It’s Labor Day!

Labor Day, by Will T. Laughlin (1994)

Text Version without the goofy formatting:

It’s Labor Day! It’s Labor Day!
And school is only a day away!
I thought the Summer was here to stay,
But it’s Labor Day! It’s Labor Day!

Panic. Panic. Panic.
I feel like I’m on the Titanic:
       I’m silently sinking,
       And all that I’m thinking
is Panic. Panic. Panic.

They say it’s September, but I
Don’t even remember July.
       One moment it’s June,
       Then it’s over too soon
And the Summer is saying, “Goodbye!”

It’s Labor Day! It’s Labor Day!
And school is only a day away!
The world is ashen and grim and grey,
For it’s Labor Day! It’s Labor Day!

Dread. Dread. Dread
Of Reading & Math & Phys. Ed.
       They say my new teacher’s
       A terrible creature
With eyes in the back of her head.

There are Back-to-School sales at the Mall,
But I can’t understand it at all!
       “It must be an error,”
       I whisper in terror.
I run, but my legs are too small —
       I suddenly stumble,
       And head-first I tumble;
I’m carried away by the Fall!

The Grackle

An affectionate parody of Edgar A. Poe’s most famous poem. This needs to be read aloud if you want to get the full effect.

Once upon a midnight boring, as I sat, alone and poring
     Over many a quaint and curious volume of electric bills,
Suddenly there came a thumping, as of someone gently bumping,
     Or a pair of hamsters humping underneath my window sills;

Scant attention was I paying, as my thoughts were gently straying,
     And the stereo was playing Greatest Hits of Ish Kabibble
All at once, a vast, unpleasant Grackle, black and irridescent,
     Flew in through my chamber window like a wayward dirigible:
          Quoth the Grackle: “Wibble, wibble!”

All unmoving, all uncaring, long it sat and watched me, staring
     ‘Til I lost all sense of bearing and my lips began to dribble.
Then that grim and grisly Grackle looked at me and gave a cackle,
     And his coarse and croaking crackle made my very giblets gibble:
          Quoth the Grackle: “Wibble, wibble!”

I was taken quite aback, although I knew ’twas but a Grackle;
     In the face of one so black, alas! my face turned white as chalk,
For though I am not religious, still I felt it was prodigious,
     And I cried out to this creature that had learnt somehow to talk:

“Tell me, tell me, cryptic Sibyl, what you mean by ‘wibble, wibble’;
     Could it be some ancient shibboleth, for centuries unheard?
Are these words that you have spoken to be taken to betoken
     Something else? Or are you jokin’? Are they meaningless? Absurd?”
          “Wibble, wibble!” quoth the Bird.

Then I thought, “A swift attack’ll shortly rid me of this Grackle,”
     And I cast about to find myself a poker or a broom.
But the bird, as though denying me the chance of even trying,
     Took to fluttering and flying ’round and ’round about the room:

With a burst of laughter ribald, once again he “wibble, wibble”-ed,
     As he settled for a moment on a pallid bust of Trakl.
Then the Grackle dropped an oily purple dropping on the doily,
     And he set himself to pecking at a random bit of spackle:
          “Wibble, wibble!” quoth the Grackle.

It would take a block and tackle now to rid me of this Grackle,
     For the evil-hearted jackal isn’t lonely anymore:
Now his every kin and sibling comes to join him in his wibbling,
     And their nightly noise is nibbling at my spirit’s very core.

I am welded to this Grackle with a strong and sturdy shackle;
     By his beak am I impaled, as was Mercutio by Tybalt.
Since I cannot last these pains out, I must blow my silly brains out,
     And I’m going to pull the trigger when this final verse is scribble’t,
          ‘Ere the final “Wibble”‘s wibble’t!


Weöres Sándor: Majomország (Monkeyland)

Weöres (1913 – 1989) was not only a legend in a nation of great poets, but was also one of the finest and most versatile poets in any language in the twentieth century. His range was unbelieveable: he wrote abstract sound-poems, brief lyrics, a series of enormous and weighty compositions he called his Symphonies, humorous verse, plays, oratorios, novels which were themselves linguistic experiments… and the Hungarian Etudes, a book of verses for children, which has become a beloved part of his country’s cultural heritage.

