Henry George Fischer
The HyperTexts is grateful to Tom Merrill, who enjoyed a long correspondence with Dr.
Henry George Fischer, for securing the gracious permission of
his wife, Eleanor, to reprint his poetry. The biographic sketch below was written by their daughter, Dr. Katherine Taylor, for the Princeton
Alumni Bulletin and was slightly amended by her for the present purpose.
After studying poetry at Princeton, Henry George Fischer (1923-2006) taught English at the American University of
Beirut, where he met his future wife and began a lifelong love of the Middle
East and egyptology. Following a doctorate from the University of
Pennsylvania, he taught briefly at Yale before beginning curatorial work at the
Egyptian Department of the Metropolitan Museum. He was department head
from 1963 to 1970, when Lila Acheson Wallace endowed a research chair in
egyptology for him, which he held until his retirement. He played a
crucial role in bringing the temple of Dendur to the museum. His wide-ranging
egyptological publications particularly highlighted the relationship between
language and art, as in The Orientation of Hieroglyphs (1977) and
L’Ecriture et l’art (1986). A student of early music, he played the
sackbut, forerunner of the trombone, and wrote its history. In retirement,
he published numerous collections of rhymed, metered poetry, including This
Word (1992), Timely Rhymes (1993), Night and Light and the
Half-Light (1999) and Small Ponderings (2002). Some of his poems
express his concern for the problems of the Palestinians, which he also
addressed by helping to found and guide Americans for Middle East Understanding,
a nonprofit organization promoting information exchange in the interests of
peace and justice in the region.
Again the sounds of summer resonate
As chitinous cicadas, locusts, crickets
Some stridently, some softly, stridulate
In hills and valleys, meadows, woods and thickets.
They're here, those ambient gambists, each astride
A twig or leaf or swaying blade of grass,
And mesmerize our dozing ears, misguide
Us into thinking none of this will pass—
A notion the nocturnal croaking caucus
Of katydids denies, whose farthest cry
By day's outdone in August by the raucous
Buzzing of the dogday harvest fly,
Ripsawing inspissated heat, portending,
In its crescendo, an inevitable ending.
"It is the amphiphilic properties of lecithin in egg yolk that enable aqueous vinegar to emulsify with the vegetable oil in mayonnaise."
Wouldn't life be more idyllic
If we could be amphiphilic?
If we all became emulsive,
None would ever seem repulsive;
In one melting pot we'd mix
Until we found that no one sticks.
Then, instead of wine or gin,
We'd drink our healths in lecithin,
And life would be, through all our days,
Just a bowl of mayonnaise.
"Mayonnaise" was awarded a prize by contest judge
Tom Merrill, as announced in the winter 1995 issue of
May and Dismay
The winds no longer are at war,
And last year's leaves, turned turtle,
Find final footing on a forest floor
Patched, purpled now with myrtle.
Peopled with piping birds, the trees renew
Their limbs, so lightly laced with leaves
They scarcely screen with green the blue
Above. All this repairs, reprieves,
All this of May repays for many days
Of darkness, snow and sleet.
With joy I now rejoin it and I greet;
And yet dismay comes over me and weighs
With all the weight of so much age
As brings a winter no spring can assuage.
"May and Dismay" was awarded a prize by contest judge Tom Merrill, as announced in the winter 1995 issue of
Song of Seduction in Three Voices
He slyly sidled to her side;
Her palate and her ear were plied
With serenades and lemonade
All to belie the plot he laid.
With syrupy and scented sweets
And oft-repeated soft conceits
His syllables, like sillabubs,
Reduced her stubbornness to stubs.
His wiles were such she was beguiled,
One wile away from being defiled,
When she, before she had concurred,
Beneath his false falsetto heard
In tones low-keyed but eloquent
The tenor of his bass intent.
The shadows lengthen as our days grow brief,
Prolonging longings for the seasons past,
November ruminations, when each leaf
That lingers and is lost may be the last.
The sky and eye are overcast:
The sky is low; the eye, cast to the ground,
Sees only littered leavings of bare trees
Where wailing winds prevail. No other sound
Than those that speak of death, no sound but these.
The season feeds on our unease:
What rides the night that seems to hide the stars,
That puts a doubtful stain upon the moon?
That bids our thoughts to brood on abattoirs
In which our faith is felled, our hopes are hewn?
Has all that we evaded come so soon?
A Pun's a Noble Thing
Charles Lamb to Coleridge, July 2, 1825
"A pun's a noble thing per se . . .
It is as perfect as a sonnet."
So said Lamb, for in his day
Wits tended to depend upon it.
He thought it ought to stand alone
Unless whatever else was said
Contrived to set it on a throne,
And place a crown upon its head.
A sonnet in itself perhaps
Is more than I would want to say;
But if a punning couplet caps
This sonnet, Lamb will have his way:
For if a pun were damned or shunned
By any, they would be Lamb-punned!
