Chapter Three: There She Blows!
“So be cheery, my lads, let your hearts never fail,
While the bold harpooner striking the whale!”
One can only imagine the pain and agony of being cornered at a cocktail party by Herman Melville. How in the world would you get him to shut-up? Would he spend the next 30 minutes droning on about whale line? Would his tips about how to properly cook whale blubber stretch into the wee hours? Oh, my god, is he going to talk about the different kinds of whales – again?
The answer was probably yes.
There’s little doubt that one of the great challenges of reading “Moby-Dick” is Melville’s tendency towards long-winded sermons about whaling. Every agonizing detail is described in all its glory. These temporary sidetracks to the story often don’t feel very temporary.
In fact, I groaned audibly when I came upon the dreaded “Cetology” chapter on page 169.
In my other two failed attempts at reading “Moby-Dick,” Cetology was the beginning of the end. The chapter is 14 pages long, but feels like 30 pages. This is the first chapter where Melville takes a break from his characters and narrative – to lecture.
Cetology is about whales. Every different type of whale under the ocean – from Right Whales to dolphins. The chapter is divided into three books called:
I. The Folio Whale
II. The Octavo Whale
III. The Duodecimo Whale
The urge to skip this section is powerful – especially when your eyes begin to glaze over and you find your mind wandering to more satisfying endeavors like washing dishes or shoveling snow. Halfway through it this time – I felt a strong desire to vacuum the living room rug.
Agony, dreadful agony.
It is chapters like Cetology that lead the New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review to write in 1852:
“…If there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilled sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them [Moby-Dick]…”
That’s, of course, unfair.
There are passages of writing in Melville’s masterpiece so breathtaking – so magical – that a reader is forced to double back and read it again. The writing in these passages is that profound – that good.
Melville was writing an epic – a narrative of remarkable scope and imagination. Part of his goal was to build a world so real that he felt it necessary to describe every iota of it. That’s why we get the constant explaining.
Modern readers don’t need this type of exposition (it’s especially annoying because much of Melville’s information on whales is wrong. We’ve learned quite a lot of whales since the mid-19th century).
Patience is the key. A modern reader must make these narrative lectures part of the story – part of the experience. Go slowly and absorb them. Put the misinformation into the context of the time and the story.
It’s worth it and makes the magical moments even more magical.
Progress to date: Page 245 of 655.
Mad Scribblings from a Five-Hour Corporate Meeting
9:05 a.m. – A power point slide show – with lots of graphs. Outside, a construction crew starts up a power generator that sounds like they are crushing gravel.
9:20 a.m. – The presenter keeps misspelling “uncertainty” as “uncertainly” in her slides. Why you would even use this word is beyond me.
9:50 a.m. – Sirens. An ambulance and a fire truck just whipped by. Cool.
9:52 a.m. – The presenter asks one of the people to move their head so she can continue to read her slides. Everyone laughs because she makes a joke about his head being too thick to read through. It’s like living on Comedy Central. Coffee. I need coffee.
9:55 a.m. – Another meeting breakdown. Around the table we go talking about a side point that was raised about a question on the slides. The conversation has nothing to do with the presentation – yet it keeps building momentum. People preface their remarks with: “Not to belabor the point” or “Not to beat a dead horse.” Dead horse. Knowing my luck that will be today’s lunch.
10 a.m. – Has it really been an hour? How many goddamn graphs can you fit on one slide? The presenter is averaging two or three per slide. Bad color schemes as well.
10:10 a.m. – Is there any art less inspiring than conference room art? This room has two prints in the same family – bland reds and blues painted into squares and outlined in black. Random letters are then spread throughout both prints. What was the artist trying to say? Other than – “Look a blandly colored square with the letter “R” on it.” I now want to hunt down and beat the artist with a rusty pipe.
10:20 a.m. – You can’t get this time back. Seriously. It’s gone. Forever.
10:23 a.m. – “He beat that issue like a rug.” Someone just said that.
10:25 a.m. – We have been on this presentation for more than one hour and twenty minutes and we’re only on slide 30. About two minutes and 70 seconds per slide, which is actually not bad.
10:30 a.m. – One of my colleagues has escaped to the rest room. You need two keys to go to the bathroom here. One to get into the john and the second to return to the conference room. It’s like
10:35 a.m. – One of my colleagues is falling asleep. She’s really struggling with it. Her eyes are lowering and her chin is dipping. When the dip gets too low and her chin hits her chest, she snaps back to attention. Lids are half-mast. Eyes are blood-shot. We may lose her.
