Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Long ago I was required in high school to memorize a poem. Today I heard from a classmate from back then, and it reminded me of it. The class was reading "The Most Dangerous Game," in which appears a servant named "Ivan". The pupil reading the story pronounced that in the Russian way, EEvan, so some of us, not being much acquainted with such things, shouted "Eye-van"; whereupon Brother Daniel pointed to those he had caught at this, and said we must go and memorize a poem about Ivan Skavinsky Skivar, and gave us no hint of where we might find that. This was well before the Internet: the only computer I had was a thing that used marbles to do minor binary arithmetic.
It took a couple of days in the Memphis city library to find this thing. I suppose I learned something about doing research as well as to not to be such a smart-alec in class.
So for some reason I have transcribed this as I remember it. Odd the things memories will do to you.
I ran this poem in There Will Be War some years ago. The version I gave there is slightly different.
Abdullah Bulbul Amir
When they wanted a man to encourage the van
This son of the desert in battle aroused
The heroes were plenty and well known to fame
He could imitate Irving, play euchre or pool
The ladies all loved him, his rivals were few
One day this bold Russian had shouldered his gun
"Young man", quoth the Bulbul, "Is existence so dull
"So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
Said Ivan, "My friend, your remarks in the end
Then this bold Mamalouk drew his trusty skibouk
They parried and thrust, they sidestepped and cussed
They fought all that night 'neath the pale yellow moon,
As Abdul's long knife was extracting the life,
The Sultan drove by in his red-crested fly,
Czar Petrovich too, in his spectacles blue
There's a grave by the wave where the Blue Danube rolls,
A splash in the Black Sea one dark moonless night,
A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
Abdul Abulbul Ameer
Best I can tell (Internet crawl) the song (there's a tune) was written in its original version by Percy French as a 23yr old engineering student at Trinity College in 1877 for a school concert and he subsequently recycled it for sale to a publisher who printed it unattributed. There are 10's of variant lyric versions.
I never heard an origin story before: it was in a book of barroom ballads in the Memphis Public Library. And I am sure there are dozens of versions, and I suspect that the one I recite isn't exactly as I found it in 1948 in the lib