Monday, May 14, 2018
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
LAW OF MUNDANITY
Very well, patient reader, I know that putting one of my own poems in this “Something Thoughtful” slot is rather egotistical, but I’m carried on by my last posting in which I accused Steven Pinker, in his polemic Enlightenment Now, of ignoring the “law of mundanity”. By this I mean our tendency to accept our everyday reality as boringly normal while (often) assuming that other times and places were not only exotic and pcturesque, but far more entertaining and stimulating for the people who lived there. In this poem I suggest that the real people in such apparently exotic places would simply see them as boring normality, just as we consider our own time and place. I don’t wish to over-explain the poem, which I hope says many other things about history, but here it is (from my first collection The Little Enemy, published in 2012)
Law of Mundanity
Law of mundanity. The quinquireme
powered by Nubian slaves is just one more
patrolling ship. Re-paint it battle grey.
The busy port is commerce and raw deals.
Wide view, a backdrop; up close, men at work;
the rattling abacus a p.c’s. clack.
Toga or sari, burnous, roquelaure,
clothes for the rich – their suits and matching sets.
Loincloths and rags are jeans and last year’s shirts.
The tourist thinks the scene’s exotic. Those
who live from hour to hour on the same street
flick flies, scratch itches, hear a barking dog.
“Of humble birth he rose from cabin boy
to admiral and sailed the seven seas,
mapping and conqu’ring for his country’s good.”
(He waited on the ward room, was abused
by officers of rank and watched his chance.
He studied long between decks, gritting teeth.)
“He never lost his curiosity
about the nat’ral world. He was as fresh
and lively at eighty as at eighteen.”
(And the forced smile to quality. The hours
on watch alone, relieving rich middies,
upset of storm and boredom of the breeze).
“A pattern to all yeomen and town boys,
proof that true quality will rise and win
a place when equity’s the commonwealth.”
(In lace and epaulettes now, why complain?
All crews are politics and jockeying.
Pattern? But what he won was won by graft.)
The cheap Voltaire shot, then - no man hero
to his own valet, and sweat and pimples,
in hard close-up, trump nobility?
Law of mundanity. Work outwards from
the everyday, try constancy and see
spring water in the mud, quotidian good.
The flicked fly is a goad, the abacus
a measure of the real – that estate where
life falls and rises, easy as a breath.
The surface survey of an ancient street
pans its humanity and puts in place
an unreal antiquary theatre scene.