10:45 a.m. – Our first break. Thank God. I’m drowning in my own urine. I dive for the keys.
11:05 a.m. – No one wants to start up again so we’re all milling about getting ready for the second presentation of this marathon session. Is there anything more annoying than chit chat before a boring presentation?
11:10 a.m. – I’m zoning out…
11:20 a.m. – More distracting side discussions. I wonder what we’re going to eat for lunch?
11:25 a.m. – Yawns are contagious. A fun game is to yawn and make eye contact with the person across from you. They will yawn. You can’t help but yawn. And soon it spreads like a virus through the room.
11:35 a.m. – We were interrupted by a workman who wants to do some tinkering with the alarm system. Our client said he needs to come back at 2 p.m. when the meeting ends. 2 p.m. It seems like a very long, long time from now.
11:41 a.m. – The sound of traffic drifts in from the closed windows. If you listen closely it can sound like a waterfall.
11:47 a.m. – My ass hurts.
11:49 a.m. – There are two exit signs in this conference room. One thermostat. One fire detector. A clock. Two light switches. A small white board. A big plant (fern?). Newspaper clips and the two pieces of art. There’s still no water or food.
11:50 a.m. – Is there a Greek god of lunch?
11:52 a.m. – The food has arrived. Can’t wait to take a large bite of a soggy sandwich!
12:01 p.m. – “Marketing falling on sword” was just uttered. What in god’s name does that mean? When can we eat?
12:08 p.m. – One of the founders came in and now we’re recapping the last three hours. Kill me now.
12:12 p.m. – I’ve grabbed an Italian wrap and a Coke. I am profoundly disappointed by the lack of chips.
12:22 p.m. – We’re going through the slide deck again.
12:34 p.m. – Still recapping…
12:48 p.m. – The CEO has walked in. My grave fear is that we’ll now start to recap – again. The CEO made a beeline to the sandwich table. Not much left over there.
12:49 p.m. – “If you’re off 3X you can have Jesus Christ selling your products and it won’t make a difference.” Best quote of the day – so far.
12:55 p.m. – Keep the big dog happy by maintaining eye contact. CEOs love that.
12:57 p.m. – Sigh. We’re now recapping for the CEO. I’m starting to feel the four hours as I fidget. I’m looking at the exit doors with envy.
1:02 p.m. – “Flanking strategy” was used in a sentence.
1:20 p.m. – Still recapping. Why is the CEO always the slowest person in the room?
1:25 p.m. – This is torture. There has not been one original thought expressed in the last four and a half hours. We repeat, repeat, repeat and then we review what we repeat. This meeting should have been one hour – max.
1:29 p.m. – The VP of Marketing is kissing the CEO’s ass. Long speech about how smart and engaged he is. Now everyone around the table is nodding in agreement. So am I.
1:36 p.m. – The CEO left. I hugged him. Then I went to the bathroom. And, yes, I had to borrow the keys to get in and out.
1:42 p.m. – I’m getting giddy. We’ve entered the wrap-up portion of the meeting. This could last five minutes or five hours.
1:44 p.m. – Ass kissing is running rampant.
1:45 p.m. – Another founder has come in for the food. We are starting down a bad recap road. Damn!
1:47 p.m. – The founder has sat down to eat and is babbling. My God – I’m never going to get out of here.
1:50 p.m. – Meeting over. I’ve survived to meet another day!
“And God created great whales.”
Is there a more unusual character in literature than the cannibal turned harpooner? One expects traditionalism when reading “Moby-Dick,” so when the reader is first introduced to Queequeg, well, call me surprised. We first meet this literary icon at the Sprouter-Inn in
Ishmael, on his way to
His hunger sated, Ishmael begins to worry about where he’ll be sleeping. The landlord – a creaky old fellow – informs him that the inn is full. No more beds. However, the landlord is willing to sell Ishmael half a cot that he must share with a harpooner.
Ishmael balks at first. Instead, he finds a hard bench by the windows and tries to make due. But the cold is deep and seeps through the window glass. Finally, he reluctantly agrees to shard a bed.
He discovers that his bedfellow is “a dark complexioned chap. He never eats dumplings, he don’t – he eats nothing but steaks, and likes ‘em rare.”
Ishmael frets mightily about his decision. He learns that the harpooner may be returning to the inn late because he’s out selling a shrunken head. The news causes Ishmael to lose his patience with the landlord.
