John M. Ridland
Professor Emeritus John M. Ridland was born in London in 1933 of Scottish ancestry, but has lived most of his life in California. He taught
writing and literature in the English Department and the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for
over forty years.
His poems have appeared in many journals, including Poetry, The Atlantic, Harper's, The Hudson Review, The Dark Horse, Spectrum, The Nation,
New Zealand Books, Quadrant (Australia), River Styx, Solo, Askew, Parnassus, and
The Hungarian Quarterly. His published books include: Fires
of Home, Ode on Violence, In the Shadowless Light, Elegy for My Aunt, Palms, Life with Unkie, (Un)Extinguished Lamp/Lampara Anapagada, and
A Brahms Card Ballad, which was published in Hungarian translation by the Europa Press three years before it was published by Dowitcher Press
in California. With his New Zealand-born wife Muriel, he wrote And Say What He Is: The Life of a Special Child, published in 1975 by the MIT
Press. They have two living children and three grandchildren.
Visiting Hungary in 1987, he learned of János Vitéz, a "folk epic" poem by Sándor Petöfi, which he later translated as
Valiant, published first by the Corvina Press Budapest (1999), again by the Devi Foundation in Pécs (2001), and in 2004 in an edition still
in print, by the Hesperus Press, London. With Peter Czipott he continues to translate work by the Hungarian poets Sándor Márai
Radnóti, including Márai's two-act verse play in rhyming couplets, A Gentleman from Venice, about Giacomo Casanova. He has received a gold
medal from the Arpad Society of Cleveland, Ohio, and the 2010 Balassi Sword Award for translating Hungarian literature. He has read from
John the Valiant in the Los Angeles area, at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London, and the Hungarian
Community Centre in Melbourne, Australia, where he also read excerpts and was interviewed on both the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
and Australian SBS (Special Broadcasting Service). He has also been interviewed on the Voice of America.
He lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Muriel, where he has recently completed two books,
Happy in an Ordinary Thing, and Obits, and is working
towards a larger New and Selected Poems. He also has translated the Middle English masterpiece,
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, two Parts of
which have been published in The Hudson Review, and the entire poem is being printed by Juan Pascoe at Taller Martín Pescador in Michoacán,
Mexico. (You can read the online version, published by The HyperTexts,
by clicking the hyperlinked title.)
We Three Kings: The Real Story
These three Kings ride into Bethlehem
On camels, and trailing each of them
Is a poor dude lugging all he can hold
Of frankincense, myrrh, or buffed-up gold.
To the very first Bethlehemite (or maybe
The second) King One asks, "Where's the baby?"
"Baby? Baby?" cries the guy in pain,
"Ain't got no babies. They all been slain."
(He's jumping the gun—or the spears and swords—
King Herod has yet to issue the words:
"Slaughter those innocent yearling boys—
Discreetly, and with minimal noise."
See Brueghel's painting which shows how stolid
They went about it—if your stomach's solid.)
The First King says, "Aw, go back to bed.
It's midnight, and this burg is dead.
Ain't there anybody who ain't disabled
In this stupid hamlet? Get these camels stabled."
The Second King orders his overworked groom,
"Then find us a pad that isn't a tomb—
Excuse me, ain't. Boy, what a dump!"
So the wise guys are standing there in a clump
Putting their heads together. Bink!
A bulb lights up. "You know what I think?"
Says King Number Three, "but you two decide.
I think we been taken for a ride.
We three Kings of Orient are?
Bearing gifts we traverse afar?
Following yonder bright-eyed star
(Bushy-tailed comet, really) on trust,
Blinded by sandstorms, cloaked in dust,
Worst month for travel, the weather sharp—
I know I'm carping, I love to carp,
And I know I'm quoting T. S. Eliot,
The best reporter that we've got,
But come on, guys, I mean, get real!
What kind of crazy, messed-up deal
Is this?" But then, while he goes on griping,
They hear the sounds of a piper piping
And harp music strumming out of the sky.
There's a gentle murmur, close nearby,
Where shepherds are humming a local tune
Beneath the wind-whipped wintry moon,
And a donkey is ever so softly braying
The same tune that the shepherds are playing,
And goats and sheep—one ram, three ewes—
Are standing around in ones and twos
And sweetly baaing and bleating along,
All in harmony with the song
That a lovely maiden, meek and mild,
Is crooning to her little child.
"Well, I'll be—danged!" says One to Two,
"That cockeyed story might be true—
Funniest thing I ever heard."
"'After such a long journey,'" quotes King the Third,
"'Our camels sore-footed, refractory'—
As if being whipped to a glue factory—"
"And all for a cute little baby boy?
What do you call him?" Two asks the coy,
Demure, and virginal mother. She
Stares full in the eyes of the royal three:
"Jesus," she whispers, "Jesus Christ.
His Father's name is Heilige Geist."
"Heilige Geist?" asks Two, "a German?"
Says One, "Do I have to read you a sermon?
That's 'Holy Ghost' in German, clod—
One of the thirds of their troika God."
The baby gurgles and jerks and whacks
And melts those Kings like candle wax.
"Well, Jesus Christ!" they proclaim in chorus,
"The sweet little guy—He's got something for us."
"And we've brought something along for Him,"
Says Two, taking note of the Seraphim
Crowding into the stable from the sky—
Too many to count, and anyhow, why
Count them? Just listen to them whirr!
"Hey, give him the frankincense!"
"Give him the myrrh!"
"Give him the gold."
"You can set them here,"
Sighs the woman, weary but of good cheer.
"And my name's Mary, Mother of God.
