shiny things in messy little piles

Category: Special Report (Page 1 of 5)

The Emperor’s New Bird

Noel Reynolds, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki­me­dia Commons

 I love the notion of per­formed spon­tane­ity, in that it gets at the fact that what seems nat­ur­al, or impro­vi­sa­tion­al, is still a prod­uct of deci­sion mak­ing, and still leads to a con­scious­ly made thing—a mechan­i­cal nightin­gale rather than the real bird that hap­pens to fly in the window.”

Diane Seuss inter­view with Jesse Nathan in McSweeney’s

1) The mechan­i­cal bird per­forms. Poets perform—mostly on the page. But there is some­thing about hear­ing the music of the poem out loud that will always bring me more than the writ­ten word on the page.

2) Only the unpaired male nightin­gale sings at night. Though so often in poet­ry it is the female bird who is invoked. A mis­at­tri­bu­tion that con­founds the usu­al (mis)assignment of female voic­es to their male counterparts.

3) Have you ever seen a real nightin­gale? It is a dull brown, mid­dle sized bird whose only out­stand­ing asset is its song. When the males sing at night, it’s a macho thing: call­ing all the girls. “Come fuck me, come fuck me.” In the fairy tale when the ser­vant girl takes the court to see the actu­al nightin­gale they are dis­ap­point­ed to see the dull lit­tle bird. One of the ser­vants opines that sure­ly see­ing all of the won­der­ful, pow­er­ful peo­ple of the court must have fright­ened all the col­or out of the actu­al bird. Because, don’t we all get fright­ened out of our col­ors sometimes?

4) I sing my wild­ness like that lit­tle mechan­i­cal nightin­gale. It is love­ly per­for­mance. But every moment of it is cal­cu­lat­ed with an eye towards safe­ty. A mechan­i­cal nightin­gale will give a per­fect per­for­mance. As long as you don’t ask it to fly.

5) machine (n.) “an appa­ra­tus that works with­out the strength or skill of the work­man.”
Which can’t be said of poet­ry? Or can it? Is poet­ry a machine? If it is, what is it a machine for? Does a machine have to have a pur­pose? Are machines with­out pur­pose art? What does this machine do for me? This machine makes… mean­ing? But does it make sense? How can the machine of poem makes sense? What does it make sense of? Why is this frag­ment all ques­tions? And no answers? Or mean­ing? If there is any mean­ing? I guess.

6) A machine allows you to repli­cate a thing. A screw, a table leg, a bird’s song. But a repli­ca­tion is nev­er a new thing. Not entirely.

7) Bird songs are hard to rep­re­sent in text. Var­i­ous field guides use var­i­ous meth­ods to depict the songs. Some use descrip­tives, some use mnemon­ics, some use a vague­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive spec­tro­grams. The Sib­ley Guides use descrip­tive words like: trill, buzz, upslur, downslur, musi­cal, rich, thin, full, and squeaky. The Audubon web­site likes ono­matopoeia: “soft thwacks,” “coo­ing,” “zip-zabbling,” and “chan­nel­ing car alarms and baby bab­bles” and mnemon­ics: “who cooks for you” and “wichity-witchy-woo.” Though they are increas­ing­ly just putting up audio files and you can lis­ten for your­self with out the inter­me­di­ary of the attempt to sig­ni­fy in text.

8) I won­der about the impos­si­bil­i­ty of spon­tane­ity in a machine. Does this imply an impos­si­bil­i­ty of spon­tane­ity in poet­ry? In art in gen­er­al? If we are mak­ing machines to make mean­ing, or con­vey emo­tion, or state facts even, can we be spon­ta­neous? I don’t think so. We may use arti­fice to make it look spon­ta­neous but it is nev­er past the first draft spon­ta­neous. Is even a first draft spon­ta­neous? We are, from the out­set, arrang­ing the words and their mean­ings in con­scious pat­terns, even at our most free form. We are mechan­ics. Our tools are syn­tax and arrange­ment, our mate­ri­als are words. We build a machine with hope. Though what we hope for is not always clear.

