Circe and Scylla

by Jim Janus

The full moon cast a gold smudge onto the flat surface of the sea. No wind blew, but the boat cut in a hurry. Its single sail above me billowed as if from a stiff breeze. The captain noticed my confusion and pointed to the canvas. “Of course it’s not wind that she’s catchin’.” He stepped to the mast and adjusted a rope. “It’s the moonbeams that be pushin’ us!”

Such a thing I never heard. In the land where I grew up, fantastic things didn’t happen. It’s why I left. Father urged me to stay, said he’d pay me to keep toiling at the mill. I worked just one day. The next morning I left–for the seaside.

To get to the port town I walked, or when a cart went that way I sneaked on. After a week I reached town and asked for directions to the inn. I stepped from a walkway of wooden planks into a dim tavern with tables of men and women who didn’t turn to look. The host greeted me and I told him briefly about my needing work and a place to stay. He directed me to an empty chair.

At a table in front of mine sat a man and a woman. The woman had a face, young and smooth, like a princess. Her hair was long and straight, and so abundant and black that constellations seemed deep within. Flat on their table was a piece of parchment with some sort of drawing. The man’s fingertip traced along it, as if showing a path. The woman’s head nodded and then she turned toward me; her dark eyes looked at mine, stirring me with a pang of excitement.

Suddenly the host’s aproned waist blocked my view; a pewter pint of ale clanked down in front of me. He found me a job. A sack of messages needed to be brought that night to a nearby isle and distributed by sunrise. If I accepted, he’d provide me a room. He concluded our deal by saying, “The ferry captain will know who you are. At midnight you’re the only passenger.” He resumed his rounds and I hoped to further admire the black-haired woman. But she was gone! So were the man and the scroll.

That evening I was so tired from my week of traveling I slept soundly despite the shoddy bed and the downstairs din of revelers. Before twelve the host’s knocking woke me. When I stepped from the room I almost fell over the sack of messages.

At the dock within the shadows two figures stood by the ferry, one in a long cloak. As I neared with the heavy sack over my shoulder, the cloaked one boarded and disappeared to the lower quarters. When I reached the captain he greeted me. “You’ll make a fine courier,” he said. I stopped and freed one of my hands to shake. His were full. One held a gold coin that he stuffed in his trouser pocket. The other gripped a rolled parchment that he moved to his coat. “I’ll take you as far as the isle. Someone will guide you from there.”

“Who? The man who just boarded?” I asked.

“No. That passenger’s on other business.” The captain continued, “Normally I won’t take someone last minute, but this one,” he patted his pocket, “I couldn’t deny.”

We pushed off and soon, despite the calm, the sail puffed out. That’s when he explained, “It’s the moonbeams that be pushin’ us!” Sailing would take a few hours, according to the captain. So I continued to engage him for conversation, since the cloaked passenger remained below. When I asked where we were, the captain’s eyes became bright as if with an idea. He reached into his coat, pulled out the rolled parchment, and flattened it on the bench between us.

Near its margins, crudely drawn lines represented two bodies of land. Between, wavy lines represented the sea. Among the wavy lines were drawn two small islands. Near one, humps and the head of a sea monster were sketched. I smiled at the captain and complimented the map’s decorative touch. Being very serious the captain said in a low voice, “There’s only one serpent and it protects the first island. The second island is where we’re going. That monster’s only a threat if we sail too close. I’ve heard it said that if the serpent gets hold of someone, for the next twenty-four hours its stays at the bottom ‘til it’s digested its meal.”

He leaned to a wooden box, removed a luminescent dagger, then looked grave. “Take this ‘til the end of our trip.” I took the weapon and said it seemed too small to ward off something so large. “It’s enchanted,” he told me. The two of us became quiet, and he rolled the map and returned it to his coat.

