Thursday, July 10, 2014

Votive Candles

Lawrence Hall


Votive Candles


For Abbie and ‘Zander


They haven’t been penny candles for ever so long

Because there aren’t any pennies anymore

Everyone simply calls them votives now

Those old-church, wax-stained banks of little flames

In silence flickering in the shadows grey

There launching, limning prayers into the world

Small acts of firm defiance against the night -

And you are votives too, small gifts of light

Incarnate prayers aglow within the hearts

Of those forever blessed in knowing you.

Stopping by Commas on a Snowy Evening

Mack Hall, HSG

6 July 2014


Stopping by Commas on a Snowy Evening


An acquaintance, disagreeing with some fashionable and muddy deconstruction in a newspaper article, defended the obvious in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  She was exactly right to do so.


Mr. Frost wrote this perfect little poem in 1922, and for the rest of his long life people told him what he really meant by it.  His insistence that the poem was about stopping by woods on a snowy evening and nothing more was taken as a wink-wink, nudge-nudge prevarication, as if it were unthinkable that anyone should ever speak plainly about anything.


One very common – and very wrong - interpretation is that the poem is about suicide.  This allegation is based on a line in the last stanza: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”  The woods are said to be symbolic of death, and the last line (“But I have promises to keep…”) are the speaker’s repudiation of the temptation to suicide. 


This spurious argument is built on the flimsiest of foundations, a comma that doesn’t even exist.  The claim is that because there is no Oxford comma – the comma preceding “and” – in “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” then it follows that the woods are lovely because they are dark and deep, reflecting a desire for death.


Blaming something on a comma that isn’t there is too, too thin, but it sells articles to journals and newspapers, rather like the recycled twaddle that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare.


Commas can indicate a separation of thoughts, a pause for breath, or a pause in speaking.  Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford, 1952) gives four columns of small print to the comma, and after reading all that the reader still isn’t sure what a comma is for. 


But let us narrow our search to the topic at hand, a line of Frost, and consider the comma as used in series.  We say that the colors of our flag are red, white, and blue.  The commas separate each item in order to give them equal weight:








However, Mr. Frost says that his friend’s woods are “lovely, dark and deep,” a series of three items with only one comma.  Thus the argument that these are not three discrete (spelled “discrete,” meaning separate, not “discreet,” meaning subtle) things, but rather one thing (“lovely”) as proven by “dark and deep.”


The problem is the absence of the Oxford comma (I don’t know how a comma or a shoe can be Oxonian), which as a fashion comes and goes.  One generation holds as an article of faith that the colors of our flag should be written as “red, white, and blue,” and the next generation is ready to take to the barricades in defense of “red, white and blue” sans Oxford comma.


Robert Frost wrote “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” with only one comma because omitting the Oxford comma was the usual punctuation of his time.  There is no hidden meaning in this.


The defense of this questionable usage is that when items are listed in a series the reader already knows that there are items, that they are different items, and that they are in a series.


This argument fails, in Mr. Frost’s time or in ours, because if any comma is unnecessary in a series because of an omniscient reader, then why should the series be cluttered with commas at all?  Thus, according to the No Oxford Comma crowd, if we make a list of children who are, for instance, taking a Sunday school trip, we can safely and accurately list them as “Mandy Taylor Brooke Kelly John Conrad McKenzie Sebastian Madison,” and so on.


The confusion is obvious: Are Mandy and Taylor two different children, or is Mandy Taylor one child and Brooke Kelly another?


If we write of our flag that the colors are red, white and blue, do we then say that there are only two categories, one of them red and the other a portmanteau of white and blue?


The Oxford comma is useful for clarifying items in series.  Mr. Frost, however, did not employ it.  The lapse is hardly a fault, but it does give the sort of people who are always telling others what they really mean an excuse for deconstructing (that is, botching it) a given line that, even with a comma missing, is perfectly clear.


“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is what its author said it is, and it is a snowflake-brilliant poem of great artistry crafted in iambic tetrameter, clear monosyllables, and a connect-everything rhyme scheme of AABA-BBCB-CCDC-DDDD.