9) The last frag­ment that I meant to write was about the won­ders of the mechan­i­cal, the lack of a soul in the won­der­ful mechan­i­cal, and how easy this makes it to see the whole of the works. I’d only imply the con­verse: how dif­fi­cult it is to under­stand the liv­ing (souled) when so much is hid­den from us. But I was too busy won­der­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a mechan­i­cal bird that sings as well as the real thing.

End Note:
Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen wrote a fairy tale called The Nightin­gale (In Dan­ish the less love­ly sound­ing “Nat­ter­galen”) About an emper­or and the song of the nightin­gale… about a real bird and a mechan­i­cal bird.

Wikipedia dry­ly describes the charm­ing sto­ry thus:

The Emper­or of Chi­na learns that one of the most beau­ti­ful things in his empire is the song of the nightin­gale. When he orders the nightin­gale brought to him, a kitchen maid (the only one at court who knows of its where­abouts) leads the court to a near­by for­est, where the nightin­gale agrees to appear at court; it remains as the Emper­or’s favorite. When the Emper­or is giv­en a bejew­eled mechan­i­cal bird he los­es inter­est in the real nightin­gale, who returns to the for­est. The mechan­i­cal bird even­tu­al­ly breaks down; and the Emper­or is tak­en death­ly ill a few years lat­er. The real nightin­gale learns of the Emper­or’s con­di­tion and returns to the palace; where­upon Death is so moved by the nightin­gale’s song that he allows the Emper­or to live.

You can read the whole of the sto­ry with love­ly pic­tures by Edmund Dulac here.

My Life As Your Car Keys

My Life as Your Car Keys
You felt in your pocket
	I wasn’t there
You checked your coat
	I wasn’t there
You asked the guy next to you
	I had been in the corner
You asked the girl in the corner
	I had been in someone else’s hand 

Shetland Islands/Wool Week 2019

In Sep­tem­ber of 2019 I joined my sis­ter Beth for Wool Week in the Shet­land Islands. These are the places that we went and the things we saw. (Click through the gal­leries for more infor­ma­tion in the pic­ture descriptions.)


Ler­wick is the capi­tol city of Shet­land. We stayed in an apart­ment just up the hill from the har­bor. A short walk down hill (through “our alley”) led to Com­mer­cial Street, the pedes­tri­an shop­ping dis­trict and a block lat­er the Esplanade — the har­bor frontage road. . The con­fer­ence was cen­tered at the Shet­land Muse­um and Archives. The HUB in the large mul­ti­pur­pose room being the cen­ter of all things Wool Week. Fur­nished with an endear­ing­ly eclec­tic vari­ety of chairs and couch­es arranged in vague cir­cles, it’s the place to sit and knit and meet up with folks from all over. There was a map of the world in which we were each invit­ed to put spin with home town on it. There was a big­ger map of the UK to accom­mo­date all the “locals” at the conference. 

A Walk and Clickimin Broch

From the City cen­ter you can take a love­ly walk along the sea walls to Clickimin Broch. A broch is a type of Iron Age build­ing found only in Scot­land fea­tur­ing a round, dou­ble wall and a large inner court­yard area. Clickimin is notable because of its eas­i­ly acces­si­ble loca­tion and it’s loca­tion in the mid­dle of a small Loch. (Real­ly it’s easy to get to from down­town: walk down to the Tesco and cross the Lerwick-Sumberg road at the petrol station.) 


Sun­day night was the Wel­come Cer­e­mo­ny at the Clickimin Leisure Cen­ter. The high­lights includ­ed tak­ing a pho­to­graph of some 500 peo­ple mod­el­ing their Road­side Bean­ies. Yes, there is an offi­cial hat for Wool Week. Actu­al­ly, it’s a knit­ting pat­tern you have to make it your­self. Here’s mine:

Can you imag­ine that many peo­ple all wear­ing the same hat? Well, sort of the same hat — alter­nate col­or ways abound­ed as did the occa­sion­al vari­a­tion in form. (Stock­ing cap any one?) The occa­sion was also graced with a video greet­ing from HRH the Prince of Wales. Seri­ous­ly. Quite the treat for the colonists. 