But exhausted, he climbs into his bed to await his mysterious roommate. Time ticks away and the night lapses into the wee hours of the morning. At last, Queequeg arrives carrying a lone candle. In the flickering light, Ishmael gets his first look at the head-peddling harpooner from the
“Good heavens! What a sight! Such a face!”
Queequeg has a dark purplish, yellow skin tone with black, square tattoos running along his cheeks. He is completely bald, except for a “scalp-knot twisted on his forehead.” His back and chest are also covered in tattoos and he carries a tomahawk that doubles as a tobacco pipe.
Ishmael is shocked and terrified to be sleeping with this savage cannibal. He screams for help from the landlord – and a row nearly erupts. But there is something in the demeanor of Queequeg that calms the sailor and they end up fast friends.
Some say more than friends. The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael has raised more than a few eyebrows. Many people see a sexual relationship. It’s easy to see why with passages like these:
Are Ishmael and Queequeg gay?
Probably not. “Moby-Dick” was written in 1851 and society was a different place. It wasn’t uncommon for straight men to share beds, to embrace and touch, to become bosom buddies in a short period of time. This, of course, would be considered homosexual behavior today. I tend to agree with Melville scholar Carl F. Houde who notes:
“There has been controversy about this imagery, some seeing a movement toward romantic love. But one must be very careful before pushing Melville’s language into special meanings.”
Certainly the bond between the two characters is a strong one – but not a gay one (although there’s nothing wrong with that).
Progress to date: Page 132 of 655.StumbleUpon | Digg | del.icio.us | Reddit | Technorati | E-mail
(DaRK PaRTY has been fascinated by vampires ever since reading Stephen King’s novel “
DaRK PaRTY: What is it about Bram Stoker's 1897 novel that has proven so timeless?
The novel itself was not a best seller upon publication (it had moderate sales) and reviews were mixed. Yet it has never been out of print, has been reissued in hundreds of editions, and has been translated into more than 40 foreign languages. In spite of several obvious weaknesses, a creaky plot, static characters, sentimental dialogue, and numerous internal inconsistencies, many consider the book a “classic.”
In my opinion, this is an indication of the enduring power of the myth that Stoker borrowed and reshaped, a myth that resonates in different ways for each generation, inviting them to confront and explore their own fears, anxieties and desires.
As for the novel, many enjoy it solely at the level of narrative – a revisiting of the age-old theme of good versus evil. But others have perceived in the book more profound themes, viewing it as a rich narrative that yields up a considerable range of interpretations: for example, that it explores late-Victorian fears and anxieties about issues of sex, gender, race, evolution, invasion, and degeneration.
DP: If you were to describe the personality of Dracula in Stoker's novel -- what attributes would you use and why?
As for his physical appearance, Stoker’s Dracula is a far cry from most
DP: Is Dracula based on the historical figure Vlad the Impaler? What are the similarities and differences between the two?
This is what we know. Stoker began working on the novel that would become Dracula in March 1890. At that time, the name for his vampire was “Count Wampyr.” He found the name “Dracula” in the summer of 1890 at the Whitby Public Library in William Wilkinson’s book, An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. The book contained a few lines (which Stoker copied into his notes) about a fifteenth-century Wallachian voivode known as Dracula who crossed the Danube River to attack the Turks, enjoyed a brief success, was driven back into Wallachia, was defeated, and replaced as voivode by his brother. Wilkinson added a footnote that “Dracula” was a Romanian word for “the devil.” Apparently, that is what persuaded Stoker to borrow the name for his fictional vampire.
That’s it. Everything else about the connection between Count Dracula and Vlad is at best speculation, or at worst fabrication. There is not a shred of evidence that Stoker knew any more about the real Dracula than what was in Wilkinson’s book. Significantly, Wilkinson refers to him only as “Dracula” (not as Vlad) and makes no mention of impalements. Likewise with Stoker.
The name “Vlad” appears nowhere in the novel Dracula. There is no evidence that Stoker knew what Vlad looked like, or about his infamous fondness for impalement. The fact that in Dracula, a vampire is destroyed with a stake through its heart is (Stoker tells us) borrowed from folklore and earlier vampire literature, not from stories about Vlad.
DP: There is an entire sub-genre centered on vampire fiction. Why do you think people are so fascinated by vampires?
The major reason for the explosion of vampire fiction in recent decades lies in the ability of the vampire to shape-shift. Vampires are no longer merely evil creatures of the darkness. While some authors retain the traditional Dracula-like vampire, many others have opted to make their vampires more romantic and sympathetic characters. This helps to explain why so many today find vampire attractive.