After some time the first island could be seen. It became larger as the boat neared. From below deck came the sound of footsteps ascending. The captain and I turned. There stood the cloaked passenger–the black-haired woman. Through the moonlight her dark eyes looked to mine. Inside me again stirred the pang of excitement. She spoke, but her voice was cold, and dark. “Sail to that island.”

The captain dismissed her request. “I’m stayin’ the course. The serpent would sink us, otherwise.” The woman stepped forward, reached her arm straight toward me, and pointed a wand. My fascination turned to terror, then I felt myself flying in the air, through the dark, and plunging into the cold salty sea. I bobbed to the surface and saw the boat. On it the woman now pointed her wand at the captain, who pulled the ropes, and turned the boat toward the island.

I kept moving my arms and legs to stay afloat. The boat sailed further away, getting smaller. A swishing sound came from the darkness between me and the boat. Not far off–arching out of the water–a hump appeared. First just one, then directly behind it another, then a third. I reached into my coat for the dagger. In front of me a horrible head rose from the sea, it arched high above, then with mouth open and terrible teeth dove toward me. I lifted the dagger and kicked water to avoid the jaws. At that moment, the dagger glowed and I saw on the serpent’s neck a spot that was missing a scale. I felt the dagger pull my arm until the blade and serpent came together. The monster wailed and splashed and once again I was under water.

I surfaced unharmed to see the serpent’s whole length on the water. Its giant, snakelike body lay underside up, from head of horns to tail’s triangled tip. In the calm I noticed I was somewhat closer to the island, so I began to swim to it. As I got close to the island I saw the boat heading away. On its deck stood only the captain. Despite my waving and calling he didn’t see or hear me, or perhaps he was simply too afraid to stop.

I made it to shore at what looked like the only spot for landing a boat. The small beach extended inland, rising gradually to an opening of trees by which was a garden. Beyond it stood a stone cottage with a wooden door illuminated by the flickering flame of a hanging lamp. I stayed behind the trees and walked the edge of the grounds, peering at the cottage from different angles. Candlelight shone inside, which raised my hopes that someone there could help me get dry and warm.

From inside the cottage I heard women speaking. I couldn’t distinguish the words, so I stepped into the moonlit yard and crept to the window. In the center room a small fire of orange and yellow danced in a fireplace. To its left in a chair was sitting a golden-haired woman of great beauty. Her expression showed peace as she spoke.

“I cannot help you, Scylla. I don’t cast spells anymore.”

She was talking to someone near the other edge of the flickering fire. I shifted my feet to see better to the right. It was the black-haired woman! Now I knew her name. Scylla’s dark eyes showed evil and obstinance. “Circe, just teach me the spell. I’m not asking you to cast it.”

My body, still shaking from my wet clothes and the cold, shook even more as I listened to their discussion of magic.

“Scylla, for ages I’ve been banished to this island, sent here for the spells I cast long ago. Since then I kept a vow to Helios to no longer use magic. Soon he’ll set me free.”

Scylla rose and stepped toward a shelf of books, each one tall, wide, and elaborately bound in leather. “Your freedom is what I want for you, Circe. I’ll prove it. Let me remove these volumes of incantations. Surely they’re a temptation for you.”

Circe shook her head. “You’re not getting my books, Scylla. If others use my spells I’m just as responsible.” Scylla fingered a volume and began to slide it from its place. Circe rose and stopped her. They agreed to rest for the night, with Scylla staying in a vacant shelter in the yard. In the morning they’d arrange for Scylla to leave the island.

Before Scylla stepped out of the cottage I returned to the woods, exhausted. I found an area to try to sleep. I sat on the ground, my back against a tree, and faced the yard. The cottage’s glow dimmed to darkness, and Scylla retired to the shelter. I couldn’t sleep, though, for fear of being discovered. My head nodded and I began to doze when a stirring roused me.