Read it, and live.



Sitting on the Porch with Zombies and Robert Duvall

Mack Hall, HSG

10 July 2014


Sitting on the Porch with Zombies and Robert Duvall


Thoughts on a summer day, short thoughts, because sometimes it’s just too hot to think much:


Taking a water pill with water – ironic, eh?


Every evening someone on the local television news says “Next, the weather, but first...”  This means that the weather report comes after a series of commercials and some fluffy bit of filler that is neither useful nor amusing.  The weather is not next at all, so why does someone say it is?  If the speaker is unreliable in that small matter, perhaps he is also unreliable in his news reports.


And speaking of television weather reports – all of you who remember “weather girls,” wave your Medicare cards (if your arthritis permits).


Does Really Big Oil Company know who holds the franchises on their gas stations in the American west?  When you walk into one there’s a Star Wars Creature Cantina©® moment and a sudden silence as you find yourself being glared at suspiciously by some fellows who appear to know where the bodies are buried.  Even so, they seem merry and hospitable when compared to an Air Canada cabin crew.


Benjamin Franklin is said to have said that beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy.  I’d say iced tea.  And dachshund puppies.


Kirbyville’s Dick Martin, of happy memory, said that beer should be poured back into the horse it came out of.


Why don’t state and federal governments hassle Big Internet for their obscure, sticky contracts?  Perhaps it’s because government functionaries have unlimited ‘net access on the job and sometimes as a take-home perk, paid for by the taxpayers, and so don’t care.  “Let the people eat data.”


“Epic fail” is by now an epic fail.  So are “Keep Calm and______” and “Got ______?”  Stop it.  Stop it now. 


Yep, that manly man on the Orwellian telescreen is still peddling gold while riding his horse and flying his airplane and hangin’ out in his manly study.  His argument is that you should give him your worthless dollars in exchange for his valuable gold.  But if his gold is so valuable and your dollars so worthless, why does he propose an exchange?


“Actually” is actually the most overused adverb at present, and, actually, one of the most pointless, actually.  Actually, can anything be unactually said or unactually experienced?  We say “actually” so often now that actually we risk becoming English, actually.  Then we’d follow soccer / futbol.  Shudder.  Actually.


Cats are useful because they keep mice and rats from eating the environmentally-correct but tasty wiring in new cars.  Beyond that, they are sort of like decorative sofa pillows that bite.


Whatever happened to Technicolor©®?  Modern movies are filmed in grim, dull halftones that portray even a forest scene with all the joy of an abandoned Soviet cement factory on an overcast day in February.  Real, silvery, old-film-school black-and-white is great, as is real color, but this current fashion in dulled images will date as badly as hand-held shots and quick-zooms from the 1960s.


Robert Duvall makes any movie a good movie, despite the mischief of producers, directors, and writers.  He has made himself the best cowboy star of the last thirty years, and while the future of any work of art is difficult to predict, I’ll bet a round of drinks down at the Long Branch Saloon that his films, like those of John Wayne, will be watched, studied, and enjoyed for generations to come.  So there, computerized zombie planet of the hamsters scum.


Okay, that’s enough thinking for one day.  Time for sitting on the porch with a  glass of tea.




Sunday, June 29, 2014

"I am Haunted by Humans" - Yet Another Review of THE BOOK THIEF

Mack Hall, HSG


“I am Haunted by Humans”


The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is quite a good book, but reading it is not a road to Damascus experience.


The clumsy attempts by the publisher to metastasize The Book Thief into a sort of eternally profitable Harry Potter-ish cultus with study guides, study groups, let’s-hug-each-other websites, and nihil obstats and imprimaturs by Very Famous People are more than a little annoying.  Such aggressive proselytizing will alienate the thoughtful people who are presumably the intended audience.


