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But none of us cared for Kate

January 26, 2012

… For she had a tongue with a tang
And would cry to a sailor “Go hang!”
She loved not the savor of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her wherever he did itch.
Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang! …
–“The Tempest,”
Act 2, Scene 2

Our Willie hit it off perfectly as usual in a handful of words. The foulmouthed boatswain Stephano, lurching drunkenly all over the tiny stage to please the groundlings, summons up the irreconcilable worlds of the traveler and the landlubber.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

On the one hand we have the sailor, recalling Ulysses the adventurer, forever sailing close to the wind in search of novelty; having himself bound to the mast so he can hear the Siren’s song yet live to tell the tale. And on the other hand we have Kate, the tavern wench, the quintessential stay-at-home and the sailor’s only link with the shore. As she wriggles back into her stiff skirt, loaded with seed pearls and gold brocade, aping the exquisite finery of the Tudor court, she makes fun of the sailor’s unwashed canvas breeches and tattered jerkin, redolent of the noisome forecastle where he slings his hammock. She has already pocketed the silver shilling, the price of her services and half his total pay for a three-year voyage, so she can afford to taunt him, though she herself hasn’t bathed for a month.

So where did all these images spring from? Well, you might try this on for size: they were already locked into your brain before ever you heard of “The Tempest.” Each impression you ever had and remembered – sight, sound, taste, whatever – is stored in an individual cluster of a few hundred primed neuro cells in a vast network of a trillion interconnected cells as an unconscious record, much as the pits in a DVD track prime the plastic to recreate on demand George Clooney making close friends with the heroine. The chance excitation of any one of those clustered cells will instantly trigger the whole cluster into consciousness as a recapitulation, often only approximate, of the original stimulus.

And any given cluster is quite likely to share a cell or two with other clusters, so that a single new word or phrase, in priming its own cluster, may trigger a multitude of dormant images into consciousness. It is the business of the poet to exploit the neuron’s love of repetition by employing rhythm, rhyme and alliteration to soup up his text.

But getting back to my thesis, that we are all attracted to one or other pole – the wanderer or the landlubber – written forever into our genetic pattern. We may put down deep roots and grow old at a single location, or we may never develop roots and roam the world, one or the other, but the choice was already made for us at the instant of conception. Tough luck!

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