Mon­day morn­ing we went to Scal­loway on our way to an after­noon class at Uradale Farm. We vis­it­ed Scal­loway Cas­tle and the muse­um there. We had lunch at a lit­tle cafe in town. Very good quiche. 

Knitting at Uradale Farm

That after­noon we had a class in Bohus Stick­n­ing at Uradale Farm. Kits were hand­ed out and while we learned about his­to­ry of Bohus knit­ting, we start­ed our own Bohus style sam­ples. Here’s a look at mine start­ed, but not fin­ished. Also a cou­ple of images from Uradale Farm were the class was held. 

A Day Out with Ponies and Chapels

On Tues­day we took our rental car and went all the way west arriv­ing in Sand­ness to vis­it with the ponies of Frances Tay­lor famous for their mod­el­ing of Fair Isle sweaters. Beth met her soul mate. We end­ed our vis­it when the sun­ny, windy day turned down-right treach­er­ous with side­ways sleet com­ing from the North. 

We stopped in Walls for lunch. The town min­is­ter kind­ly assist­ed us in find­ing the Regat­ta Club where they were hold­ing a cafe and craft show. Warm soup and ban­nock for lunch and huge pot of very hot tea. We watched the seals play in the voe while we ate and picked ups few presents at the craft show. 

As we went fur­ther south the weath­er cleared a bit. Our next stop was St Nini­an’s Island to look for the ruins of a church. You can’t see any­thing that even vague­ly resem­bles a church from the Main­land side — not even with binoc­u­lars. But Beth insist­ed that there was a ruin out there so we crossed the tombo­lo to search for it. A tombo­lo is a path of sand that con­nects two bits of land and lies between two arms of the sea. The tombo­lo at St. Nia­ni­an’s is a semi-permanent fea­ture. Being impas­si­ble only in the win­ter when the rough and high seas wash the sand away. It returns in the spring. 

We did even­tu­al­ly find the ruins. Thought to call it a church is being gen­er­ous. It’s a tiny 12th cen­tu­ry chapel whose out­lines and a few tum­ble­down walls are indi­cat­ed by a hol­low in the hill­side. The site is impor­tant most­ly because of a trove of sil­ver objects found by the school­boy Dou­glas Coutts in 1958. (No we didn’t see them; they are in Edin­burg. Though there are some copies of some of the pieces in the muse­um in Lerwick.) 

Knitting a Peerie Hap

Wednes­day we start­ed the day with a class in mak­ing tra­di­tion­al Shet­land haps (shawls) And here, for ref­er­ence, is a pic­ture of the peerie hap that is sup­posed to result when I get my lit­tle lace project sewn up. Not near­ly as impres­sive as this huge hap, on it’s stretch­ing board. And yarn bombers were about, here’s a lit­tle mes­sage that they added to the Shet­land Sign on the Esplanade. 

Jamieson’s Mill

Lat­er in the day we went back to Sand­ness in the west (by full-sized tour bus on one-lane roads) to vis­it the Jamieson’s mill where they spin and dye Shet­land wool into yarn. They also do a bit of weav­ing. I made this lit­tle video of tweed weav­ing on a jacquard loom. 

Bressay Island and Garth’s Croft

Thurs­day we made the 10 minute cross­ing to the island of Bres­say on a lit­tle fer­ry that car­ries maybe 15 cars. The park and ride on the Bres­say side was full. Lots of peo­ple who live on Bres­say work in Ler­wick. On Bres­say we toured Garth’s Croft the home of Chris Dyer and his flock of Shet­land Sheep. He’s also got pigs, chick­ens, and hoop house for grow­ing fruit trees and ten­der veg­eta­bles that can’t stand the Shet­land cli­mate. He’s also a mas­ter builder of dry stone walls. 