The Book Thief is good enough to deserve your thoughtful consideration, but it will not change your life, drop your jaw, shake your earth, make you cry for a week, reverberate your soul, crawl under your skin, steal your breath, blow your mind, bust your block, pop your eye, stop your heart, fly off your shelf, knock off your socks, jerk your tears, or shift your tectonic plates.  The book is good.  There is nothing wrong with good.  Reviewers seem no longer capable of approving of something or someone without drawing from a catalogue of hyperventilating, hyperbolic cliches’.


Besides, you might not like The Book Thief.  If you don’t like the book, and say so, you are an interesting and brave person, since all the reviews command you to like it, nay, love it, and sleep with it under your pillow, and make it your life-coach.


And really, The Book Thief shouldn’t work.  The spunky-girl-vs-the-Nazis has been done over and over, and rightly so, but civilization also needs a book about the-spunky-girl-vs-the-Soviets or the-spunky-girl-vs-the mullahs or the-spunky-girl-vs-MS13.  A girl can walk alone down a street in Munich wearing jeans and a tee while reading any book she wants, and no will much notice.  A girl who attempts any of those things in Teheran or Bagdad – and maybe New York or Calcutta - will quickly be reduced to a violated corpse in a ditch. 


Mr. Zusak has accomplished something marvelous in manipulating the convention of spunkiness – his protagonist, Liesel, is sometimes neither spunky nor likeable, which makes her more interesting, and the people in her life are similarly developed as flawed but well-meaning, as are real humans.  The fictional humans along Liesel’s street are seldom true believers but rather confused and bullied people who are surprised to have the government for which they voted. 


Liesel’s existence pushes the plot, and so she is not a detached observer, but Mr. Zusak develops Himmel Street, Liesel’s world, by surrounding her with people who each could have been the center of the story: Liesel’s foster parents Hans and Rosa, her friends Rudy and Max, teachers, shopkeepers, the mayor’s mysterious wife, schoolmates, a Hitler Youth leader who is a sort of satanic boy scout, and the requisite cloddish teacher.  The shortages of everything, including books but also clothing, safety, purpose, hope, and, especially, food, are made real to the reader on almost every page.


The hinge of The Book Thief is the community book burning.  This obscenity is also the setting for several encounters which awaken Liesel and Rudy to the adult horrors of their milieu: ethnocentrism, regimentation, conscription, betrayal of trust, a denial of any authority save that of the state, and a denial of history and culture. 


The books ordered burned are not technical manuals or math books but rather those which encourage any thought for self or others: religion, poetry, fiction, and philosophy.  A technical manual will teach a young person how to fabricate machine parts for an armed pilotless aircraft as well as for a factory that makes needful things; works of fiction, faith, poetry, or philosophy might lead the young person to consider on what occasions one may or may not, before God and secular law, contribute to the destruction of a fellow human being. 


The very existence of books threatens tyrants, and his is why Liesel steals books, to keep civilization alive within herself and for others.


The narrative voice is Death, and one at first imagines one of those tiresome, grainy Swedish films with Death as a boring man wearing a dark suit.  Mr. Zusak’s Death, a sort of Shakespearean Chorus, is far more interesting as he comments help us understand people and events in the story.  But in the end, not even Death understands humanity’s violence to itself.  After carrying away a great many souls of individuals we have come to know, Death’s final words, the final words of the book, are “I am haunted by humans.”



Animal Sanctuary

Lawrence Hall

Animal Sanctuary

An ordinary lawn, an old oak tree
Beneath it at dusk baby bunnies hop
An island of peace in a suburban sea
Blessed by Saint Francis of the Garden Shop

Sweet little birds pause at the feeder there
To gossip loudly over their breakfast seeds
This Eden where all creatures play free of care,
Well-tended, mown, and free of prickly weeds

A delicate deer has been known to browse
The grass at dawn, and creatures great and small
Know that the yard around our little house
Is a happy haven, safe for them all

But today we saw, in this pretty world,
Buzzards devouring the corpse of a squirrel

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cricket Choir Practice

Lawrence Hall

Cricket Choir Practice









Director: “Stop, stop, we’ve lost the pacing. Let’s take it again from, oh, ‘ratchet.’”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Theory and Practice of Summer