A hospital is no place to be sick,
And of all places, if I had my pick,
I'd stay at home and try to sleep it off,
Not be awakened by a roommate's cough,
Or wake up in the morning to a meal
Of scrambled plastic eggs, which soon congeal,
And face a cup of something not too hot
Which hits below the belt, and not the spot.
The gown that's worn won't hide my back and knees,
And must have been designed for chimpanzees,
Nor does it cheer me much, or ease my pain,
When nurses order me by my first name.
All this is less than nothing if your case
Is trifling and is only commonplace,
But if you are not feeling very well,
You might seek a more dignified hotel.
It's true this one shows class when it submits
A bill that is much bigger than the Ritz,
And do not eye the sum with mouth agape;
You cannot pay too much for your escape!
Goodbye to Books
We never knew how much we had
No time to read when we had space
For all our sagging shelves; we're sad
That when we have to change our pad
And move into a smaller place
We'll have as few as we had had
When we two were but lass and lad,
And looking back, time seems to race;
Soon most must go, and we feel sad
To lose them, paperbacked or clad
In calf or cloth, in any case,
We never knew how much we had.
We bought them in good times and bad,
Those rows and rows of books that grace
Our shelves, and like ourselves look sad.
Through all the years we'd add and add,
And their subtraction's hard to face;
We never knew how much we had
Upon our shelves, and now we're sad.
for Dr. Jocelyn Elders
All moral ill, if ill it be,
When one's adult, we say of him
It's up to him to sink or swim.
Although by this you should not think
We should not help him should he sink;
And if he sinks to an addiction,
That's not a crime, but an affliction.
Harm to oneself may be a sin
That God may take an interest in;
Such sinning should not be the cause
Or subject of our penal laws.
If harm to another's not incurred
By misdeeds, should one be immured?
If so, our lawmaking entails
A worse abuse than drugs: abuse of jails.
Some seek the Land of Cockaigne with cocaine,
Or other regions that are transmundane.
Some empty time till it's but an abyss,
Infantilized by fumes of cannabis.
Or take unchartered trips with LSD
In hope of ending up in ecstasy.
While others dream with drugs by which they sleep;
And thereby climb to heights or plumb the deep.
The other side of anywhere but this
Is where they fare to find their share of bliss.
But who can say what fartherness they win,
When all their otherness is found within?
Though they sail perilous seas, few of their feats
Are logged save those of Coleridge and Keats.
A Bitter Pill
Of all the undesired effects
Of medication, one suspects
The worst to be euphoria,
Which bans it from emporia.
A pill's proscribed if it makes you
Feel too well, lest it overdo;
Far better that, instead of well
You may feel worse; it should repel.
No matter if you grow uneasy,
Despondent, anorexic, queasy,
With aching joints and constipation,
Vertigo and palpitation.
Perhaps you may, enduring more,
Forget the ill you took it for.
Homage to Jack Kevorkian
While some defend the right to be
For those as yet unborn,
There are far too few who see
When life should be forsworn.
I'd like to see the right enforced
To be divorced from life
As legally as be divorced
From husband or from wife.
If we had more acumen,
We'd not show more remorse
In doing for a human
What we'd do for a horse.
We'd lend a humane hand to those
Who long for their release
From life, from agonizing throes
That offer no surcease.
By taking this side of death's door
To keep your door key on,
You have an out, as none knows more
Than Jack Kevorkian.
All the poems presented below are taken from "A Metrical Perspective on
Palestine and Iraq," a pamphlet of poems by Dr. Fischer that was published in
2004 by Americans For Middle East Understanding.
As we lick our wounded pride
And mourn the thousands who have died,
Few can bring themselves to think
That there is any kind of link
Between the hate that's toppled towers
And any policy of ours.
Instead of which, we're told that we
Cause some to hate because we're free,
And that the cause of their assaults
Lies in our virtues, not our faults;
We're strong enough to match their acts,
But lack the strength to face the facts.
For if we did, we'd see the core
Of this lies in another war,
A war in which we have denied
That we are siding with either side,
While one side's clearly in our pay
To take the other's land away.
We arm the predators to prey
On those who must be kept at bay.
So as we raise our battle cry
It seems to say: "deny, deny."
Something there is that does not love a wall
That isn't bound by boundaries but remakes them;
If houses intervene, it blindly breaks them
And goes to any lengths that it can crawl.
It's said it's just a fence, and for defense
And yet by any name it is offensive.
It would be elsewhere if it were defensive
And not a gerrymander that preempts,
Providing for both pillage and division,
Leaving the aquifer in Israel's grip
To be misused, as in the Gaza Strip.
When done, the wall will wind up as a prison,
With which no Bantustan can be compared;
With little bread and even less of water
The inmates may be slain without a slaughter,
So that the jailers' consciences are spared;
Unless the outside world does more at last
To free them, or supplies their prison, or
If most are forced to take the one-way door
To exile they've resisted in the past.