I saw, in the yard, Scylla. She sneaked to the darkened cottage and entered it. I crept to the same window I watched through before. A glow from Scylla’s wand enabled her to find the shelves. Book by book she browsed quickly through the pages, until within a particular book she stopped, lowered her eyes, and ran her fingertip across lines of words. She then closed the book, put it under her arm and turned toward the door. I dropped to the ground and didn’t move. Much later I stole back to my spot in the woods.

I woke to the dawning sky–and the sound of pigs grunting. I also heard a woman’s voice speaking in a strange language. I moved inside the woods to get near the yard where the swine were penned. Just outside the fence crouched Scylla, and near her the book leaned opened against a post. As Scylla chanted, the pigs rooted in the mud. When she stopped, she stood up and studied the pigs as if expecting something to happen.

From the cottage Circe emerged, yelling, “Leave my swine alone.” She saw Scylla’s wand lying on the ground and before Scylla could get to it, Circe picked it up and used her knee to break it in two. She rushed to Scylla who had her back to the pen. The two battered each other with their hands until Scylla’s foot slipped and Circe pushed her backwards over the fence into the mud of the pen.

Circe walked to the book, lifted it, and inspected the page. “You think these pigs were men? You’re trying to change them back?”

Scylla stood up from the mud. “Victims from your past remain.”

“Scylla, your failure to change these pigs back into men is because they are pigs and were never anything else!”

“There’s at least one man who still suffers in a transformed state. That man sent me.”

“He deserved it. The men I transformed were men who harmed me.”

“The one who sent me sees it differently. But I can restore him. Now I know your spell.”

Circe unhooked the gate and Scylla stepped out, covered in muck. “Would you get me a pail of water to wash myself?”

“Go to the sea to bathe.”

Scylla was cautious. “I heard also you can poison the sea.”

“Not all of it, but I’m keeping my vow. Go bathe, and go away.”

As Scylla walked to the water, Circe followed. I moved within the edge of trees to get a better view, then a branch cracked beneath my feet. Scylla stopped at the shore and Circe stopped at the garden. Both women turned and saw me. Circe called to me, “Come out and show yourself.”

I stepped from the trees and Scylla’s eyes showed vexation. “But the serpent devoured you!”

I reached into my coat and pulled out the dagger.

Circe turned to Scylla. “You tried to kill this boy?”

Scylla laughed, “You’ve destroyed many young men.”

Circe commanded me to not come any closer but to explain why I was on the island. As Scylla turned her back and waded into the water, I told Circe my story in a few words. I finished by saying, “My name is Glaucus.”

Scylla, waist deep in the water, turned around and taunted Circe, “I’ve learned much from your books.”

Still by the garden, Circe plucked something from one of the plants.

Scylla looked at me with her dark eyes, and called, “Glaucus, come bathe with me.”

I felt the pang of excitement that I felt in the tavern, but a hundred times stronger. I began to walk toward the sea, then I began to run. When I was about to pass Circe she stopped me. She touched my face and her fingers felt warm and soft, her eyes were caring.

As Scylla plunged under the water, Circe moved her fingertips to her lips. She blew the herb with a force so strong that it landed in the sea. At the swirls of water where Scylla went under, she did not resurface. A hump, instead, arched up. First just one, then directly behind it another, then a third. Then the beast disappeared into the sea.

Circe said she could arrange for me to get back to the port town. She also said I could stay with her forever. She let me choose.

I’m still on the island.

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Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon

Plot summary by Jim Janus

In Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon (1902), a captain of a ship changes from “having just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day” to doing “something rather clever.”

Early in the story, first mate Jukes updates the log. “Swell increasing. Ship labouring and taking water. Battened down the coolies for the night.”

The coolies were two-hundred men with “yellow faces and pigtails” who worked for years in colonies around the China seas. Now, the Bun Hin company was sending them home by way of cargo steamer, the Nan-Shan. Locked below, each Chinese had his wooden chest “containing the savings of his labours: clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium, and a small hoard of silver dollars.”