Lawrence Hall

The Theory and Practice of Summer

In theory, Summer is capitalized
As a sovereign kingdom of happiness
An unfallen world of sunlight and bare feet
Both dancing lightly across a new-mown lawn

In practice, summer is when the mower won’t start
While weeds grow high in a season so dry
That heat and allergens veto all joy
The damp crushes deodorants and hopes

In theory, summer is idle hours
Saved in a magic piggie from long ago:
Comic books and plastic water blasters
And lying in the night-grass, counting the stars

In practice, summer means driving to work
In a wheezy old car that runs on notes
And gasoline more precious than rubies
While the boss sets an ambush at the time clock

But see:

In theory and practice, a little boy
Slow-pedals his bicycle to the creek
His fishing rod in hand, his dog behind,
And he will live for us our summers past

Monday, June 23, 2014

War Correspondent

Lawrence Hall

War Correspondent

A helicopter skeetered bravely in
And pitched and yawed against the enemy fire
That wasn’t there.  The manliest of men
Descended unto us in flawless attire

His tailored khaki suit was starched and pressed
Its creases as sharp as a Ka-bar knife
Never was a reporter more perfectly dressed
For getting the news while risking his life

The C.O. sped him past our positions
And hustled him into the T.O.C.1
To ensure each noun and preposition
Would be written for the greater good, you see

Much ink and Scotch were undoubtedly spilled
In air-conditioned comfort, no heat or mud;
With scripted heroics his notebook was filled
No need to stain his suit with his precious blood

After an hour he was hustled back
To Saigon for an evening reception
After he wrote of a great attack
And wired New York his immaculate deception

A helicopter skeetered bravely out
And yawed and pitched against a sniper’s shot
That wasn’t there.  A great Communist rout?
There’s more than one kind of jungle rot


1Tactical Operations Center - command bunker, often air-conditioned.


Saint Anthony of Padua

Lawrence Hall

Saint Anthony of Padua

People are always losing things:
Their keys, their books, their socks, their souls;
But through the mist a soft bell rings:
“Home is this way,” it softly, sweetly tolls.

See Quebec by Helicopter

Mack Hall, HSG


See Quebec by Helicopter


Clever folks, those Quebecois – twice this spring prisoners in the province have escaped by helicopter. 


In March, Benjamin Hudon-Barbeau (hyphenated names are like, y’know, so sophisticated, and, like, stuff) and Danny Provencal, left off serving time in St. Jerome Prison near Montreal and took a helicopter tour.  They were quickly recaptured.  They said they were ready to die, but apparently they really weren’t.


When the police officer cried “I arrest you in the name of the Queen!” the prisoners replied “Oui, Monsieur Le Fascist Pig; I’m cool with that.”


No, really, they didn’t; I just made that up.


In early June, Yves Denis, Denis Lefebvre, and Serge Pomerleau also skipped recess by whirlybird, this time at Orsainville Detention Center.  According to the Daily Mail a judge permitted them extra time together in the yard together in order to help plan their trial defense on drug and murder charges.


The police are curious as to who might have helped the lads go up, up, and away.


Hey, Dudley Do-Right, you might want to talk to that judge, okay?


But Yves, Denis, and Serge too are back in the nick planning the future. They shouldn’t think of booking Air Canada for their next adventure, though; the service is awful and the cabin crew feature all the charm and helpfulness of “Knuckles” McGurk, “Stan the Shiv” Deadenov, and Barbie “I-Know-Where-the-Bodies-are-Buried” Kowalsky in the exercise yard.


So how big are prison yards in Quebec?  Do they often land aircraft like that?  Imagine being a prison guard, and a big ol’ helicopter lands on the prison grounds in front of you.  Wouldn’t you, like, y’know, notice it?


Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his dog King never permitted their prisoners (who always seemed to be named Lucky Pierre or some such) to escape at all, either by helicopter or by dogsled. 


One supposes that now King would be a bionic transgender superhero rabbit or something.  King would take down the renegade helicopter with subhyperubersonic beams from his glowing green eyes.