Then we had a light lunch at the com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter in the old grade school and vis­it­ed the stu­dio of RAM knitwear. I bought a love­ly cowl assist­ed by the moth­er of the designer. 

A Brewery and Some Vikings

In the after­noon we went to the Ler­wick Brew­ery — per­haps the most north­ern brew­ery in the UK. And final­ly the MRI Maak­ers sup­per at the Town Hall where we looked at some nice stained glass win­dows and met Vikings. We also had some mut­ton, pota­to, and lentil soup. (I think that I will make it a “tried it once” thing.) 

Experimental Lace Knitting and a Spree

Fri­day we took anoth­er lace knit­ting class, this one about mix­ing yarn weights and nee­dle sizes and the effects both good and bad that you can achieve. 

Fri­day night there was the Spree — a tra­di­tion­al Shet­land rave-up — where Beth con­vinced me to dance. And there is, thank­ful­ly, absolute­ly no video evi­dence. I am com­plete­ly inca­pable of fol­low­ing even the sim­plest of phys­i­cal direc­tions mak­ing the task of teach­ing me to dance the Boston Two-Step neigh on impossible. 

Tour of South Mainland

Sat­ur­day, ear­ly in the morn­ing, Beth left for the air­port and the long trip home. I went on a tour of the South Main­land. We start­ed with the Croft House Muse­um. A recre­ation of a typ­i­cal croft with two small liv­ing rooms, a store­room, a barn, and thatched roof. While we sat inside next to a (smokey) peat fire, local story-teller David Coop­er told us a ghost story. 

Scat­ness is an Iron Age vil­lage (and broch) that has been exca­vat­ed a cou­ple of times, most recent­ly in the 70’s. You can’t just go wan­der­ing around here; you get a guid­ed tour. We were lucky to find one of the arche­ol­o­gists in and got a very infor­ma­tive tour. She point­ed out that the broch is the old­est of the build­ings that they have exca­vat­ed so far but that there is anoth­er lay­er under­neath. When or if they will work that old­er site isn’t decided. 

Final­ly we vis­it­ed the light­house at Sum­berg Head where there was cake, amaz­ing views, and the very large engines that make the fog horn work. 

Sun­day I spent most of the day sit­ting in the HUB knit­ting and chat­ting with the folks stay­ing ’til the very end of Wool Week. Had love­ly din­ner and then packed up for the trip home. 

I am now on an air­plane very far up in the sky — fly­ing very fast on the way home to Seat­tle. And in a cou­ple of days you all will get to see this report. 

Letter Home — 29 Jan, 2019

I nev­er could get the hang of Thursday”

Arthur Dent

Thurs­day is easy. It is pre­ced­ed by Wednes­day and fol­lowed by Fri­day.
Wednes­day is the piv­ot point of the week. The day of look­ing for­ward to the work I have to do and look­ing back to see how much of my to-do list I have accom­plished. Wednes­day is that ris­ing feel­ing that I won’t get it all done.

Thurs­day is the day of defeat. Wednes­day’s ris­ing sense of doom set­tles in with a detailed list of those things that will not get done. 

Fri­day is just “do the best you can.”

Mon­day is, of course, the day of hope­ful opti­mism. The day of find­ing all the Things and putting them onto a tidy to-do list and knock­ing off the first one

But Tues­day — what the hell is Tues­day? Tues­day is the day of shift­ing pri­or­i­ties as every­one else’s Mon­day to-do list col­lides with yours (con­fu­sion, anx­i­ety.) It can be a day of tick­ing the box­es on the to-do list (pride.) A day of plug­ging along on some big project (var­i­ous­ly: accom­plish­ment, bore­dom, or utter pan­ic.) Or, it can be a day of wait­ing for the inputs and replies (bore­dom and fid­gety nothingness.)

I nev­er know what sort of day Tues­day is going to be. How can I antic­i­pate my (emo­tion­al) mind set on a day with so many variables?

No, I nev­er could get the hang of Tuesday. 

Which prob­a­bly says more about my need for emo­tion­al pre­dictabil­i­ty than it does about Tuesday. 

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