Happiness at the Apothecary’s

 

In scanning my past for happy moments
—on being asked to come up with some—
I concede that there are a few
more like moments of reprieve
interludes of lightness
moments of praise, brief heart-warming moments
of relief when a social event I had been dreading is cancelled
or when my blood pressure is low but not too low
an armistice, a truce, a cease- fire
Or, like this morning, on waking to find I am 80-years-old
–such a round figure!—
and that I have survived!

Or on being in the apothecary’s shop
with countless little wooden drawers
emitting drafts of incense when they are opened—
and an aromatic paste bubbling in the dispensary,
a mother and child speaking Cantonese outside an open window
and The Immortals on their shelf, smiling , looking straight ahead
as I wait for Natasha to finish her treatment

Noticing how difficult it is for me to stay awake
Chen asks if I would like to go into one of the acupuncture rooms
and lie down—
It was so peaceful and safe in those moments before going to sleep
with the blinds drawn—
Such repose
in a darkened room smelling of sandalwood and ginger
and human voices in the alleyways of the town

 

Stuart Dodds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A Pantheist’s address to the Almighty

 

 

A Pantheist’s address to the Almighty

I am often asked about You
what do I think of You
and whether I even believe that You exist
but I have humm’d and hah’d long enough:

When Baxter Montague, the British novelist
a professed atheist, a carouser and a heavy drinker
was questioned along these lines
he said, “it’s just that I hate Him, hate HIM!”

I understand, I get it
but an atheist?

For years I have struggled with a thought
in the Gnostic Gospel According to Thomas
in which Christ is reported as saying
that Your Kingdom, your Divine Rule
“is spread out upon the earth, only we do not see it”—

That is what I believe
and it is true that I do not see it
or I see it only occasionally and am filled with wonder—
it is a headless God I worship—
believing, as I do, in His Kingdom
but not in Him

When I die, if I am not in too much pain
I will have Plotinus in mind —
 
“Now I shall endeavor to make that which is divine in me
                         rise up to that which is divine in the Universe.”

Stuart Dodds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Returning to Les Enfants du Paradis* after 30 years

How we change!  As a young man, I was quite taken with the character of  Pierre-François Lacenaire, as portrayed by Marcel Herrand.  That famous boulevardier, poet and criminal—king of the underworld, strolling the alleys and avenues of Paris in the 1820s, his sword inside a Malacca scabbard, une canne-épée, with a handle of carved ivory, looking for someone who would do the honor of insulting him.  He can wait until he finds the right man, the right offence.  There is a saying, “Beware the fury of a patient man.”

He is seeking revenge for a childhood wrong, no more concerned, it would seem, as to who the perpetrator was than who will pay the price. By his own admission, he harbors a contempt for all humankind and is ready to face the consequences of his actions—the guillotine if necessary, but on the condition that he not lose his head on a  “provincial scaffold.” He will die in Paris, at the center of attention, at the center of the Universe.

So beware, citizens.  We have reason to believe that he has killed before.  “I am a thief by need, a murderer by calling.” You could be next. Be ready to choose your weapon—although I don’t think he is in favor of duels; he prefers to kill his enemies outright, or those he perceives as his enemies or those who have provoked him.

Now, after 30 years, I feel sorry for Pierre-François Lacenaire.  He was not as free as he thought he was, nor was he as admirable although I continue to admire his wardrobe. He was a slave to passion, a romantic figure vulnerable to ridicule, perverse, alone, dangerous enough but a source of merriment to “the only woman for whom I have no contempt.”  Those are his words—his declaration of love?— and the woman, of course, would be the sensible, beautiful Garance who scoffs at his ideas, who loves Baptiste, the man in white.

Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste used to frighten me— as his character frightened some of the other members of the Théâtre du Funambules—as he would look with penetrating eyes, at times inhuman and cruel, through his clown’s white mask. Now, I like his fits of melancholy, his fierce expression of love and his clown’s temper—all delivered in paper-light motion, in pantomime. I no longer fear him.

How we change, and how we age!  I used to think Arletty in the role of Garance was plain, unremarkable. Now she seems radiant, a beautiful presence, and, naturally, much younger than she appeared to me before.  And I have no more sympathy than I did 30 years ago  for her self-appointed protector, the boring, presumptuous Count Édouard de Montray, as he is cut down in a Paris bathhouse by our redoubtable assassin, Pierre François Lacenaire.

I will always hear the voice of Baptiste in the final scene as he elbows his way through the carnival crowd in hopeless pursuit, calling “ Garance, Garence!.”

Stuart Dodds

* Children of Paradise, a film by Marcel Carné, 1945

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Serpent Within

 

The Serpent Within

The Cathar heresy flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries in a region of Southern France distinguished by its highly refined culture, customs and language.  Home to the Cathari, Languedoc was also the land of the troubadours, a school of poetry whose influence runs like a golden thread in the literature of the West.