The swell that Jukes noted was from a nearing storm; the barometer confirmed it. But when he suggested steaming around, Captain MacWhirr refused. “’Three hundred extra miles to the distance, and a pretty coal bill to show. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.’” And, “’How can you tell what a gale is made of till you get it?’”

Jukes thought the captain stupid. The first mate once wrote a friend: “’He’s so jolly innocent that if you were to put your thumb to your nose and wave your fingers at him he would only wonder gravely to himself what got into you. He’s too dense to trouble about, and that’s the truth.’”

The storm increased and tossed the ship so severely that everyone onboard struggled to hang on. Below deck the Chinese were hurled about and their chests tumbled and broke. The coins rolled and the confined men fought over them. The boatswain discovered the chaos and the captain wouldn’t have it. Jukes and the hands–while the storm was quite violent–invaded the hold and took the men’s silver. The taking was ordered by MacWhirr.

The captain was “glad the trouble in the ‘tween-deck had been discovered in time. If the ship had to go after all, then, at least, she wouldn’t be going to the bottom with a lot of people in her fighting teeth and claw. That would have been odious. And in that feeling there was a humane intention and a vague sense of the fitness of things.”

Despite six hours of rocking and flooding, the Nan-Shan reached the temporary calm of the typhoon’s center. Soon the storm would batter again. What’s more, Jukes feared mutiny by the Chinese to take back their silver. Before the trip, the Nan-Shan’s owners transferred her to the Siamese flag. This increased the mate’s concern. He warned the captain, “’Let them only recover a bit, and you’ll see. They will fly at our throats, sir…she isn’t a British ship now.’”

MacWhirr agreed, then told Jukes to watch the ship while he took time in the chart-room.

“In the solitude and the pitch darkness of the cabin, he spoke out as if addressing another being awakened within his breast. ‘I shouldn’t like to lose her,’ he said half aloud. A moment passed, of a stillness so profound that no one could have guessed there was a man sitting in that cabin. Then a murmur arose. ‘She may come out of it yet.’”

The captain returned to the bridge as increasing wind, waves, and darkness threatened the ship. He told Jukes, “‘Keep her facing it—always facing it—that’s the way to get through.’”

The Nan-Shan did get through. On a bright sunshiny day she arrived in Fu-chau. How they avoided the mutiny was revealed in letters that the captain and crew wrote home.

Jukes wrote that the Chinese were still locked below when the typhoon ended. With fifteen hours to port he suggested the captain throw the coins into the hold to let them “fight it out amongst themselves.’” MacWhirr disagreed. “’He wanted as little fuss made as possible, for the sake of the ship’s name and for the sake of the owners.’”

It wasn’t long until Jukes became aware of the captain’s solution. It began when the ship’s steward roused him from sleep. “’The Captain’s letting them out!’”

Jukes flew on deck and distributed rifles to the hands. They all rushed to the chart-room. There MacWhirr was with one of the Chinese who was a clerk and interpreter from the Bun Hin company. MacWhirr–surprised by the rifles–ordered Jukes to take the guns away and to return to help count the money. They would divide the cash equally among the Chinese.

The captain’s plan came to him hours before, when the ship was in the typhoon’s center. It was then he had the “Bun Hin fellow” tell the Chinese they’d get their money back as long as they didn’t cause trouble.

The chief engineer wrote to his wife that the captain, a rather simple man, “has done something rather clever.’”

Jukes’ letter closed, “‘I think that he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.'”

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The last word he pronounced was…

Many individuals reduce books or movies to quotes that over time have become cliches. Publishers do it. Flip The Heart of Darkness by Penguin Classics. Kurtz’s last words headline the back cover.

Quote repetition or scene reminiscing can lead some individuals to think they’re familiar with a book or movie–even if they haven’t read or seen it.

Mention Deliverance to someone who was a young adult in the 1970s. They’ll likely mimic the tune of “Dueling Banjos,” though they never saw the film.

