Jan 182003

The production of The Mikado that I saw last night featured references to junk bond salesmen, Saddam Hussein, the Marx Brothers, cell phones, “checkout girls at Rite-Aid perpetually pissed” (special liberties were taken with “I’ve Got a Little List”), and an amusing meta-reference to all of its modern references. I found this patronizing, although most of the audience seemed to like it. The Mikado‘s contemporary relevance ought to be apparent — the “statesmen of a compromising kind”, “happy undeserving A” vs. “wretched meritorious B”, “to let the punishment fit the crime”, etc. — without filching stuff from the newspapers. If not, why put it on? And after all, there are few or no explicit references to British current events of the 1880s and 90s in the originals. I enjoyed the show notwithstanding, because a well-sung Mikado is impossible not to enjoy.

My commentators may now inform me what a curmudgeon I am. I will construe silence as agreement.

Jan 182003

The Rabbit wants to know, or pretends to want to know, what “Jamaicas of Remembrance” are in the following bit from Emily Dickinson:

And so encountering a Fly
This January day
Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in.

I will answer the question as if it were serious though this will no doubt lead to my being made fun of. Humiliation favors the bold.

Emily Dickinson spent a lot of effort in her poetry on being odd, although she was pretty odd without trying. She would pick the proximate word very often, not the obvious one but the next one over. Most of her really weird locutions can be traced to this habit. Sometimes it would work, more often not. There’s an instance of each in “There’s a certain slant of light”:

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the heft
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it any,
‘Tis the seal, despair,–
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’tis like the distance
On the look of Death.

In the first stanza “heft” for “weight” is such an obvious failure, in apposition to “oppresses,” that her first editor, Mabel Todd, used “weight” anyway, even though it has no textual warrant. On the other hand, in the last stanza, “look of Death” for “face of Death” is completely successful. You win a few, you lose a few.

“Jamaicas of Remembrance” is like that. “Jamaica” is an exotic and uncharted region, or was in 1884, and that’s all she means. It sounds like it should be more but it isn’t. (The preceding analysis was partly lifted from the late and great J.V. Cunningham.)