And speaking of criminals in helicopters, do you wonder if anyone in D.C. knows where the Internal Revenue Service email messages are?  Did Lucky Pierre spirit them away to the Yukon and bury them under a rock in an abandoned gold mine near Dawson in a plan to betray Canada by selling them for filthy lucre to Vladimir “Snidely Whiplash” Putin?


King the wonder dog could leap and grab Grubstake Charlie by his arm to keep him from shooting Sergeant Preston, who discovered the secret map to the gold mine on the dead body (the map, not the gold mine, was on the body) of Lucky Pierre who had been shot by Grubstake Charlie in a fight over cards at the Malamute Saloon (now a Tim Horton’s) while Robert W. Service took careful notes.


“Grubstake Charlie, I arrest you in the name of the Crown!  And I’ll see to it that these unlawfully purloined records are returned to their rightful owners, the freedom-loving people and the democratically-elected government of the United States, that glorious and ever-vigilant republic south of the 49th parallel and Canada’s greatest friend in the tireless and ongoing fight against evil.  Right, King?”




“Well, King, this case is closed.”




“On, King!  On, you huskies!”



When Taliban Need a Feel-Good Moment

Mack Hall, HSG

When Taliban Need a Feel-Good Moment

In Qatar (pronounced “Gutter”) last week, a brash young reporter, Josh Rogin, went looking for the five Taliban given their freedom in exchange for an American sergeant ( Luckily for him, he didn’t find them.

Qatar is a small emirate on the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf. Its economy is all about the oil, manipulating other nations, and slavery…um, sorry, shouldn’t have said that…guest labor ( Qataris, the richest people in the world, don’t pay their taxes because you pay their taxes for them, at the gas pump. You also pay for a nifty little Anglo-Australian-American military establishment to protect them ( In gratitude to English, Australian, and American protection, the Qatari government buys much of its military hardware from France (

What Mr. Rogin did find in Qatar was a lot of tittle-tattle, including a bit of gossip about the Fab Five calling in masseurs.

Well, you know how it is, a busy day of planning mass murder and trying to find designer suicide vests for the kids can be trying, and a few minutes of having the muscles kneaded out is just the thing for a little relaxation before going home to the family.

So does Sergeant Bergdahl in San Antonio rate a masseur to help him work out his tensions? After all, he already receives much better medical care than other soldiers, and, unlike veterans, no waiting list for him. Might as well add a masseur to his health care plan. Nothing’s too good for our young men and women just back from the desert wars, right?

Mr. Rogin also discovered the Afghan Brothers Restaurant in the capital city, Doha, but The Five had not booked a table. Their telephone numbers are 974 481 7505 and 974 481 7478. You could ring them up and make a reservation. However, apparently no one who works there is Afghan, so it might not be the fully authentic Afghan dining experience which the more discerning gourmet has come to expect.

Qatar – trafficking in humans and oil under a corrupt ruling family in cahoots (I’m not sure what cahoots are, but people are often in them) with our military-industrial complex (don’t ask, don’t tell). Doesn’t that pretty much sound like the colonial period we’ve been told no longer exists?


Monday, June 16, 2014


(And one wants to like anything by W. H. Auden)

Yesterday I finished W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, which, if intended for the ordinary (in a positive, Catholic sense) faithful, fails not because of its worthy intent – connecting the present (1942) with the time of the Birth – but in its T. S. Eliot-ish confusions.

When we read Chaucer, for example, the obscurity is not intentional; he writes the plain Thames Valley English of his time, and we need notes only because we are separated from his language by 500 years.

When we read a modern poet, though, there should be no obscurity or a need for more than a very few notes. Such turbidity as “Love knows of no somatic tyranny; / For homes are built for Love’s accommodation / By bodies from the void they occupy” (p. 45) annoys the reader instead of enlightening or delighting him.