The Cathars (from the Greek, kathar, meaning spotless) were Christians in the Manichean mold and believed the material world to be intrinsically evil. Their elders were ascetics, leading lives of “Apostolic poverty,” and claimed a kinship with the early Christian communities. They despised the Roman clergy of the day whose self-indulgence did more than anything to bring converts to their austere faith.  For them, the Catholic church was the “Church of Satan.”  In a sense, they were the first Protestants and like the Protestant movement to come, they found strong support among the local nobility.

The Cathars had formed a church with its own hierarchy and rituals. Its elders were known as the Perfected (perfecti), the congregation at large as Believers (the credentes or imperfecti).  Believers could, under exceptional circumstances, become perfecti by means of a purification ritual known as the “consolamentum.” To the Cathars, Jesus Christ was not the God-Man (Theanthropos) of Catholic doctrine; he was all spirit, an angel in human clothes. The Cathars spared Jesus a human birth as well as the agony of the cross; he was a spectator at his Crucifixion. They did not believe in a Resurrection and found the concept distasteful.

In the eyes of Catholics, this mystical Gnostic view of the suffering Jesus, attractive then as it is today, was a dangerous departure. Preachers were sent by Rome to persuade leading heretics in Languedoc, Northern Italy and other parts of Europe to return to the true faith. Among these preachers was the Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairveaux.* The Dominican and Franciscan orders were established by the Church for this purpose and, in response to widespread priestly corruption, with a reforming zeal.  If the Church wished to compete with the Cathars and the Poor Men of Lyons, on their own ground, it could not have found a better representative than the doctrinally sound, charismatic and charming Francis of Assisi, one who had declared himself wedded to Lady Poverty and wrote of her, like a troubadour, in the language of courtly love. **

The preaching missions, however, failed.  A Papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau (another Cistercian) was assassinated.  In 1209, Pope Innocent III called for a crusade, the first on European soil, to drive out the heresy by force.  The Albigensian Crusade (after the town of Albi) was a bitter and protracted war carried out by the barons and bishops of the North and an assortment of Norman and German knights, soldiers of fortune and other plunderers, against the cities of the South—wherever the Cathars and their protectors could be found.

The war began with the destruction of Béziers and the wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants and ended twenty years later with the public flogging in Paris of Count Raimon VII of Toulouse.

*   *    *

It was in Languedoc that the Inquisition began, well over a century before its notorious resurgence in Spain under Isabel and Ferdinand; known to scholars as the Medieval Inquisition, its tribunals were set up to complete the work of the Albigensian Crusade.

Surviving Cathars were expected to give up their heretical faith (few did) or face execution by fire, and to inform on each other. When pressed for names, some would give those of friends and relatives who had passed away and, duly, those bodies were exhumed and burned at the stake just as if they were alive. When it became clear that local clergy could not be trusted to do this work efficiently, the Dominicans were given Inquisitional powers to carry it out.

In 1252, Pope Innocent IV issued a Papal bull legalizing torture for the purpose of eliciting information and confessions from accused heretics.  A wide range of tortures from the Rack to water-boarding would continue to be used, with impunity.

A grim postscript to the military campaign against the South was the long siege and destruction of Montségur.  Cathars from all over had retreated to this fortress town, a bastide, in the lower Pyrenees, 50 miles southwest of Carcasonne.  Before a final assault by superior French forces, the few who renounced their faith were allowed to leave.  Two hundred perfecti chose to die and were joined by 21 credentes (and volunteer soldiers) who received the consolamentum in the last hours. All were burned in fires lit at the foot of the mountain, an area known to visitors who gather there today (beneath a later but still impressive ruin) as the Field of the Cremated.

The heresy was crushed and the French monarchy established its primacy over a stubbornly independent region. Raimon VII had no sons and gave his daughter away in marriage to the brother of King Louis IX, Alphonse de Poitiers— a symbolic knot to bind the ancient province of Languedoc to the kingdom of France.

Stuart Dodds

Notes:

*    Bernard, frustrated in his efforts to convert the Cathars, was ambivalent with respect to their faith.  He once conceded, “No sermons are more thoroughly Christian than theirs and their morals are pure.”

** Francis traveled as widely as poor health (and his wretched, self-imposed diet) would permit, even to Egypt and Syria, where sultans and emirs, impervious to his teachings, received him courteously.  He was appalled by the Crusaders he encountered in Arab lands. Although Saint Francis was born in France of a French mother and was known as “the Frenchman”— Francesco—he had never lived there as an adult.  He died in Assisi a slow painful death from barbaric medical attempts to treat the wounds of the Stigmata.

*** A ferocious figure in the Albigensian Crusade was Simon de Montforte, the 5th Earl of Leicester, a latter-day Viking whose methods shocked even the Holy See.  His atrocities were ingenious. The slaughter under his command was indiscriminate. At Béziers, when thousands, heretics and Catholics, had sought sanctuary inside the cathedrals, the famous cry went out, “Tuez les tous, Dieu reconnaitra les siens!”  (“Kill them all, God will recognize his own.”)  All were incinerated.  It is estimated that 20,000 men, women and children perished in the assault on Béziers. De Monteforte rampaged from city to city, burning, butchering and pillaging, all the while increasing his power and his lands. At one point, he ruled over an area larger than that controlled by the French king. In 1215, he died, fittingly, of a huge stone thrown by a catapult (a mangonel) from the walls of Toulouse.  It was gleefully reported, in Occitan, that the catapult had been operated by “donas e tozas e mulhers.”