As for which ones I would recommend, it depends on what you are looking for. If you want a film that captures the horrific atmosphere of the original, then I would suggest the original “Nosferatu.” If you want a romantic, Byronic Dracula, then have a look at the Frank Langella version. If you prefer a film that sticks closely to the plot of the novel, your options are limited. The most faithful adaptation is Count Dracula, a BBC-TV production (1978). The Coppola move (1992) does include many scenes from Stoker’s book, but it interweaves them with a back-story involving Vlad the Impaler and a love story between Vlad/Dracula and Mina – neither of which is in the novel.
For more information about Dracula, visit my two websites at www.blooferland.com
The recovery area of the Casualty Clearing Station is located in a portable hut with a canvas roof. The main staging area contains 10 rows of 20 trestle beds, all of them filled with wounded soldiers. At each corner of the hut is a coal stove to keep the CCS and the patients warm. Johan lies under a brown blanket, his abdomen wrapped in field dressing and his head taped with bandages.
A cool, clean breeze wafts through the opening clearing the fetid stench of sickness that has been hanging like a fog inside the hut. The winter day is unusually warm and sunny and from his cot Johan can see out of the tent flaps to white patches of melting snow. Horse-drawn wagons and the occasional truck rumble by and soldiers tramp along the muddy road.
Next to him, a nurse with round calves and thin ankles changes the bandages of an unconscious Algerian legionnaire, tossing the soiled dressing into empty petrol can. She sings a French lullaby in a soft, soothing voice. Johan notices that the Algerian is missing both arms and that his skin has turned the color of boiled cabbage.
The nurse’s singing distracts him from the canopy of moaning and groaning around him. He realizes that he lives in this den of pain and may have always lived here. He tries to remember how he came to this place, but can’t recall. No matter. He glances again at the nurse’s legs, watching the hem of her white dress slide upward over her smooth calves as she bends over the Algerian.
Settling back into his pillow, Johan stares at the ceiling, the sun filtering through the dozens of tiny holes in the canvas. He begins to connect the dots in his mind forming his own private constellations. The task makes him sleepy.
“Johan? Johan Petersen?”
A legionnaire in a tattered great coat stops at the foot of his bed. The legionnaire holds a blue helmet in his hands, slowly rotating it. The man is Algerian with curly black hair and dark, olive skin. There is a look of relief in his wide, brown eyes. Johan thinks the legionnaire may be on the verge of tears.
“Il est bon de vous voir, mon ami. J'ai pensé que vous étiez mort.”
Johan gives the stranger a curious look.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak French.”
The Algerian looks perplexed.
“Don’t you recognize me, Johan? It’s
The pretty nurse turns around and gives the Algerian a winning smile. Johan admires her delicate waist and brown eyes. The nurse and the Algerian converse in French. Finally, the nurse glances down at Johan, her face revealing surprise. Her clean smell washes over him and he thinks that it may be the best thing he has ever smelled.
She speaks slowly in a thick French accent. “You are awake. This was not expected and I must go fetch the doctor. Your friend here says his name his
“What’s your name?” Johan asks her.
She smiles patiently at him. “Do you recognize your friend?”
The soldier named
Johan shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I’ve never seen this man before.”
The smile fades from
“How are you feeling?” she asks.
“I feel fine. My head throbs a little, but it doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter?”
“Nothing really matters anymore,” he says. “Didn’t you know that?”
“I must get the doctor,” the nurse says. “I’ll return shortly.”
Johan returns to watching the sunlit holes in the roof of the station. And then, slowly, the blackness returns and he slips off into a deep slumber.
He doesn’t wake up again until eleven months later in a hospital in
DaRK PaRTY: What do you think makes a good poem?
Del Ray: Good depends on who is reading it. Good is different to everyone. Good changes from day to day. Good isn’t just what can be found in books from poets still being published who wrote last century or centuries ago. Good disappears.
Bad flourishes, too. But, again, what is good to me is good to me at that moment and that doesn’t need to mean anything to anyone, not even me. I say ‘not even me’ particularly because I’m sure I can’t produce a real answer to your question, even with regard to what is, in my opinion, at this moment, good to me. Or, if I could, it would take a very long time, evolve from moment to moment and perhaps be a terrific exercise. If you read any issue of SHAMPOO you’ll get a good idea of what good was to me at the moments I was putting an issue together.