I love this poem, because it moves from benign nonsense to something much more serious before the reader has had a chance to realize what’s happening. In this translation, I have tried my best to mimic the vigorous word-play of the original. Evidently I succeeded: my translation was selected by Londin’s Hungarian Cultural Centre for inclusion in the publication ZOO-TOPIA (2012), published in conjunction with the Royal College of Art.

 

Monkeyland

Hey! for distant Monkeyland,
monkeybread a-plenty there,
from monkeywindow monkeybars
the wind twangs out a monkey-air.

In monkeyfield and monkeysquare
monkeyheroes draw their swords,
hear the monkeymiserable
moaning in their monkeywards.

Monkeyteacher makes Monquita
learn her monkeylessons well,
monkeymalefactor rages
in his monkeyprison cell.

In monkeymanufacturies
much monkeymayonnaise you’ll find,
limn in hymn the limitless
illimitable monkeymind.

Monkeymonarch spouts decrees
from monkeypole in Monkeynese,
monkeyheaven waits for those
eternal monkeyhell for these.

Macacque, gorilla, chimpanzee,
orangutan and rhesus, too,
all read their daily monkeynews
when the monkeydinner’s through.

In memory of monkeymeal
the outhouse rings with monkeyfarts,
monkeysoldiers on maneuvers,
Left face! Right face! Forward march!

Monstrous monkeymilitary
mania in every face,
Monkey clutching monkeygun,
The world, it is the monkey’s place.

— Sándor Weöres
Fordította: Will T. Laughlin

Majomország

Hej de messze majomország,
ott terem majomkenyér,
majomablak majomrácsán
majomnótát ráz a szél.

Majomtéren, majomréten
majomhősök küzdenek,
majomszanatáriumban
sírnak majombetegek.

Majomtanártól majomlány
majomábécét tanul,
gaz majom a majombörtönt
rúgja irgalmatlanul.

Megépül a majommalom,
lesz sok majommajonéz,
győzve győz a győzhetetlen
győzedelmes majomész.

Majompóznán majomkirály
majomnyelven szónokol,
egyiké majommennyország
másiké majompokol.

Makákó, gorilla, csimpánz,
pávián, orángután,
mind majomújságot olvas
majomvacsora után.

Majomvacsoraemléktől
zúg a majomreterát,
majombakák menetelnek,
jobbra át és balra át.

Rémületes majomarcot
vágnak majomkatonák,
majomkézben majomfegyver,
a majmoké a világ.

— Weöres Sándor


Rhumba

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times;
we were depressed at times,
and fit to burst at times —
We were obsessed at times
and too rehearsed at times,
and we thought our misdemeanors
      were big-time crimes;

We would fall in love
      like there was no tomorrow —
            then tomorrow came,
                  and we would have to borrow
someone else’s sorrow,
      someone else’s passion —
            what the hell, sincerity
                  was not in fashion,
and we misbehaved; but my regrets are… none:
      We were miserable, and we were having fun.

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times:
if we were blessed at times,
then we were cursed at times,
but if the rest of times
were like the first of times,
would our lives have gone
      along different lines?

Although I thirst at times
      for how we used to be,
            when I’m myself again
                  I know the joke’s on me,
for we’re the end result
      of what we used to do
            and we’re the grown-up children
                  of the kids we knew.
And though I guess I’m happy, my regrets are… one:
      We left unfinished what we shouldn’t have done.


The Ballad of Ben Bernanke or, Play Along on your Goldman Sax

The Chairman of the Fed Reserve’s
     a man of might and power;
And Alan Greenspan looked the part,
     all dark and dour and sour.
But how could you not crack a smile,
     or how could you be cranky
When you have an excuse to say
     a name like “Ben Bernanke”?

CHORUS:
Bernanke, Ben Bernanke!
The Lord of Board and Bank, he!
Rewarding all his Wall Street friends
for fiscal hanky-panky…
We may not like a thing about
     the policy he’ll bring about,
          But there’s one thing to sing about:
               His name is “Ben Bernanke”!

At every mention of his name,
     economists all throw down
their books and charts and papers and
     proceed to have a hoe-down.
There’s music in those syllables,
     all banjo-ey and clanky;
So swing your partner, do-si-do
     While we sing “Ben Bernanke”!

CHORUS

Now, Alan Greenspan liked to be
     the harbinger of doom
And any time he stuck his gloomy
     visage in the room,
The rosiest economist
     would sob into his hanky…
But now, to hell with policy:
     Let’s all sing “Ben Bernanke”!

