his battlefield experiences while a juke box plays in the background. Juxtaposed against the urban drabness and the horrors of conflict are the folk tropes of birds whistling, the wind gently laughing, and a man roving the countryside thinking of the beauty of his lost lover’s eyes. But before we hear my take on this song, let’s hear another fragment of a fragment, Five miles meandering with a mazy motion/Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,/Then reached the caverns measureless to man,/And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;/And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war! [insert song]
The lifestyle gurus like to spout how important it is for all of us to get out of our comfort zones to reach our full potential, to actualise our dreams, to…ahh, you can fill in all the other guff they come up with! But I’ll bet the citizens of the pulverised port city of Mariupol wouldn’t mind swapping their situation for any one of our enervating, oh-so-unfulfilling, comfort zones- what do you think? But, here in my comfort zone of a small, detached bungalow situated in an outer suburb of Western Sydney, I’m halfway to my next deadline and still lost for a second song and a narrative link for the rest of Letter 194.
Looks like I’ll have to sleep on it once more. Nighty-night. Blink, blink, wakey wakey and once again, nothing doing. However, I am reminded of what Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, and activist, said about snoozing muses in times of crisis: When guns are roaring the Muses/have no right to be silent. This is in contradistinction to the Russian proverb, When guns speak, the Muses keep silent. Very Russian indeed! So, a big thank you to the American poet for breaking the logjam: I can see a way home.
Ferlinghetti, who died at age 101 on February 22, 2021, at his home in San Francisco, was a force in American letters from the 1950s onwards. His Loud Poem is a parody of The Lord’s Prayer which featured in Scorsese’s documentary, The Last Waltz. I watched this stunning concert doco back in 1981 and remember the juxtaposition between this and Bob Dylan’s, Forever Young. The darkly hip and cynical Ferlinghetti with his cool put down of a prayer that is at the centre of Christian practice was followed by the soaring, uplifting hymn to life peppered with Biblical allusions sung by a folk icon in a whiter than white hat! Later, much later, I realised that this was an artefact of the editing process; that the poem was recited before the concert had begun but cunningly inserted before the song, for effect.
So, in recognition Ferlinghetti’s lasting influence and talent, I will recite lines from his poem, Christ Climbed Down. This is from his 1958 poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind which is an enduringly popular book still in print today. Goodreads reviewer, Bill Kerwin, had this to say, No other book so perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the ‘60’s counterculture, the optimism of the young radicals who would take this book into their hearts. Sure, there were other poems, some by arguably better poets—the lyric (and ironic) Byronisms of Corso, the Shelleyan ecstasies of McClure, the prophetic lamentations of Ginsberg, the zen eclogues of Snyder—but none of the others embodied so perfectly their vision of their world: sceptical of all institutions, yet open to the experience of joy and suffering—with a painter’s eye, a mystic’s soul, and a lover’s heart.
Christ Climbed Down is a 68-line free verse poem arranged in six stanzas of irregular length. Each begins with the lines, Christ climbed down/from His bare Tree this year/ He flees the crass commercialism that undermines the meaning of the season which is as evident in 1950s America as it is everywhere now. Here are some lines, but I urge you to seek out the whole poem, CHRIST climbed down/ from His bare Tree this year/and ran away to where /there were no rootless Christmas trees/ hung with candycanes and breakable stars/… Christ climbed down/ from His bare Tree this year/and ran away to where/ no fat handshaking stranger/ in a red flannel suit/ and a fake white beard/ went around passing himself off/ as some sort of North Pole saint/… Christ climbed down/ from His bare Tree this year/and ran away to where/ no Bing Crosby carollers/ groaned of a tight Christmas/ In the final stanza, He climbs down and steals away to await an unimaginable and impossibly/ Immaculate Reconception/ the very craziest/ of Second Comings//.
Now there is no way that the Catholic Church would ever award the poem its Imprimatur declaring it to be without doctrinal error- Nihil Obstat! But I can’t imagine the present Pope leading an enraged crowd carrying flaming torches and pitchforks against a reading of Ferlinghetti’s poem. Not the man who wrote, Lord Jesus, born under the bombs of Kyiv, have mercy on us! Lord Jesus who died in the arms of his mother in a bunker in Kharkov, have mercy on us! Forgive us Lord, if we continue to kill our brother…if we continue to justify cruelty with our tiredness, if with our pain we legitimise the brutality of our actions [insert song]
Dylan wrote this song shortly after the birth of his son. I’ll finish with lines from Langston Hughes’ poem, Mother to Son, Well, son, I’ll tell you:/Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair./It’s had tacks in it,/And splinters,/And boards torn up,/And places with no carpet on the floor-/Bare./But all the time/I’se been a-climbin’ on,/And reachin’ landin’s,/And turnin’ corners,/And sometimes goin’ in the dark/Where there ain’t been no light./So boy, don’t you turn back./… Don’t you fall now-/ For I’se still goin’, honey,/I’se still climbin’,/And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair// Nothing for it, folks, guess we’ve just got to keep on climbing.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. 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- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.