Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Libation Bearers

[Greek and Trojan women come to tend the grave of Agamemnon, the victorious leader of the Greeks against Troy. This is an excerpt slightly adapted from Agamemnon Must Die, Createspace, Kindle, and Smashwords, 2014. See tab for BOOKS on this site. I offer this here to give some of my attempts at poetry an airing.]

 [Bust of Aeschylus who lived in the 6th century B. C., probably from the 4th century B.C. Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.]


We hail and laud thee, O Agamemnon, king of men.
You who returned victorious from your mighty labors
On the broad plains of Troy as you did from
Your many expeditions to establish
The will of Zeus throughout this land.
O king, we have faithfully maintained your shrine,
As enjoined by Lord Aigisthos and his Lady Clytemnestra.
At every new moon, we have come
To honor your memory with fresh libations,
To sweeten the air with boughs of laurel,
And to sweep away grime and filth, from man or beast,
Or from the wind and the weather, that should foul your memorial
Or tarnish your memory.
We implore you to keep the city safe and the plains fertile!
We beseech you to guard over us against pestilence,
As well as hostile swords and spears.
We pray peace be with your spirit for you have
Made all who live in the Argolid proud.
Hail Agamemnon, king of men!

[The Greek mourners.]

Ou-ai, listen also to our woe for our grief overflows.
We, whose fathers, husbands, lovers, and brothers followed you;
We, who have waited in vain for their return.
Our number is great; those here are but the few
Who have sought the protection of the palace
From hunger and homelessness. No one can protect us
From the gnawing pain of sorrow and loss.
It is not greater than those of our number
Who enjoy the comfort of remaining family.
They suffer still from the anguish of their loss.
But our eyes have grown dim from the tears we have shed.
Our voices have become hoarse from the cries we have raised.
Our hearts have dried up with our hopes and love.
Only these shells remain: bereft, benighted, beyond hope.
Are our fathers, husbands, lovers, and brothers with you?
Do they do you honor as we do? As we must, by command
Of our lord and our lady?
They followed you gladly for love of their king;
We beseech you to share with them the libations we have brought.
















[The Trojan mourners.]

Ou-ai, ou-ai, hear us, most fearful king of men,
You who led those myriad ships and men against us.
Foolish Paris gave you your moment and you grasped it.
Hector and Priam loved him too dearly to abandon him.
To what end? Ou-ai, to what end?
Those we loved most dearly, our fathers, husbands, lovers, and brothers—
All fell before your swords and flames.
They made you pay dearly, they did.
Us, you and your men gathered as trophies and war brides.
Fully half of us could not bear the thought of such fate.
They embraced us, then threw themselves
Into Poseidon’s watery clutch.
Fully half of those left among us were sick and lost at sea,
Joining their captors in that briny sepulcher.
Yet another half of those who arrived here
Have since succumbed to taunts, torment, and terror
As prisoners of war. We remain,
We do not deserve better. We have seen how
Those captured before Priam’s walls have fared.
We know the cruelties that Troy visited on those who
Fell into its snares or yielded to its armies.
We who are left of your trophies and able still to walk
Have joined in pouring the libations to you,
King of men, to join in your sorrow
And share in your grief. Know this, that the libations we poured
For you, we have poured also for ourselves.
Ou-ai, ou-ai!

[The image of the vase decorated with a scene from the Oresteia is that of an Italian archaeological find from the 3rd century B. C. downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. The last image is that of the cover of Agamemnon Must Die, 2014. Neither this blog extract nor anything in Agamemnon is translated from Aeschylus' Oresteia. I have used the non-prose form to approximate the "Greek chorus" and given such content as I have felt best conveys what its "message" might be in today's vernacular. Comments invited.]

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Dragon Boat Festival

The Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival will celebrate this event in 2017 in September with races on Lake Merritt. In China, the People's Republic has declared May 30 to be a national holiday in 2017. (It has recognized this old but popular folk celebration only since 2008.)

In the Chinese calendar, the festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. Hence the festival is sometimes referred to as the "Double Fifth" similar to the celebration of the tenth day of the tenth month as the "Double Tenth" (the day commemorating the end of dynastic rule in China). This is celebrated much more in Taiwan than on the mainland as the ROC has claimed the mantle of Chinese Nationalism despite having lost the civil war. [The painting on the left dates from the eighteenth century and has been downloaded from a Wikipedia article about this festival.]

