Tuesday, January 27, 2015

`I Know a Baby from a Blunderbuss'

I like catalogues and lists and the sense they give of the world’s bounty. Here is a poem by R.H.W. Dillard, “Loading a Shoebox” (Just Here, Just Now, 1994): 

“With scraps, stuffing it
Tight, bits of paper
With instructions to look
In the glove compartment,
Three lines of a poem
Given to you in a dream,
A message you found
On your answering machine
That makes your flesh crawl,
Skin creep, three tissues,
Three separate kisses,
Your annoyance at a day
Filled with betrayal
And true understanding,
A handstand in a cold corner,
A handshake, a handsaw,
A hawk (you can tell
The difference), this day,
Another day like every day
Like no other.” 

My first thought was to remember Mike Stinson’s “Box I Take to Work,” with the lines “I can fix bruises and blisters, cuts and scrapes, / To go with the pain I got George Jones tapes.” The mention of the fragmentary poem given “in a dream” brings to mind Robert Herrick’s epigram, “Dreams”: 

“Here we are all, by day; by night we’re hurl’d
 By dreams, each one into a several world.” 

“Several” here is an adjective meaning discrete, distinguishable from others of its kind – a precise description of a dream’s hermetic allure. Best of all is the Shakespeare allusion in “A handshake, a handsaw, / A hawk (you can tell / The difference).” See Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, in which the prince says: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” He’s speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, suggesting that his recent eccentric behavior may be a ruse to conceal his plans. In the vernacular, Hamlet is saying, with comparable alliteration, he knows shit from Shinola, or chalk from cheese. 

The passage has spurred much scholarly speculation. Hitchcock may or may not have taken the title of his 1959 film North by Northwest from Hamlet. “Handsaw” may be a corruption of heronshaw – a small or young heron – which develops the avian metaphor with hawk. But then, hawk may refer to the plasterer’s tool. Others give a simpler, more literal explanation – nobody would confuse a handsaw with a hawk, a tool with a bird (or even two different birds). This is G.K. Chesterton’s understanding in “Shakespeare and the Germans”: 

“…even a boy who had any flavour of literature, or any guess at the kind of man that Hamlet was supposed to be, could see at once that it was a joke. Hamlet said it as a piece of wild alliteration ; as he might have said: `I know a baby from a blunderbuss ,” or, `I know a catfish from a croquet-hoop.’” 

Also, in a play Shakespeare wrote six years before Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff says, “My buckler cut through and through, my sworde hackt like a handsaw ecce signum [literally, “behold the sign,” as in “the proof’s in the pudding”].” Dillard assures us: “(you can tell / The difference).” In a poem about differences and similarities, even among the odds and ends in a shoebox, Dillard concludes with mundane reality: “this day, / Another day like every day / Like no other.”

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