There are moments when the narrative works, as in this Roman proclamation which surely echoes early war notices from the English government:


But this excellent mockery of governmentspeak is rare in its clarity. Consider this prose by Simeon, which begins well and then quickly lapses into fashionable 1930s cleverness: “Because in Him the Word is united to the Flesh without loss of perfection, Reason is redeemed from incestuous fixation on her own Logic, for the One and the Many are simultaneously revealed as real” (P. 52).

One imagines this being broadcast via the BBC Home Service at Christmas: “Mum, what’s ‘incestuous?’”

Every time the reader thinks Auden is about to pull himself together and speak sense to the audience, he traipses off to get lost in Four Quartets Lane.

The editing and the preface is by Baylor professor Alan Jacobs, who himself is the very model of clarity in explaining what Auden was trying to do, and gives Auden’s work more respect than perhaps it deserves.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

An Abandoned Classroom

Lawrence Mack Hall

An Abandoned Classroom

Young dreams, now scattered fragments on the floor:
A little handle into a corner flung
The disc of sizes never again to fit
A number two pencil into place for a trim
Nor will the made-in-Chicago hopper
Ever again save for the classroom prankster
Sweet-smelling slitherings of cedar shavings
To fling about while Teacher’s at the board.

A new Ticonderoga thrust into
The spinning Scylla and Charybdis blades
Was tested by steel, the dross savaged away,
By turning the handle and grinding away,
And from this grim ordeal emerged The Point,
The perfect point, the adventurous lead…
“It’s not really lead, stupid, it’s graphite;
That’s what Teacher said. Don’t you know anything?”

Girls are stupid. They play with dolls and stuff.
I’ve got a real cap pistol. I’ll draw it.
You want to see? Look! No, wait, that’s not right;
It’s better this way…Ma’am? Uh…integers?
Arithmetic is stupid. Science is fun.
I’ve got most of the Audubon bird stamps
And I liked it when we cut up the frogs
Old people are so mean. I’ll never be old.

A leaking pipe drips the minutes away
Outside a broken window summer sings
Its songs of freedom as it always has
The desks are gone, the electricity is off
The air smells of education and decay
The classroom now is littered with the past:
A broken crayon, a construction-paper heart,
A silence longing for children’s voices.

One Happy Raindrop

Mack Hall, HSG

One Happy Raindrop

You’re working in the heat of a summer day
A little raindrop falling from far away
Ker-plinks you on the nose and laughs “Let’s play!”

At the Convenience Store

Mack Hall, HSG

At the Convenience Store

“Hi, sexy!” croaks a woman, her bourbon voice
Clinging desperately to a cigarette and the past,
Flirting from behind gas station sunshades
Speaking of adventures that we once shared
And of old friends in jail, in debt, in graves
And of her children – she calls them by name
And by divorce, marriage, and forlorn hopes
She catalogues her many illnesses
And says the doctor’s given her six months
But she’s going to lick this; what does he know.
She urges into gear her wheezing Ford
We should talk again soon about old times
And clatters away, seven cylinders to the wind.

Socially Engaged Poetry

Mack Hall, HSG

Socially Engaged Poetry

As an effective tool for advocacy
Creating partnerships and sharing skills
A voice to the voiceless, Split this Cliché
Empowerment to the empowermentless
Through bleats of provocation and witness
Copyrighted and stereotyped
In a World That is Forever 1968
Exploring and celebrating the many ways
We can score yet another guilt-grant
Asserting the centrality of the 501C3
Through bearing witness to diversity
As long as it behaves itself and thinks like us
Accessible and yet authentic
A n d l I k e d o s t u f f w I t h s p a c e l I k e u n o

cause spaces

are authentic, and,


Poetry as a living, breathing art form
If you listen, you can hear its respirations
Gasping in the long, dark night of group-think
Obedient to a mission statement
And the careful construction of resumes
Committee integrate complexity
Formula dampens the authentic voice
Perform this vital work imagining
Personal and social responsibility
Revolutionary transformation
Write and perform this vital work support
Of human social justice experience
Grounded in holistic spirituality
Flouting the patriarchal something-ness
An act that requires community
If you love freedom, you dare not disobey
And let all the people say “Cogent!”