Now He's getting sleepy." They see Him nod,
And each of the shepherds retrieves his rod,
And departs, and meanwhile the three wise Kings
Gather up all of their royal things,
And together exclaim, ere they ride out of sight,
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
That's the funnier part. After this it gets gory—
But you probably know the rest of the story.
The Prodigal Son Writes Home Again
The Prodigal Son didn't look the part,
But he knew he was one in his heart.
He'd slept with only a couple of sluts
And stubbed a couple of thousand butts,
He'd kept clean-shaven—an Army habit—
His views were radical, but not rabid,
He washed his clothing every few days
In a Laundromat where he'd gaze and gaze
At the porthole where it swirled and churned.
He'd gone to Carthage, and gotten burned,
But he kept his thin shanks free of the Reaper,
And he was a fairly solid sleeper.
Though most of his dreams were quite benign,
There were one or two flashed a warning sign
All was not well: that dream of flying
And crashing; that nightmare about dying—
Not to mention a choppy relationship
Or two, in which he went down with the ship.
Back home, his faithful family wrote:
His brother a tardy birthday note,
His father a dignified, helpless letter,
His mother unpretentiously better.
She didn't rant, she didn't outpour,
She didn't (as Dad did) give him what-for.
Her argument was a mother's love
With a glance or two at the Lord's above.
Though his father was the fisherman,
It was she who slowly reeled him in
On a barbless hook over two or three years,
While he made his escape from the deep-sea fears
That led him to flee from their hearth and home
To hit the highway and surf the foam.
He'd been floundering, desperate to keep
His chin above water, when up from the deep
A mermaid swam, along Half-Moon Beach.
They looked at each other, and found that each
Liked the looks, and so they began to gambol,
Crawled out on the sand for a little ramble—
Together, that made the difference,
Besides which, the mermaid had good sense
And could spare enough to brush off on him
A smidgeon, or maybe a modicum.
His mother leapt to the wedding trip.
His father, perhaps afraid he'd slip
Back into the pig slop, passed; his brothers
Also. The day was all his mother's—
Her time to shine—and didn't she beam!
As if the whole thing had been her scheme,
Which, in the heavenly plan of things,
It may have been: when a bluebell rings
On a Scottish hillside, who's to say
That its sympathetic vibrations may
Not be tinkling in a Berkeley garden?
Though the heart may soften, the will can harden.
We praise the weeds and the wilderness, yet
When we go and live in them, what we get
Is wild and wilder, and weedy and wet.
The Prodigal Son, with his mermaid wife,
Cut up the past with a carving knife,
They never had such a supper in their life,
And the little ones chewed on the bones-o.
And then one night when he was alone-o,
Reading dead letters in his living room
With only one lamp to defer the gloom,
He smarted with shame as he understood
How bad he'd been, and they, how good.
So he wrote a note to himself: Tell the truth
About your middlingly prodigal youth.
And though they (his parents) were long since gone,
He signed it,
Your loving Ex-Prodigal Son.
A Very Short History of a Very Short War
For Robert Bly
In April those pears were nubs along the branches.
Soon after, a dumb-show of flowers, and now a snowfall
of petals, low and white like the tiny verses
tied onto branches at a Haiku Society outing,
blown down and stuck to the roots. When the soldiers' boots
tramped through in March they pledged to return, soon.
April: no sign. The big guns thundered in June.
July: thinning the crop. Machine guns muttered.
August: shreds of regiments, fleeing, snatch the ripe fruit.
Dark, Perhaps, Forever, the Universe Unexplained
—Headline in the New York Times Science Section, June 3, 2008
Einstein, Feynman, Hawking—
whoever had thought to solve it,
Not for them to unravel
the riddle out of its box,
Box inside a riddle
and riddle inside a box,
Middle and beginning both
inside-out and backwards,
Ending, maybe, never, and
still unexplained and dark,
Light, perhaps, for only
a lightning shimmer of verse.
unnamed and un-self-acknowledged,
You managed to measure by meter
an image you never intended:
Trochees twining to iambs
while iambs dance into anapests,
Mirror one probable answer
to that impossible question:
Dark, perhaps, forever:
the universe, even explained.
“An experienced teacher can grade anything.”
––An experienced teacher
He grades the cat on being cat
(straight A), the grapefruit on juiciness
(B+) and sweetness (B), his wife
on sleeping soundly (last night, D
minus; he grades the morning (C
plus, Be more definite), the dog
for coming quickly when she’s called
(A–, good dog, good dog), for
fetching the paper (Fetch it!—F).
In broad daylight he grades the moon
last night at midnight, Well defined,
clear and complete (pure A, pure A);
his breakfast lunch and dinner (Pass);
his shoes (Unsatisfactory);
of course he grades the morning paper
(low C for content, C for form);
the window (B, maybe B–,
Try to be more imaginative).
He grades the way he drives to school
(B+ woops, D), the radio—
rather, its choice of music (A
+, for Segovia’s guitar
followed by Goodman’s clarinet),
the fat opossum in the road
(plain D for Dead), the old man trudging
in red sweatsuit and jogging shoes
(Not Pass), the parking lot (OK),
colleagues for cordiality
(A, B, C, D, none of the above)
and courage in the line of duty
(Withheld: cf. the Privacy Act).
He’s graded God (You should do better
than this, with Your Advantages.
Try to improve by putting more
of Yourself into it: C–);
and homo sapiens (Barely passing,
YOU ARE IN TROUBLE!); and himself
(Delivery, B; Coherence, C;
Organization, D; Good will,
A! A!), and grades his grading (C,
Inflated, whimsical), his life
(B+ as far as it goes, keep going);
Tomorrow and tomorrow and
tomorrow (Where’s your outline? C,
No, Incomplete. Please see me soon.