Friday, January 8, 2010


Having reached an impasse with my Takaaki poem, I have decided to put it on the back burner for now and work on another project while it simmers.

Over the next few days I plan on offering a short story, in installments, tentatively entitled, Lord Miniver's Machine. Many of you will no doubt recognize the name of our hero as being remarkably similar to another
Miniver from literary history. This is not a coincidence.

Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned for the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

A.E. Robinson, 1910

I first encountered this poem in Mrs. Vollmer's 1st period 8th grade English class, at Sweet Home Junior High School, in the spring of 1982. That morning was notable for introductions, for not only did I meet the unfortunate alcoholic, Mr. Cheevy, but I also made the aquaintence of a very sad butcher named
Bright and an aristocratic, but rather troubled, flaneur whose cognomen was Cory. Seldom, since the morning I sat in class nervously narrating the life of Miniver Cheevy to my classmates, has the case history of that gentlemen been far from my consciousness.

What I hope to accomplish with this story, I hope will become clear in the course of its telling over the next few days...

Lord Miniver's Machine

Lord Miniver tapped an inch of ash into an urn which had once contained the cinders of a hero. Or thus the toothless Turk insisted, through his guide—a quick-witted urchin whose eyes and ears and English allowed him to eke out an existence translating for tourists in the bazaar.

When questioned about its origins, the old man raised his hands in theatrical protest. The relic in question, which unfortunate circumstances had forced him now to sell, had been preserved in his family for almost one, two, three generations. Or centuries. Or millennia. The precise frame of time was left un-translated. Miniver felt sure he meant the last. The fellow counted out a trio of logarithmic fingers. The boy nodded in solemn agreement. Father and son, in business together, no doubt.

The urn itself was a crude replica of a more famous original which Miniver had first perceived, as a child, though his own pale reflection, behind a pane of glass. The note-card in the case said it was a gift of the Sultan to the Queen on the occasion of her marriage. It had been donated by Her Majesty to The British Museum, as an afterthought, four years after the Prince Consort’s untimely death.

The exact origins of the Sultan’s gift could not be established—beyond Anatolia. That it was immensely old, scholars agreed. It was regarded as the Rosetta of ancient ceramics, as it details a famous scene from Homer before Homer himself (according to classical tradition) had been born. It was celebrated not for its beauty per se—its craftsmanship crude, its figures almost cartoonish—but for its historical significance, what it silently suggested: that the Trojan War was true, that Helen herself had once walked the earth. In many minds, Schliemann’s startling discoveries at Hissarlik now confirmed its artistic assertions.

Thanks to the popular press, travelers in the East will now find copies of this vessel, in various sizes, offered for sale in a thousand stalls across the Levant, from Alexandria to Asia Minor. The best of these are manufactured for export by an ex-patriot Greek, a Mr. Paul Kratides, formerly of Athens, presently and comfortably living in Rome. Collectors may identify his creations by a small maker’s mark, a cuneiform K, incised as three wedges on the base.

The specimen Miniver inspected in the market bore no such distinguishing feature. It evidently been abused to make it look more ancient and more actual than it really was. Here and there a flake of glaze was missing; the lip was neatly cracked; much of the meander necklace that formed the lower border of the scene sanded away by Time.

A smudge of maroon martial dust remained on Miniver’s smooth black calfskin gloves as he revolved the vessel in his hands. The essential elements of the story depicted on the surface remained intact: here we see Patroclous about to be gored by Hector, his spear perpetually frozen on the point of entry into his opponent’s flesh; there, Achilles, eaten by offended Pride, broods over a brazier in his tent, forever opposite but impotent to prevent the sorry fate his beloved friend is about to meet.

Miniver admired the outlandish inventiveness of these two Turks. The improbable tale the collaborators told of the vessel’s provenance made it irresistible: it gave the purchase a kind of poetry the object lacked—like the Iliad itself. This was life: the perfect souvenir. He paid the dealer a pound, and considered it a steal.


::: TN ::: said...

This had been artfully abused to make it look older and more actual than it really was

There is a certain 'Citizen' who would like to employ this line in his political discourse.

Otherwise, I like this confluence of objects, place and history. Just as long as Miniver doesn't end up donning a ranch hat and a bullwhip, seeking the Ark of the Covenant.

Shropshirelad said...

Please! Borrow away, I would be flattered!

No Indiana Jones motifs here. I may borrow a bit from A. C. Doyle and Poe, though. And stir in a bit of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling for good measure...

Have you ever read: The Difference Engine?