Tuesday 13 May 2008

Of human nature

Finished Allen Curnow's book last night and found to my delight that he has added notes at the end of the book which refer to the poems - not all of them, but then not all of them need explaining (in my view).

And one of the Notes is about St. Babel - a 200 m tower built by the immigrants who first arrived in Christchurch. The colonists of Shinar Curnow refers to were the original builders of Babel, Genesis Chapters 10 and11, he adds helpfully, so looked at the source, and to my surprise found in verse 10:10 - that Babel was built by Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Noah, the surprise being because Nimrod is a positive Biblical figure "... a mighty hunter before the Lord ..." (from the Soncino translation) "Tsaiad gibor lifnei Adonai".

And in chapter 11 verses 8 and 9: "So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth ; and they left off (veYachdelu) from building the city (my translation, Soncino too Victorian) Therefore was it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound (confuse?) the language of all the earth...

Curnow establishes a parallel with the people who arrived in the Canterbury Plains in 1850, 'shaped by a long voyage in unknown waters'. The tower was to 'make us a name, lest we be scattered'. The poem ends neatly - the church man loves the bells, his companion hates the racket they make, those damned bells, which prevent him from hearing what the other has to say...

Watched a documentary on DVD, a lengthy and fascinating interview with Robert McNamara - The Fog of War by Errol Morris. Found it by chance, it had won an Oscar, Academy Award winner in 2003 for best documentary. McNamara is 85, and reviews his eventful life - sometimes tearfully. He was Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson. The interview is structured around his conclusions about life and how to live, some of which may seem a bit naive, surprisingly. One of them is "Human nature does not change". Which connects back to Curnow's poem.

Another surprise: the poison tree! It appears again - Curnow writes four poems after Pushkin, and the Upas Tree is one of them, the original being published in 1828. Curnow surmises that "...the story of the 'celebrated poison-tree of Macasser' could have reached Pushkin by way of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of the more famous Charles)...From 15 to 18 miles round this tree...no living animal of any kind has been discovered." The original tree was supposedly in Java, Pushkin transplants it to the steppes. Curnow ends his Note with: "... A modern dictionary ...correctly mentions its 'poisonous milky sap', also indicated by its scientific name Antiaris toxicaria, and its known use for poisoned arrows." (p. 51)

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