Even if you think you know its ending, read The Heart of Darkness. Let Conrad’s character, Marlow, take you slowly up the Congo to the dim, muddy place that seems “of the first ages.” Take the trip and experience the full story’s richness and humor in addition to its culmination of darkness and horror.

Many recite the final words that Kurtz “cried in a whisper,” but few quote the person who heard Kurtz speak his last. That’s Marlow. His words also are remarkable.

Firstly because he presents himself as one who tells the truth. ‘You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie. There is a taint of death in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world.’

But after Marlow blows out a candle and leaves Kurtz’s body, he visits a young woman in mourning. It’s Kurtz’s fiancé and she knows Marlow was last to see the man she loved. She pleads with Marlow to share his last word.

When a character has a big choice–one they can’t go back on–it makes a good story. Marlow must either tell the fiance the horrible truth, or invent something that will save the memory of her love.

The moment of decision felt to Marlow like his destruction. “It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head.”

Then, to the young woman, he replies,

“The last word he pronounced was–your name.”

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Sailing the Icy Passage below South America’s Cape Horn

“Our sails spread beyond the ship, rising in a pyramid and burying the hull in canvas, like what the whalemen call a Cape Horn-er under a cloud of sail.”

That 1835 passage was written by Richard Henry Dana, who at nineteen quit Harvard to serve on a merchant ship and record his seafaring experience. At the time, books about sailing were written by officers. Dana’s goal: Write the view that was missing–the sailor’s.

From Boston Harbor he set out on the Pilgrim, and like other sailors Dana took orders and climbed the masts, furling and unfurling the sails. When not on deck he was below, eating or sleeping in the forecastle. The quarters were dark, cramped behind the bow, and “before the mast.” The phrase came to describe being a sailor versus being an officer.

Aren’t sailors idle at sea? That misconception Dana clears up. “You’ll never see a man on board standing idle on deck, sitting down, or leaning over the side. The discipline of the ship requires every man to be at work, except at night and on Sundays.”

Dana describes the constant work, “steering, reefing, furling, bracing, making and setting sail, and pulling, hauling, and climbing in every direction.” He starts by detailing the four months sailing from Boston to California.

Getting there took so long because a ship couldn’t cut between the Americas (no canal through Panama). The only way to the Pacific: sail south over the equator, continue toward the Antarctic, then turn west into the icy passage below South America’s Cape Horn. There, sleet stiffened the sails and rigging, it glazed the masts and deck, and it froze the sailors’ faces and hands.

Despite the labor of sailing, Dana was awed by many sights. “There, floating in the ocean, was an iceberg of the largest size, an immense mountain-island, three miles in circumference and several hundred feet in height. The base rising and sinking in slow motion, the dashing of waves upon it, the thundering of the cracking mass, the breaking and tumbling of huge pieces, all this combined into true sublimity.”

Navigating the hazards paid off when the Pilgrim reached California’s coast. The ship floated into the Mexican bays of San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, where the agent sold the cargo of “everything from Chinese fireworks to English cart-wheels.”

Selling so much cargo at so many ports took more than a year. For sixteen months the sailors worked not only on the ship, but also on shore and in between. Upon entering each bay they dropped anchor, dropped boats, and rowed buyers back and forth. 

Separately, the sailors hauled what was received in exchange–animal hides that were large, heavy, and stiff as boards. From shore, each sailor carried one at a time on his head as he trudged through the surf to waiting boats. The sailors then rowed the filled boats back to the ship. By the time the entire cargo was sold, the sailors had carried and stowed fifteen thousand hides.

Two Years Before the Mast achieves Dana’s goal of giving the sailor’s view, highlighting the hard labor, strict discipline, dangerous work, and countering the romance. Dana writes of a fellow sailor who from high on a yard, fell into the sea and wasn’t recovered.

“At sea the man is near you, you hear his voice, and in an instant he’s gone, nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. There’s an empty berth in the forecastle, and a man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There’s one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard.”

That’s an example of the feeling Dana puts into his journalism. The sections with nautical terms were sometimes difficult to get through, but the passages with images and emotions kept me reading.