*   *   *

Further reading :

A literary interpretation of the Cathar story is offered in Denis de Rougement’s  magnificent, idiosyncratic work “L’Amour et l’Occident” (1940).  There is an English translation by Montgomery Belgion, “Love in the Western World.” (Princeton University Press, 1983)

“Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World” by Karen Armstrong  (Anchor Books, Revised edition 2001)

 “Barbarian in the Garden” by Zbigniew Herbert includes an excellent essay entitled “Albigensians, Inquisitors and Troubadours,” translated from the Polish. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Words of caution

 

Apples in a green bowl
suggest the amusement of living.

The failing light of afternoon
shares its bed with the pomegranates.

If you hear someone weeping in the next room, go to them
and tell them about Carthage.

It is the eyes that arrange festivals,
the mouth that rides on a silver staircase.

A book with pale green covers is a reminder that death
is a delicate matter

Spare the nightingale.

A sign on your door instructs you to go out in your pajamas
and look for an amber jar that is buried in the forest.

There are further instructions in the music room.

Go home now.

 

Stuart Dodds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Pen-chan

 

I have been dreaming of her lately
the subtlety of her smile
how light breaks in all directions
and all is well in her presence

how one day her hair is swept into a chignon
and the next
loose about her shoulders

how dark her hair, how black her eyes
how pale her skin—
in motion, with scissors and comb
at the hair salon
how composed

the white swan writes its arabesques
on the still water
gliding to and fro
noiselessly
on the black and silver water

Would I keep this sense of her beauty to myself?
and who would I tell?

When Galileo saw four moons surrounding Jupiter
how could he not tell all the world!

Stuart Dodds

——————————————————————————————

Note: Pen-chan is a Thai name for a woman or girl meaning “full moon”

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Drama of Two Selves

 

Drama of Two Selves

When we (my other self and I)
heard the news from Oncology
my other self wondered what people would say
how it would look
whereas I was shattered
he was asking himself
if he should not walk with a heavier tread
assume a melancholy air
I was in a state of panic
and he was wondering how it would affect our public image—
we did not see eye to eye

He was put out
and I was thinking of shining scalpels and pale green hospital rooms
he thought of the position he should take
in talking to friends
how he would spend his time
now there wasn’t much of it left

He would cancel every one of his magazine subscriptions
and concentrate on serious reading—
would he re-read the novels of Dostoevsky
and pick up “Middlemarch” again?
how would he dress?—
what does one wear at death’s door?

Would he “live every day as the last”?
weren’t you supposed to think more clearly
in situations like this
execute some brilliant plan—

Within six months, thanks to radiation in high and frequent doses
we were cured
not “cured”—
“in remission”
both of us

He speaks of his ordeal proudly
as an achievement
to all and sundry
and I have given up my efforts to restrain him

Stuart Dodds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Meagan

 
What is it about Meagan
and why do we like to remember her
the way we flocked to her counter
for morning coffee?

She would clap her hands
and point to the next customer
who spoke above the din
“Regular with room for cream!” they’d shout

A jug of cream stood on a wooden table near the door
with a jumble of other condiments
it was chaos

but Meagan could handle an undisciplined crowd—
often she would hold out her right hand
pointing with two fingers
as if she were holding a gun
and, if she liked you, she would “shoot” you

Then a chain took over with efficiency experts
and before long, there were aluminum stanchions
with velvet ropes—
so the customers could form an orderly line—
and other architectural changes

Meagan with her freckled face and blue eyes
and her boyish swagger is gone—
everyone is sad, we reminisce about her
and the coffee now…
let’s not talk about the coffee

 

Stuart Dodds

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Natalya Alexandrovna

 

In her aging features
still bold and lovely
with lines when she smiles
that race around her face
I catch in that network of strength and fragility
a glimpse of a girl’s eager expression
the look of a younger woman
and sometimes that of a child

 

Stuart Dodds
February 28, 2004

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

East Bay

 

it had been hot and still all night
the French windows open
and only a faint hot breeze

morning brought a cooler wind
sweeping up to our house from the garden below
a frantic rustling and clatter of dry leaves—
a wind that had been lying in wait
and now it was time to strike

turning and twisting through the trees and flower beds
like a serpent, a dry dawn wind chasing away summer
a furtive wind, a coolness, a force
that would change everything

a shutter banging at regular intervals, trees agitated
and muttering, pine needles flying across the floor—
as if the trees were storming the house

and Natasha in a white suit, dressed for the city I think
battled a white curtain, a Japanese paper blind
that had come alive
that was blowing violently back and forth, snapping
like a gib sail
as she struggled and shouted my name
and the redwoods wailed
and the cedars cried in the fury of a rainless storm

 

Stuart Dodds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email