Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Man in the Wilderness / Adventures of Isabel

The Man in the Wilderness (from the album Leave Your Sleep; Anonymous)

The man in the wilderness asked of me,
"How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?"
I answered him, as I thought good,
As many a ship as sails in the wood.

The man in the wilderness asked me why
His hen could swim and his pig could fly.
I answered him as I thought best,
"They were both born in a cuckoo's nest."

The man in the wilderness asked me to tell
All the sands in the sea and I counted them well.
He said he with a grin, "And not one more?"
I answered him, "Now you go make sure."


Adventures of Isabel (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Ogden Nash)

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn't care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.

Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
The witch's face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch's gums with teeth were sprinkled.
Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed,
I'll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry,
She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and drank her.

Isabel met a hideous giant,
Isabel continued self-reliant.
The giant was hairy, the giant was horrid,
He had one eye in the middle of his forehead.
Good morning Isabel, the giant said,
I’ll grind your bones to make my bread.
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry,
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She nibbled the zwieback that she always fed off,
And when it was gone, she cut the giant’s head off.

Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor’s talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor’s satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry,
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

I had an interesting exchange with a four-year-old recently. I told her, "You are cute. I like you. I like cute people." She looked back at me, unsmiling, and said flatly, "You like Satan."

We sat in silence for a few moments. "Well," I started calmly. "No...No, I don't like Satan. For one thing, I don't find him cute."

She nodded slowly and seemed to accept my reply and that was the end of that.

Of course, I spent all day telling people about this conversation and we all had a good laugh. I have no idea what prompted this child to accuse me of Satanic affection, but that's the fun of children, isn't it? They just say stuff. Really random stuff. It doesn't really mean anything, right?


Okay, I'll admit it. For a split second, I couldn't help but wonder, "Is this kid on to something? Does she see a touch of evil in me?" You know, if an adult came up to me and said the same thing, I'd roll my eyes and dismiss their sanity. But there is just something about the confidence of a child. They can at times speak with such assuredness and honesty that their words, at least for me, can carry more weight than an adult's.

I suppose when a poem is called "The Man in the Wilderness", our primary focus is supposed to be on the title character. But the person that intrigues me most in this poem is the one responding to the strange man's riddles. I always imagine this person as a child, perhaps simply because I know it's a Mother Goose rhyme. To me, this poem and song is not so much about the creepy eccentricity of the wilderness man as it is about the kid who consistently bests him. His answers are sometimes sarcastic, sometimes challenging, and always with a detached apathy about any stakes of this little game. I love this part most:

The man in the wilderness asked me why
His hen could swim and his pig could fly.
I answered him as I thought best,
"They were both born in a cuckoo's nest."

There's a certain audaciousness to that response that I find really charming. I can imagine this kid crouched on the ground, concerning himself with playing with sticks and stones and leaves and all but ignoring the questioner completely, except to give the occasional offhanded reply. If this was a contest the Man in the Wilderness was starting, he got thoroughly beat.

It's not until I've started to write this post that I've come to see another of the many thematic threads of Leave Your Sleep - supremely confident children, like the little Equestrienne and the girl who is madly in love with the Janitor's Boy. But none of the characters of Leave Your Sleep are anywhere near as confident as Isabel. I love Adventures of Isabel. If not my favorite song on Leave Your Sleep, it is certainly near the top of the list.

It's not just that Isabel is such a lovable character, the kind of kid I would want to have as my own, that makes this song seem almost profound to me. It's that Adventures of Isabel was written by a father for his daughter, in this case poet Ogden Nash for his daughter Isabel. I wonder about the real Isabel. Was her confidence what inspired the poem? Or was the poem an effort to inspire confidence in her? I guess I imagine the real Isabel being somewhat timid. Maybe this poem helped her see a vision of herself that was entirely different from the one she was used to. One way or another, the poem is clear evidence of her father's love. Indeed, in the Leave Your Sleep liner notes about Ogden Nash, Natalie sums it up quite simply:

"He was a particularly devoted and enthusiastic father who took immense pleasure in spending time with his daughters."

I wish that statement seemed ordinary to me, but it doesn't. It seems special.

One of my favorite hole-in-the-wall bookstore finds of all-time was a $5 copy of the book Versus by Ogden Nash. It had a tattered dust jacket with a tiny note inside, "Jacket design by Maurice Sendak." Cool.

To close today's post, I want to share with you my favorite poem from that book, Soliloquy in Circles:

Being a father
Is quite a bother.

You are free as air
With time to spare,

You're a fiscal rocket
With change in your pocket,

And then one morn
A child is born.

Your life has been runcible

Like an arrow or javelin
You've been constantly travelin',

But mostly, I daresay,
Without a chaise percee,

To which by comparison
Nothing's embarison.

But all children matures,
Maybe even yours.

You improve them mentally
And straighten them dentally,

They grow tall as a lancer
And ask questions you can't answer,

And supply you with data
About how everybody else wears lipstick sooner and stays up later,

And if they are popular,
The phone they monopular.

They scorn the dominion
Of their parent's opinion,

They're no longer corralable
Once they find that you're fallible

But after you've raised them and educated them and gowned them,
They just take their little fingers and wrap you around them.

Being a father
Is quite a bother,
But I like it, rather.


That's all for me this week. You've probably noticed this blog has been a bit of a ghost town lately. I'll spare you the details of my excuses and instead simply say I'm sorry. Hopefully I'm back on track now. Thanks for reading. As always, you can reach me at or through the comments section below.

Look! I embed things now! Oh, I'm a 21st century gal.

Download The Man in the Wilderness from Itunes - The Man In the Wilderness - Leave Your Sleep

Download Adventures of Isabel from Itunes - Adventures of Isabel - Leave Your Sleep