The return to Boston required the sailors to work just as hard, and Dana’s spirits rose as he neared the end of his merchant service.

“We were now to the northward of the line, and every day added to our latitude. The Magellan Clouds, the last sign of south latitude, had long been sunk, and the North Star, the Great Bear, and the familiar signs of northern latitudes, were rising in the heavens. Next to seeing land, there is no sight which makes one realize more that he is drawing near home, than to see the same heavens, under which he was born, shining at night over his head.”

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You Stand on Dead Men’s Legs

“You stand on dead men’s legs.”

So says Captain Larsen to his human find, the once drowning stranger now plucked from San Francisco Bay by the crew of The Ghost, a schooner starting for the coast of Japan to hunt seals.

The captain ordered his crew to lift the chance man from the freezing water only because they were short one. (The captain’s mate died onboard from a “debauch” the night before.)

The rescued man is Humphrey Van Weyden, who responds to Larsen’s questions of occupation by identifying himself as a “gentleman” who has an “income.”

The angered captain responds, “Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men’s legs.”

Humphrey dismisses the abuse and asks to be put ashore.

It’s then that Wolf Larsen, as the captain’s known, refuses Humphrey’s request and commits to make him stand on his own legs.

“My mate’s gone, and there’ll be a lot of promotion. A sailor comes aft to take mate’s place, cabin-boy goes for’ard to take sailor’s place, and you…”

Thus Humphrey Van Weyden, gentleman, is impressed into service as “Hump,” cabin boy of The Ghost.

This is the setup for Jack London’s 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf. London pits Wolf and Hump against each other for an engaging tale on the sea and to explore whether humans have immortal souls.

It’s Van Weyden who tells the story. He shows Larsen both as a fierce captain of super-human strength who abuses his crew, and as a self-educated man (his state-room full of literary classics and scientific works) who’s curious but skeptical about the value of life.

During breaks in the terror and the hard work of sailing, Wolf seeks Hump to debate whether life is anything more than “particles of yeast…striving to devour each other.” Hump’s impressed by Wolf’s ability to reason and argue, but is unable to change him from “a man of whom to always be afraid.”

Wolf does have a weakness–he gets migraines. This enables two things: opportunity for Hump to save himself, and a gradual physical deterioration that presents an idea about life being more than the desire to devour.

Reading The Sea-Wolf I felt like I too was captive on The Ghost.

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Don Quixote’s Cartoonlike Humor

Ever see Fractured Fairy Tales? As a kid I loved watching the cartoon from the sixties. The five-minute episodes featured knights and damsels, kings and commoners in humorous parodies of stories for children. The shorts aired during morning programming for kids, but parents were the target of the writers. The show entertained with wit, often including touches of social and political commentary.

With similar humor and wit Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. I recognized immediately its cartoonlike genre and short chapters, so I chose breakfast time for reading it. Like a kid who used to watch a cartoon before going to school, I smiled through an episode of Quixote before going to work. One hundred and twenty-five chapters gave as many escapes from adulthood.

The book’s characters fart, puke, cross-dress, get drunk, strike each other, flog themselves, and play adult practical jokes. It’s hilarious and juvenile but written for adults. Published in Spain in 1605, the book was so enjoyed that Cervantes wrote a sequel. Both are included in the 1885 English translation. Today it’s still funny and its social and political commentary still applies.

What’s funny is that fifty-year-old villager Quixote has read so many stories of chivalry he gets the notion he’s a knight. The age of chivalry has passed for a century, but Quixote dons heirloom armor, mounts a tired horse, and sets out for adventure.

Deluded by his obsession he takes innocent individuals for enemies, challenges them, then in cartoonlike violence delivers blows and receives them back. Sidekick Sancho Panza is unable to get his master to see what things really are. The lazy, simple, farm laborer accompanies Quixote on an ass, shares the consequences, and stays faithful for one reason: Quixote promises to win him an island to govern.