Meanwhile it's hard to know what may befall
The many thousands that the wall has left
Cut off from those within, perhaps bereft
Of claim to be from anywhere at all.
Perhaps by now he does not often think
About the family's ravaged olive groves,
The empty well from which they used to drink,
For even when unthought of such things chafe,
Nor does he like to think of what he owes
The cold collaboration of his foes.
Though sometimes haunted by a loss of kayf,
A feeling of repose when rest was sought,
And, in this land of plenty, can't be bought
And cannot be recovered by belief;
I've seen and felt the sources of his grief.
And see his shadow where I once saw mine,
Upon the stricken soil of Palestine.
Every Cup of Water
Every cup of water
Makes it harder for Israelis
To make the desert bloom.
Every cup of water
Palestinians may drink
Makes the lawns of the Israelis
Shrivel up and shrink.
Every cup of water
Palestinians may swallow
Diminishes the swimming pools
In which Israelis wallow.
How very wrong a thing it is
Israelis should be cursed
By such privations just because
The Palestinians thirst.
A Lament for Good Friday
When I decry the cruel cross
On which God died,
It's not so much the loss
Of God's own son I can't abide,
But those who let their kind be crucified.
When I decry the crooked cross
By which the Jews were slain,
It's not so much the loss
Of all those lives that prompts my pain,
But that my kind should be so inhumane.
When I deplore the plight of Palestine,
Where lives are lost and lamed,
It's that that crime is mine,
For my own country must be blamed,
And I must share the blame and be ashamed.
The Vulgate shows much less caprice
Than does the version of King James
In the passage that proclaims
That men of good will shall have peace.
But peace is now denied to them
By all of us who kindly trust
That it may come of what's unjust,
And is condoned and not condemned.
Perhaps we sorrow for the danger
That's estranged us from the manger,
And leaves but thorns upon the stem
That once took root in Bethlehem.
We sorrow, but we lack the will
To hinder those whose will is ill,
And wringing hands too weak to hinder,
See a star become a cinder.
A Weapon of Mass Destruction
The Haganah gave these lines a lethal twist
When, in their ethnic cleansing, they were stalled
By a locality that might resist—
The seabound town of Acre it was called.
The place had sometimes daunted the Crusaders,
But yielded when its water's source was fed
With typhus by the present-day invaders,
Which left its people sickened, if not dead.
Since illness is a fairly common story,
It could quite secretly be used to quell
The population of a promontory,
Defeated by a foe one can't repel.
But it must be confessed that this success
Was based upon a very special case,
And that its future prospects might be less
If ventured for the riddance of a race.
And there's the risk that, were it so deployed,
It might at last make Washington annoyed.
Two greetings of a kind remind
Me of a word that once defined,
By a pair of sibilants,
Two Hebrew tribes at variance—
Namely sib—and shibboleth,
The first of which demanded death.
Now something of a same is shown
When persons say salam / shalom;
One tells he has a right to live,
But not the other, who must give
Till all is lost that was his living;
Till he's dead, both feel misgiving.
Nor does the shame of it decrease
To know this shibboleth means "peace."
A Well-Planned Case of Friendly Fire
June 6, 1967
For reasons only known to heaven,
Israel, in '67,
Attacked by air and then by sea
A ship of ours, the Liberty.
It failed, but not before it lamed
The ship and either killed or maimed
A large proportion of the crew,
Depriving them of lifeboats too.
It then was thought this might inspire
Less ire if known as "friendly fire."
A pardonable inadvertence
Used for smokescreens, if not curtains.
To fly this mission it behooved
The planes to have their marks removed,
And they examined, end to end,
The ship till sure it was a friend.
And furthermore, as they took note
Of what to blow up on the boat,
They learned its wavelength to suppress
Transmission of an S.O.S.
There's nothing quite like friendly fire
To test a friendship that may tire,
But Johnson's friendship was so strong
That Israel could do no wrong.
And he recalled the planes dispensed
For the Liberty's defense;
He feared the blame his friends might face
If the ship left any trace.
Thus Lyndon Johnson passed the test;
Of Israel's friends he was the best.
Like Abraham, though not like Christ,
He let his own be sacrificed.
He must have been quite sad, I think
To find the ship too staunch to sink,
For it was second-best to make
The lame excuse of a mistake.
And to this end he ordered that
The crew be warned that they must not,
On pain of something worse than jail,
Tell others their repellent tale.
A naval inquiry was made
In which the evidence was weighed,
And it found Israel a willing
Perpetrator of mass-killing.
This verdict, when the White House read it,
Was whitewashed by the staff who edit,
Till it was nothing other but
The basis of a cover-up.
And thus few citizens have heard
Of the ship or what occurred,
And if they have, most are misled
By the version that they've read.
A cover-up so criminal
Makes Watergate seem minimal,
And though, by now, it's been uncovered,
For most it still is undiscovered.