Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Gibbous Moon, London
The hum of cars, the cool of night, and a gibbous moon linger at the window.
I lay in a small bed in a small room in an unfamiliar city,
drowsed by the hum, contented by the breeze, disquieted by the moon.
I have walked the streets of London.
I have tasted what wine the city offers --
tasted too much of the good wine.
Today I climbed the dome of St paul's
and seeing the crowd undistinguished from the floor tiles
thought I knew a god's eyes.
Today I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
I had read the play once and thought Brilliant.
This day I have seen a city that swallows its astonished pilgrims
into green parks and streets that glow all night.
But the gibbous moon is draining the wine
And the sober beams remind me how much I paid the priest at the cash register
for that climb up the dome.
The rays recollect how bored I was during that play
and how angry I grew at myself for being bored in the midst of brilliance.
For all the color, for all the music, for all the marvel,
there were shabby sleepers in doorways
and others sifting the refuse.
Rising from the bes, I cross to the window,
pull down the dirty glass,
and draw the fading curtains.
London, gibbous moon.

Ah, London. It brings out the failed poet in all of us.

I composed these wretched lines twenty years ago. In the summer that separated the end of undergraduate study from the beginning of a doctoral program, I found myself on a humid night a tenant of a decrepit London hotel. As an aspiring teacher, I'd been awarded a small amount of money to pursue something educational and research-oriented in these months, so I decided to buy a plane ticket and backpack through as much of the British Isles as three months and my limited funds would allow.

I arrived in London filled with all the fantasies of the place an American English major could possess. From my study of Chaucer I learned to expect a cosmopolitan bustle; from Dickens some picturesque poverty; from Samuel Johnson a city of dreams. London turned out to be far more than the museum of distant literature I'd expected, alive with a vibe in many ways more modern than many American cities (and certainly much more contemporary in its ardors than Boston, where I grew up). London was also far more marked by its colonial past than I had anticipated. This was 1987, after all, and England was smarting from racial violence, anti immigrant sentiment, IRA bombs in the subway. Somehow everything seemed less romantic and more difficult than my books had led me to believe.

But, you know, two decades ago I was pretty much an idiot. My family had not been well off enough to travel internationally -- in fact, we barely traveled locally. I hadn't experienced many big cities other than Boston, Toronto, and New York. London, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland were imagined geographies, places I'd studied in my literature and history and political science classes but locales more abstract than real, historical rather than possessed of a vivacious present.

Despite the effusions of poor poetry the trip triggered, a lasting positive outcome of that sojourn is this: meandering through the isles and wandering especially through London cured me of wanting to keep the past a monumentally still domain. If the London of 1987 could be possessed of so much vitality, shouldn't the London of 1387 be granted just as much ambivalence, joy, danger, messiness? I suppose I was fairly late in coming to this lesson, but I've always suspected that late bloomers are the ones who learn best.

I've returned to London frequently over the years and watched in wonder as the city has changed. Whenever I'm there I also can't help encountering the me of two decades ago, usually wandering some dusky street in Bloomsbury with his own portable cloud of gloom. If I could just touch that phantom, I'd grab him and shake him and tell him to snap out of his unearned melancholy. But then again, I'm happy that the ghosts of former selves have to remain as they are. They mustn't realize the future selves congregating around them, or it would be trouble for all of us.

This year for the first time the family is joining me on my London research junket. We've rented a flat not far from the British Museum for a few weeks. My wife lived in London as a student, and other than a week we spent there together in 2002 hasn't been back since. Kid #1 has been eagerly anticipating this trip for (according to him) his ENTIRE life (that would be ten years). Talk about former selves: he's a better adjusted version of me at that age, filled with enthusiasm for castles and dungeons and relics. He can hardly wait to be able to touch as solid objects the fortifications he's only dreamt about so far. Kid #2 likewise knows London only through books, and likewise feels quite confident that she will encounter the city as those books inform her it should be. Primarily this means that she KNOWS Peter Pan will appear by her bedside some evening to escort her past Big Ben skyward into Never Land. She has had a pink nightgown set aside for this trip for over two months. She realizes that you must be wearing a nightgown to be invited to Never Land.

So expect few postings from me in the future. I return on Friday July 13th (luckily I am not superstitious), but even then I anticipate being so slammed by work upon my return that it will be tough to blog. I will drop a note or two from London, though ... and promise not to compose any more poetry. Only Young Me did that. He was so sweet in his dire little way -- but Old Me will likely slap him if he catches him speaking of hunchbacked lunar bodies again.

Happy summer, and love to all.



Karl Steel said...