CHORUS

But when the Chairman of the Fed
     “Discourages disclosure”,
I do not feel like dancing then —
     It threatens my composure.
The more I see the man at work,
     The more I say, No Thank’ee;
And even Congress balks
     at re-approving Ben Bernanke.

When BoA is DOA,
     And Goldman calls it quits,
And everything Too Big To Fail
     Is chopped to tiny bits;
When Main Street gets the stimulus,
     And Wall Street bears the onus,
And those who wrecked the system get
     A jail term, not a bonus —
‘Til that day comes, I’m quite content
     To hide beneath my blankey,
While thieves and grifters dance & sing
     In praise of Ben Bernanke!

FINAL CHORUS
Bernanke, Ben Bernanke!
The Lord of Board and Bank, he!
What? Wall Street killed the middle class?
Why, give their wrists a spanky!
Financial folks are cronious
     And possibly felonious,
          But no one’s as euphonious
               As Ben Shalom Bernanke!


Excerpts from Rhymes and Dances

 

Rhymes and Dances (1990 – 2003) was an attempt to recreate the surreal, slightly sinister world of nursery rhymes in verses for adults. Later on, I revised the collection for use as song texts. While the whole set would make a good song cycle, I’m no longer sure that they should all be read together. I’ve excerpted the verses I think stand on their own.

Ducks in the Garden was set for chorus by San Francisco-area composer Michael Kaulkin. This beautiful and astonishingly straight-faced piece was performed in summer 2012 as part of a program called “Poetry on Musical Wings” by the San Francisco Choral Artists:

(-or- Watch on YouTube)


(whispersoft, on cockroach feet)

Hornpipe, or the Byzantine Mezzanine Mis-en-scène

Ducks in the Garden

Abecediary

L’homme armé

(the elephant goad)

Emily Dickinson Goes Nuts

 


(Whispersoft, on cockroach feet)

Whispersoft, on cockroach feet,
Something skitters down your street,
Silently and softly creeping
To the house where you lie sleeping;
Squeezing ‘cross the windowsill,
Prowling ’round the house, until
Scenting out your cozy bed
And curling up around your head.

Whispersoft, but crystal-clear,
It speaks these words into your ear:
            “What’s it feel like to be… dead?

Heaven help you if you meet
What comes crawling down your street
Whispersoft, on cockroach feet.


Hornpipe (or, The Byzantine Mezzanine Mis-en-scène)

Quartermaster Quatremaine,
      peering from his prison in the
            middle of the mizzen-mast,
Thought he saw a pretty little
      Byzantine
            mezzanine
Where Matilda, melancholy,
      Languished in the candlelight,
            playing on her fortepiano
                  music that the Quartermaster
                        really couldn’t recognize.

Soon she set to sipping from a
      bottle in her reticule
            (medicine her mother gave her
                  daily for her dysentery)
Then onto the mezzanine
      crept a
            trape-
                  zoidal
                        VOID…

Miss Matilda fought a bitter battle, but expired —
Expunged by the feral quadrilateral.


Ducks in the Garden

Morning comes —
The day is fine;
Ducks in the garden
Standing in line.

Noontime comes —
Sun overhead;
Ducks in the garden
Buttering bread.

Twilight comes —
Shadows grow long;
Ducks in the garden
Playing mah-jongg.

Nighttime comes —
Full moon shining;
Ducks in the garden
Pleasantly dining
    (As only ducks can)
    On Peking Man.


Abecediary

A is for public reminder of guilt
B is for making mistakes spelling “quilt”
C is the Bishop’s affirmative ocean
D is a canon in retrograde motion
E‘s for dyslexia — or maybe not;
F is for fomething fo old we forgot
G is for Innocence, horrid and pimply
H is for ‘N’, which is putting it simply
I is for ‘C’, because… oh, never mind;
J is a bird (the pedestrian kind)
K is for anything but ‘kangaroo’
L is a magazine;
      M is one, too.

N is for Nothing.

O is for stories of Heaven and Hell
P in the stairway is starting to smell
Q is for billiard ball — where did the hair go?
R is (we think) for cogitamus, ergo…
S is egregious; no need to name it
T is too weak, but on whom shall we blame it?
U is the answer, or so say the sermons —
V don’t do anything wrong, for ve’re Chermans.
W stands for itself, ‘double-V’
X should be crossed out — but how could it be?
Y is the soldier that dies on command
and Z is for functional, harmless and bland