Friday, October 31, 2014

The Satanic Verse and its Meter

It rubs the lotion on the skin
or else it gets the hose again.
One of the creepiest verses ever included in a novel, the above lines are delivered in a sing-song voice by Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, the murderer in Silence of the Lambs. I always thought that the creepiness of the line was a result of an adult, delivering a line that sounds like it could be from a children's nursery rhyme. The more I reflect on it, though, I am not so sure.
Darkness falls across the land.
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
to terrorize y'all's neighborhood.
The Thriller album was amazing. For a kid of the eighties, it was the schoolroom basis for all water cooler talk. Did you see it? (I hadn't, because we didn't have cable, but I was not going to admit to a MTV-less household). 'Was it not amazing?' 'Was it not creepy?' 'I love those dance moves.' And the tune itself was incredibly sticky - one of the most invasive earworms ever. Add to that the Vincent Price voiceover on the creepy interlude, and it was a seminal song for a generation.
He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.
This line from Stephen King's It, is delivered by the child version of Stuttering Bill, the hero of the book. It is a tongue twister that is ostensibly used to help those who have trouble with sibilants in their speech to practice variations that require that attention be paid to the pronunciation. Its use in the book, however, becomes more than just a shibboleth. It is an incantation, an invocation, even a plea to the powers that can fight evil. The struggle of the hero with the speech impediment, working to perfect the phrase, adds to the suspense. And when it is used again by the adult Bill, revisiting all of his childhood struggles (including the conquered and now-forgotten stutter), the incantation and its creepiness increases.
Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered, weak and weary..... quoth the Raven, 'nevermore.'

Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble...

Because I could not stop for death...

What is it about these pieces particularly that make them seem sinister?

I have been thinking about it a lot, and am convinced that the chilling nature of the rhyme comes from the fact that they are all written in Iambic Tetrameter. We all know the iamb - the metric foot that goes BAbump. But we are more comfortable with the pentameter. Ba DUM Ba DUM, Ba DUM,Ba DUM, Ba DUM. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Now is the Winter of our discontent. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks... The iambic pentameter replicates normal speech patterns, but with emphasis. Political speeches are often deliviered in a modified iambic pentameter - I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors”, and do so to very positive effect.

The tetrameter, by contrast, is missing something - that crucial foot that would complete the line. And because the line is shorter, the rhythm seems exaggerated. Add a clear rhyme to the end, and it becomes sing-song. It lacks the cadence of normal speech, and gives something quite different.

We accept much variation within adult human society.  But an adult who does not follow normal speech patterns is an adult who will attract attention of a very negative sort.  As with the line they deliver, a rhyming adult seems to have something missing.  In a real way, they represent all that goes BaBUMP in the night.

Once we have accepted the premise that there is something sinister about the pattern, it brings every poem that uses it into question, and makes us re-read it with the voice of Vincent Price echoing in our heads.

Just watch what happens in Christopher Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd to his Love:

COME live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies, 10
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold, 15
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love. 20

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.

When read with an eye to the iambic tetrameter, there almost seems to be a hiss associated with every line. The lines are delivered from Hades to Persephone, rather than a shepherd to his love.
Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

In Search of: Opalo Andino




On our recent trip to Peru, my friend Miles and I assigned ourselves a task – we were going out to find the national gemstone - Andean Opal. Wandering across Cusco, visiting  jewelry store after jewelry store, the answer came back negative.  Nobody had any.  Most didn't even know what it was.  And finally, one let me in on the truth - apparently, there is a big international push to get access to Opalo Andino, and the local guys don't even have access to any.

Finally, Miles located a place online that said they had it. Out of an abundance of caution, we had the desk clerk at the hotel call to make sure (my phone Spanish is less fluent than my conversational Spanish). 

Question 1: Do you have the Opalo Andino?

Answer 1: Well, what we have is different - it is not Opalo Andino, but Opal Ultra.

Question 2: Is that the pink one? Or is it blue, like the Andino?

Answer 2: It is purple (purple?!) with a little bit of sky blue. (Miles and I both get excited….)

Question 3: Can we walk there from here?

Answer 3: (from hotel clerk: No.  You will have to take a taxi.  It is too far).

Question 4: Do you have some of the Opal Ultra?

Answer 4: Well, yes, we have it.  Plenty. 

We got into a taxi, gave him the address, and started talking to the cabbie as we drove out of Cusco’s town center.  We got into successively worse and worse neighborhoods. The taxi driver even asked us, “Do you mind if I stay? I don't want to leave y'all out here without a ride back.”

Miles and I independently do a quick, silent mental calculation to figure out how much money we’re carrying on us, and whether that would be worth killing us over.

We have gone outside the downtown city limits, past the university setting, past a slummy area, and into a construction/industrial zone, populated by warehouses with vertical gates and sliding peepholes. No signs.  No businesses that are open to the public.

Not even numbers anywhere on the buildings.  Eventually I found 11-C on an electrical box and knocked.

The peephole slides open.  “What do you want?”

"I am here to talk to the jeweler."

"Jeweler?  There is no jeweler here".

I held up the piece of paper so he could see the address and the name of the company. "Oh.  Yeah.... that's upstairs." Reluctantly, the guy opens the door and lets us in.


We head upstairs, and ask about the Opalo Andino.  The guy is still perplexed, but is willing to do business (after correcting us again, reminding us that it is Opal Ultra). "How many kilos do you want?"

Miles and I look over at each other, greed plain on our faces. We were thinking a few carats, but a few kilos? We could cut all we want, set all we want and sell the rest.  Once again, we mentally calculate how much money we have on us, hoping it will be enough to buy kilos of opal.

"Can we see it, please?"

Shrugs. "Sure."
Back downstairs, and unlocks the padlock on the door, rolling it upwards. Breathless anticipation from the two entrepreneurs behind.

Pallets atop pallets of laundry detergent. Exactly as described. Purple, with blue on it.

Once we got over the shock, we started laughing hysterically and taking pictures.  Eventually, Miles saw the look on the businessman’s face, and told me to explain what had just happened.

After a couple of conditional tenses and at least one mangled subjunctive, I managed to explain to the guy so he understood where we had misunderstood one another.

“Ahh.  Gemstones!  Hmmm… My brother-in-law has a jewelry store in downtown Cusco.  I think he might have some.”

Five minutes later, our taxi driver has a new address, located two blocks from our hotel, and we end up cleaning him out of Opalo Andino.

And Miles bought one package of laundry soap.  Just for good measure.