Some favorite bits on London to help confound monumentality. End of Piers Plowman, C Version, Passus 1:

Ʒut mette me more of mene and of riche,
As barones and burgeys and bondemen of thorpes,
Al y say slepynge as ʒe shal here heraftur:
Bothe bakeres and breweres, bochers and other,
Webbesteres and walkeres and wynners with handes,
As taylers and tanners and tulyers of þe erthe,
As dykers and deluers þat doth here dedis ylle
And dryueth forth here days with 'Dew vous saue, dame Emme.'
Cokes and here knaues cryede, 'hote pyes, hote!'
Goode gees and grys! ga we dyne, ga we!'
Tauerners til hem tolde þe same:
'Whit wyn of Oseye and wyn of Gascoyne,
Of þe Reule and of þe Rochele the roost to defye!'
And þis y say sleping and seuyn sythes more.

Peculiar in so many ways: first, ethnography as dream. I know that Piers means to describe the whole of the passus in that last line—he saw the rats debating about how to bell the cat, and so forth—but I can't help but here a kind of 'unreal city' in the final line. At the same time, it's a real unreal city, since he's dreaming an actual existence in a London unburdened by usual oneiric idealization (cf, for example, the countryside in The Floure and the Leaf). Then there's the reminder that for all of its bustle, part of London's glory relies on imports, indeed, on its being worth receiving imports. Without the wine of Gascony, what would London's glory be?

Then there's William Fitz Stephen's Description of London, from the late 12th century. He lauds London as older than Rome and then, in the same breath, speaks of London having the “same laws” as Rome “from their common origin.” There's a sense, then, that London is at once superior to Rome and also glorious because it is like Rome. That's certainly worth critique.

Then, having praised London's great wealth and wonderful markets (not, I should say, its cuisine), William again praises London's piety, but then, just this once (at least in this excerpt: English Historical Documents II 959), records London's faults: “The only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires.” Well, what causes the immoderate drinking? No doubt London's great wealth is responsible, since “The Gauls come with their wines.” Frequency of fires? Likely cooking fires, I imagine, or the fires of industry, say, smithwork. Simply put, the great wealth of London that William so admires is also one of its plagues.

I also note the absence of Jews in William's description, certainly inaccurate for a description of late 12th-century London. We know they were there given the pogrom at Richard I's coronation.


JJC: I had a similar expectation of monumentality when I visited Norwich. I thought, well, Norwich went broke in the 15th century when the cloth trade bottomed out. So it's certainly frozen in time. Far from it. We do still have the tens of churches built in the late Middle Ages. I was thrilled to see them, but after seeing about 10, I realized how hideous these McMinsters were. Oof! But, following you, it wasn't a let down. Not at all. A waking up, let's say.

Karl Steel said...

cf, for example, the countryside in The Floure and the Leaf

What am I thinking? Floure and the Leafe looks like a dream vision, but it's not; the narrator's an insomniac. edit: cf your favorite example.

Anonymous said...

Have a brilliant time. And if I bump into you this time, I promise not to tell you until afterwards.

Visit all the obvious sites with the children - they will love them. But when you need a rest in between take the river boats both up and down the Thames. The parks at either end (Greenwich downriver, Kew, Richmond and Hampton up) are great for a picnic and the boat trips themselves are the best way to see London and catch your breath.

Liza Blake said...

Make sure to bring sweater or two -- the climate didn't seem to get the memo that it's supposed to be summer here.

I stumbled across a Peter Pan statue ... somewhere ... in London, will see if I can figure out just where that was.

Anonymous said...

Original PP statue is in Kensington Gardens - and many other places too.


meli said...

I won't speak for the rest of the poem, but 'green parks and streets that glow all night' is actually quite a nice line. Imagistically and rhythmically. Nice solid words. No need to be ashamed of that one.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

We have quite an itinerary of Peter Pan related statues and monuments already mapped out!

Thanks, Karl, for those quotes, and your meditations upon them -- quite a good reminder that London didn't become transnational recently.

srj: a boat on the Thames is definitely on our agenda. The most unfortunate item we've placed on our touristy things to do: the London Eye. Kid #1 is afraid of heights, and he is already having massive anxiety over that ride. (We bought the tickets a few weeks ago.)

Thanks, Meli, for finding a good line in the poetry. And Liza: looking forward to seeing you. Don't worry, it is ALWAYS tropically warm when I am in England in July. You'll know the Cohens have arrived when they have to halt Wimbledon because the audience is passing out.

Anonymous said...

Nice posting, govnah' Enjoy your trip to merry ole England.

- Mark

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, bro. Won't be the same without you to lock me in a phone booth, though.

Anonymous said...

Great posts and comments!

Anonymous said...

Actually, this wife was in London with you in 2000. Who did you go with in 2002? Oh, right, that was Paris.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That's why it is so difficult to be a polygamist: I always forget which spouse accompanied me to which European destination.