Quixote is mad, of course, and those who don’t yet know find out fast. In one scene a traveling entertainer makes Quixote special guest at his puppet show. During the performance, Quixote watches as a puppet knight and his puppet lover are chased by puppet horsemen. At this Quixote draws his sword and showers blows on the miniature mounted Moors.

In another scene, some who know Quixote’s madness have fun with it. A duke and duchess invite Quixote and Panza to their court for their own entertainment. The noble pair, as part of a long-running practical joke, convince knight and squire to mount a wooden horse with a peg in its head, and make them believe it’s flying them to a remote kingdom.

Cervantes strings a hundred such scenes together, moving character Quixote from beginning to end in a way that makes sense, holds attention, and entertains. There’s social and political commentary to think about or to let go. If you just want reading that brings back the feeling of juvenile cartoon-like fun, give Quixote a try.

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The Men in the City

The men in the city
Made a deal with the women in the city
The men would work every Tuesday and Thursday
The women would work every Monday and Wednesday
They’d alternate Fridays
The deal fell apart, though, by week three
That’s when they realized the old way was better

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Storytelling: Babcox Justice Center – Official Video

2015-06-11 Jim

Click here to watch the official video from Kenosha Fusion, of Jim’s performance at the June 11th event, telling his true story, Babcox Justice Center.

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Just Middle-age and Gratefulness

2015-07-20 Sunset

Every evening after dinner
I walk the tree-lined side street
That leads from my house

I don’t begin the walk at a specific time
Tonight first,
I washed the dishes

Then I started out
With nothing in mind
Just middle-age and gratefulness
And what to do next

Trees and worries and birds and plans
Until the houses ended
And the ball-field began

And like the other evenings
The sky grew big
No houses or trees to block it

The giant sky
One great, low cloud
And below…the sharp, round sun
Burning orange
Then setting behind distant trees

The persons driving cars
East on Ninth
–They missed it

Instead they looked at me
The guy standing at the end of West Broadway
Facing the sun and smiling

In khaki pants and a white undershirt
Like he hadn’t bothered to change
From work

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Lichtenstein’s Starbursts

Illustration

Rewrite of a non-fiction piece I wrote for the 2012 fall edition of Left of the Lake magazine

Roy Lichtenstein is known for using primary and secondary colors to paint organized dots which turn familiar objects into pop art.

Lichtenstein. He’s only dots. Filled circles of uniform size and repetition. That’s what I thought before I visited Chicago’s Art Institute and viewed Haystack 1969. Lichtenstein’s impression of Monet’s impression of a haystack.

As I approached the painting I recognized Monet’s image. But Lichtenstein’s work is not a copy. It’s another masterpiece.

I looked up-close and the haystack vanished. Genius appeared. A yellow background behind red circles evenly spaced and sized. And repeating white shapes that are not dots, but six-pointed starbursts.

Something other than dots? In a Lichtenstein?

Further in the exhibit I discovered a sketch titled Haystack and Haystacks (Studies). It’s Lichtenstein’s 1968 plan for the 1969 painting. I saw the plan! A pencil drawing and margin notes regarding arrangement of dots and colors. It revealed that each starburst is background showing through the center of overlapping dots. Maybe you knew, but I needed the notes.

After my visit I went home to experiment with this technique. I used a laptop to arrange solid circles into a ring, leaving room in the center for a starburst to appear. I then copied the dot cluster and pasted it several times, creating a pattern of foreground starbursts against what became a background of overlapping solid circles. (See the image at the top of this blog entry.)

Placing dots in a circle is easy. But how to configure the dots to create a desired shape? And how to construct the pattern? There are many possibilities. As I thought through the arrangement problems, I wondered if Lichtenstein had similar thoughts.

Studying Haystack 1969 and its plan reveals Lichtenstein’s genius. It’s work to turn an idea into a masterpiece. Even for an accomplished artist.

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