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Speaking of . . . um, that goofy book that we here at First Things decided we wouldn’t bother to mention, since everyone else in America would mock it all the way to the remainder tables at Bob’s Super-Saver Book Emporium. Of course, that plan didn’t work out so well: It ended up selling millions of copies. But the movie version opened this weekend, to reviews about as bad as I ever remember a film getting¯except for a rave from our friends at the New York Post , and what’s up with that? Anyway, I was reminded of a poem in the May issue of First Things , in which Mike Juster imagines a modern publisher’s response to John Milton’s attempt to follow-up on the success of Paradise Lost :

       Rejection Note for Paradise Regained
      Loved that first book¯it’s got no equal¯
      but, Johnny, we don’t love your sequel.
      If you would only take a chance
      on self-help or a gay romance,
      we’d let you keep your last advance.
      Phony conspiracies would do
      if you could find a hook or two¯
      like someone famous who won’t sue.
      Marketing knows you’ll see the light,
      and thinks Da Vinci is just right.

     ¯ Michael Juster

You are reading the poetry in First Things , aren’t you? It was good for years under the editorship of Jill Baumgaertner, then slipped a little under the next editor, but has rebounded nicely over the last twelve months. The poet Anthony Lombardy took on the job until the pressures of his expanded farming business forced him to take a leave, and over the last few months, the well-known writer Paul Lake has been shouldering the work. Poetry is an important part of the work the magazine does, and it’s worth subscribing just for gems like Mike Juster’s "Rejection Note for Paradise Regained " and Oliver Murray’s flower-laden "Good Friday" in the May issue.

Did you catch, for example, Julie Stoner’s "Terra Firma," in that same issue? The sapphic stanza is hard to do well¯English not being Greek or Latin, after all¯and even done well, classical verse forms usually aim at something sad and sonorous. No wonder Swinburne liked the sound:

      Newly fledged, her visible song, a marvel,
      Made of perfect sound and exceeding passion,
      Sweetly shapen, terrible, full of thunders,
      Clothed with the wind’s wings.

So when the poet Julie Stoner¯who in her spare time is a home-schooling mother in California¯mentioned that she had an idea for a funny poem in sapphics, no one was hopeful. But she managed to use the suspension of that short fourth line for perfect comic effect:

       Terra Firma
      Yes, you’re right. I’m sure Armageddon’s coming:
      wars, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, locusts,
      killer flus, et cetera. Yes, I’m awed by
      all the destruction.

      I concede your point that the world might end, and
      all your puny labors will be as nothing.
      Still, you can’t go out with your friends until you’ve
      folded the laundry.

     ¯ Julie Stoner

Shouldn’t you be subscribing to First Things ?

While we’re happy here at First Things at the arrival of our new managing editor Anthony Sacramone¯and awed by the decision of our previous managing editor Erik Ross to leave for Poland to try his vocation as a Dominican friar¯we no longer have anyone in the office who can help us out when questions of Polish spelling and pronunciation come up. Fortunately, I just stumbled on this website , which offers several helpful pointers:

Polish : The language of Poland. With its strings of four or more consonants, ( e.g. , the word czczy , meaning "empty") this language is regarded as very difficult to pronounce. When non-Poles try to speak it, Poles who hear them give a slightly pained, indulgent smile. The pain comes from the effort to suppress laughter. They’re keeping a secret: the secret is that it’s actually impossible to pronounce Polish. Not just for non-Poles. Early in the twelfth century, Polish ceased to be a spoken language. When no foreigners are present, Poles speak in another language, usually !Kung or Welsh.

Poland is a kind of experimental theater of nationalism. Poles had already tried the more common experiments, like existing without any territory, so to top it they tried shifting their borders a couple of hundred kilometers west on a moment’s notice. (In Transylvanian dance, this is known as the "Time Warp." It is explicated in the documentary The Rocky Horror Picture Show .) Similarly, other countries, like Ireland and India, have already tried having official languages that no more than a minority can speak. Attempting to break new ground, and because virtually all Poles maintain to foreigners that they speak Polish, they have established dialects, so that you can fail to speak Polish in two or three different ways, automatically! In addition to eastern and western alleged pronunciations, there is also a special dialect "spoken" in the Gdansk area. Back in the eighties, they tried to get together an army to make the Gdansk dialect a language. This effort broke down, but they ended up forming an independent trade union that eventually led to the first peaceful surrender of power by an established Communist government in Europe. All because of linguistics.

In addition to which :

Of course we must work, and work assiduously, for better understanding of Islam and with Islam. But that better understanding begins with a relentlessly honest appreciation of the obstacles to anything like peaceful coexistence. Helping us to make that beginning is the great contribution of “Islam and Us” by George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia. “Islam and Us” is among the compelling and informative articles in the June/July issue of First Things . Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

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