The dragon boat festival has been associated most frequently with the action of Qu Yuan, a poet and a minister in one of the seven warring states prior to the unification of China by the Qin (late in the third century B.C.). Qu Yuan had opposed a proposed merger of his home state with Qin and when he was dismissed, committed suicide by jumping into the river. It is said that the people of his state tried to save his body for proper burial by roiling the water of the river to distract the fish from feeding on it. Another servant of this state, Wu Zixu, is also said to have died on the same date, thus strengthening tradition regarding the celebration. Indeed, a third death on this date is said to have contributed as well. Cao E, a young woman's whose father had fallen into the river, searched for his body until both were found several days later, an act of filial piety by a daughter. The first two deaths were recorded in Sima Qian's classic history as both exemplified loyalty, a Confucian virtue (though their causes were hopeless).

[More recently, the festival achieved the status of a Google doodle.]

Many other folk beliefs have contributed to this early summer event. These have contributed folklore regarding luck to be earned by balancing an egg on its end and defense against illness by wearing herbs in pouches. Realgar wine was valued for its power to ward off evil as well as disease. It is probably an acquired taste.

Many Chinese folktales include references to this festival including the Legend of the White Snake, said to be one of the "China's Four Great Folk Tales." This folktale has several forms, briefly summarized in a Wikipedia article linked. The story has been brought to American theater most notably by Mary Zimmerman in New York City in 2013, see review in the New York Times, linked.

It would be a shame not to mention that the Dragon Boat Festival is a special occasion - as if one is needed - for special dumplings (glutinous rice with sweet and savory fillings, see image picked at random from very many on the Internet).



Saturday, March 18, 2017

CHAOS MONKEYS

"Real life experience is instructive, but the tuition is high."

So says Antonio Garcia Martinez (AGM) at some point in this fascinating book about an engineering grad student who became a "pricing quant" at Goldman, Sachs. He was then lured to work for Adchemy, a startup able to raise funds but not land any customers. When this realization sank in, AGM and two colleagues cooked up AdGrok through a happy combination of their skills, experience, and the fermentation process detailed in this book as the Y Combinator "startup boot camp" (there is a helpful index).

The author pauses to reflect on what personal qualities it took to embark upon a startup. The ability to persevere with single-minded focus, especially to endure what we might euphemistically call the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. AGM has a saltier vernacular, acquired perhaps from years in a difficult family situation, in the all-boys Catholic school, amidst the penury of grad school in engineering, and on Wall Street's "most competitive trading floor during its biggest market catastrophe."

He heaps scorn therefore on those who have "ideas without implementation," the American immigration visa system, slimy lawyers, his bosses - singling one out for being the only decent person in the company and naming the vicious, the vacuous, and those with "more crossed allegiances and conflicts of interest than ..." The voice is distinctive if corrosive. He does go somewhat easy on his former partners (though the British Trader and the Israeli Psychologist will easily recognize themselves). Perhaps some good comes from "Catholic guilt and Hispanic [Cuban] chivalry."

The story aims to communicate some understanding of credit default swaps, basic marketing, and "how to bolt on a real-time ad exchange onto a social media platform." There is, alas, a lightweight feel to the explanation of financial derivatives, deadly when serious alternatives already exist. For an introduction to marketing, there are many textbookish and more or less entertaining accounts. One would take the pages devoted to the value of an ad exchange more seriously for after all Twitter did and paid AGM to advise on its venture. But it is very likely someone with inside knowledge of Amazon's A9 unit might have a more definite treatment of the process.

Nevertheless, AGM has written a very entertaining story. He has used many of the dark arts of novel writing, engaging hooks, building suspense, investing his characters with emotions - I would quote extracts except that my own sensibilities get in the way of such freedom of speech. Withall, this book is a testimony to the dictum that "truth is stranger than fiction."

Among all real life experiences, there are many that cannot be purchased, as they say, for love or money. Few of us will ever experience the "present at the creation" thrill or life-changing awe of deciphering a hitherto unknown language or the making or unmaking of decisions by star-crossed lovers or war-mongers. That is why we read--to extend the experience of our small lives beyond our time and space. Fiction and nonfiction both serve this purpose. One might prefer Gore Vidal's Burr to Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, or not. Reading either will enrich your life, I assure you. For the same reason, read Chaos Monkeys.

Chaos Monkeys, website