A number of qualities appeal to me in poems, often depending on how I feel when I’m reading them. Poems I really like usually have several of the following characteristics, and they do not necessarily have to include any of them: intelligence, humor, humility, confidence, completely unexpected turns, interesting or poignant use of sounds, bizarre or lovely metaphors or similes (see James Schuyler for brilliant similes, particularly relating to clouds), an awareness of sound, maturity, innocence, honesty (extremely important), shows and/or induces emotion, narrative (especially when that narrative is really screwed with), they are shock-inducing; scandalous, incomparable, personal, and the list could go on.
A poem that coyly or cunningly or straightforwardly (seems to) reveal characteristics of the person who wrote the poem can often appeal to me. Well, usually if those are characteristics to which I can relate, or which make me curious. I’m sure this doesn’t reveal much, and I’m at a loss as to how to express what truly makes a poem good to me – but this is how I articulate it today. Ask me again tomorrow.
DP: There is so much bad poetry out there -- what is the biggest mistake beginners make when writing verse?
Del Ray: I’m not sure. I do receive a lot of what I might consider immature and not particularly enjoyable (to me) poetry submissions and I read a lot of books and magazines that are really difficult for me to get through, but please see my answer to question number one. That’s just my assessment. And beginners are beginners – one has to begin somewhere. Nobody makes a mistake by writing a first, second, or third poem.
In my opinion, if one continues to write poems, and one wants those poems to possibly be read and enjoyed by others (or not), one should start reading every book of (and on) poems that one can get one’s hands on. And take an introductory poetry class or two. When you find a poet whose work you really like, read every poem you can find by that person. If that person is alive, look that person up, write her a fan letter, send her your poems, try to write like him, go to his reading, become pen pals, meet her for coffee or a beer or a donut (if she’s amenable), become friends with him, if possible.
Get to know as many poets as you can. Form intimate group swaps of poetry where you simply sit around and read your poems aloud to each other and talk about (not criticize) the poems. Keep getting to know poets and poems. By all means, reread the poets you love. Keep looking for new poets to love. The quest for something new that you love gets more difficult as you go along, but by the time the difficulty arises, you will have begun to find your community, your ‘audience,’ your place in poetry, your voice. Once you feel you’ve found any of those things, keep screwing around to shake things up. Give yourself different communities, different audiences, different poetries, different voices.
Two more recommendations I’d give new poets:
2. While I’m honored to be asked to impart poetic wisdom please don’t take my words as gospel – go out and find answers to these or similar questions by other people who are much more eloquent and better at giving good poetic word.
DP: Who do you think is the greatest poet in history and why?
Del Ray: I don’t know who the greatest poet in history is. If such a thing were universally quantifiable, I’m certain that person would not be my favorite, or anywhere near the top. Many of my favorite poets are listed in the answer to your next question.
DP: Pretend you have met an alien from another planet and he wants an example of the perfect poem. What poem would you give him and why?
Del Ray: Another difficult question. I’m not going to pretend that if I had a favorite poem (I don’t) that it would be universally or galactically perfect or good. None of my favorite poets are universally appreciated and while it’s fun to fantasize about one’s own posterity, and spend a lifetime preaching your own poetic gospel and trying to influence what will be published and read well into the future (and one CAN influence this, it’s certainly a reason why I’m a publisher, but that’s a different question), I wouldn’t expect a positive reaction to what I would present to an average human, much less someone from another planet.
If I had to choose just one poem, I’d walk over to my bookshelf (and/or Google) and start taking out books by the likes of Jack Spicer, James Schuyler, John Wieners, Stephanie Young, Kevin Killian Juliana Spahr, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Joe Brainard, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Gluck, Kenward Elmslie, William Corbett, Wallace Stevens, Albert Goldbarth, Frank O’Hara, Paulo Javier, Dodie Bellamy, Sean Cole, Eileen Myles, Michael Palmer, Cedar Sigo, a very incomplete list, and, you know, I’d be exhausted at the concept, but really enjoy the journey.
My getting to an enjoyment of most of these poets, though, required an appreciation of some earlier favorites, many of whom would not be on this list. So should I hand the non-earth being a book by Allen Ginsberg, ee cummings, or Walter de la Mare? Probably. I’m also pretty certain my purpose in life is not to turn folks who’ve never enjoyed a poem onto poetry (not that it’s a bad thing to do).
DP: Can you give us a short list of modern poets DaRK PaRTY readers should consider reading?
Del Ray: See that answer to question number 4.