The forthcoming Paris Review anthology, The Unprofessionals, was just announced with a public relations pitch that sounds pretty good at first but quickly reveals itself to be (as is most PR) fantastically false: “At a moment when it’s easy to see art as another product—and when writers, especially, are encouraged to think of themselves as professionals—the stories, poems, and essays in this collection have no truck with self-promotion. They turn inward. They’re not afraid to stare, to dissent, or even to offend. They answer only to themselves.” Though it’s hard to know exactly what work will be included in the anthology (the table of contents is being kept under wraps), the few author names released include some of the most professional poets we can think of — one, as a matter of fact, a former poetry editor of the Paris Review itself. Another less visible yet highly connected poet (who once worked in the editorial department of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) has already announced his inclusion on his self-named webpage, a site chockful of blurbs, prize announcements and links to interviews. If this kind of thing is typical of “unprofessional” writers, we cringe imagining what exactly (blackmail? poison?) the anthology editors would consider truly careerist behavior.
The origin of “The Voice of Sulpicia and Others” recital last Thursday at the Wellfleet Public Library was Mary Maxwell’s dissatisfaction with the reception of her renderings of the Roman poet Sulpicia (published as “After Sulpicia” in An Imaginary Hellas, LongNookBooks, 2012). Over the course of the last twenty years, when her translations were first published, the five elegiacs of the only female Latin poet whose work is extant has been increasingly acknowledged among classicists. Yet Sulpicia’s existence has been barely noted by scholars of “Women’s Writing,” let alone by the “community” of contemporary female poets. Setting these lyrics to music (by composer Jessica Krash) in the form of an art-song cycle was a collaborative attempt to have this important woman’s voice literally heard once again.
Between Krash’s solo piano works and the composer’s musical settings of the medieval Cantigas d’Amigo, Maxwell read from her translations of the female troubadour, Beatrice of Die. As Maxwell has noted in a number of talks and presentations, there do remain a few scholars who continue to insist that the Sulpicia poems could not actually have been written by an aristocratic Roman; such experts argue that not only was such sexual frankness not allowed in Augustan society, Sulpicia’s sensibility is not consistent with “typical” female literary expression. But as Maxwell asks, then how and why did the twelfth-century Beatrice manage to “get away” with her similarly racy lyrics, works universally accepted as among the finest examples of Occitan song? The possibility of a continuous line of female lyric as a forgotten part of the European poetic tradition (with major works such as Sappho’s lost or suppressed) continues to haunt the literary imagination. It is not surprising to us that the Wellfleet audience was so deeply moved by soprano Emily Noel’s emotional performance of “Sulpicia’s Songs,” with its final echoing plea, “Let it be known!”
Anthony Rudolf describes Christopher Middleton as “the most significant British poet to be found on that important frontier between the mainstream and the experimental.” Though the most serious readers of poetry in English speak of him with awe, Middleton’s is hardly a household name in poetry’s current domicile. And it’s not like his work is hard to find. Poems in a recent PN Review include a version of Baudelaire’s “Le Flacon.” Describing the sense of a powerful perfume, Middleton transmutes the French lines into “it twists, it turns in the commotions / of air, with both hands thrusting a dizzied / and defeated soul to the very lip / of an abyss the human atmospheres obscure…”
Middleton is not only a superb poet and translator (we’ve praised him more than a few times here in the LNB newsletter), but he’s also a requisite essayist. If from the Distance: Two Essays(published by Rudolf’s Menard Press in 2007) has an introduction by the insightful Alan Wall. As Wall writes, “If the reality of the phenomenon he is observing is one of fragmentation, then Middleton leaves it thus, respecting its condition, rather than sentimentalizing the broken reality into a spurious whole.”
This imperfect sense, true to the experience of reading a foreign language as well as to certain poetic encounters, seems to us to permeate Middleton’s oeuvre like the dusky scent of iris. The second essay in the book, for example, is less a translation commentary than a tentative walk-through a difficult late lyric of Hölderlin. It remains up to the reader to go back to the German and revisit it. Middleton’s poems similarly return us to life’s pained beauty, as though it were a beautifully printed vellum page, or better yet, a garden whose plantings need to be seen over and over again in order to be understood and appreciated.
We missed the Provincetown Arts party this year. On our return from Italy, however, we were delighted to see in the current issue that The Longnook Overlook was prominently featured in the magazine’s “Buzz” column. Alongside a cover photo of the “niftily designed paper utopia,” the Overlook was described as a volume that “dances nimbly on tiny barroom tabletops and across acres of ballroom floors, blending contemporary culture and sophisticated Old World vitality in one splendidly readable package.” Many thanks to the Provincetown Arts editors for this warm welcome home!
Interaction with works of art is not encouraged at Milan’s Fondazione Prada. What is displayed is kept at a distance, both literally and figuratively. What the place is most like, unsurprisingly, is a very expensive conceptual boutique where prices are not shown. “If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be here,” seems to be the message. “Serial Classic,” a temporary exhibit of Roman copies of Greek sculpture for example, had various statues placed atop elaborate plexiglass and wood structures. The effect was decidedly commodity fetishistic with sexual meanings such figures don’t usually express.
But throughout the institution all kinds of things are set at a discomfiting angle. The structures themselves are confusing, with galleries whose entries are known only, like a cultish secret, to the guards; many other doors remain locked or are hard to open. The genderless watchers assigned to each room are themselves appareled in top-buttoned gray and black, lending a distinctly penitentiary quality to the converted factory. The very creepiest elements of the permanent collection (a Man Ray Venus torso wrapped with cord, a Damien Hurst aquarium, a Louise Bourgeois installation, even a small Eva Hesse) actually seem to pale in comparison with their disturbing contexts (an abandoned cistern, a “haunted” tower, a still-forming grotto).
The interiors are designed with weird combinations of materials, as though an overcoat were made of both tire rubber and mink. Parts of the industrial building have been given extravagantly luxurious finishes: One tower has been covered in gold leaf; a set of steps has what look like platinum railings; while dried-blood-colored carpet of ebony-walled movie theater (laid beneath velvet recliners) is so thick that it’s effort to walk across. (The highly appropriate film being shown was Roman Polanski’a My Inspirations.) Other surfaces are chicly left raw. Painted grills function as bathroom doors; a steel trough functions as a bathroom sink.
The resulting experience is not merely dreamlike, but slightly nightmarish. The Bar Luce (designed by film director Wes Anderson) should have been charming with its pink and green furnishings, pinball machine and jukebox. Consistent with the sensibility of its creator, it’s the perfect setting for perpetually spoiled adults. And we really did enjoy ourselves; the cocktails were excellent! But just as when as we queasily departed from a Saturday afternoon double feature of horror (say, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby), we found ourselves heading back to the city center with an aesthetic version of those teenage sugar headaches.
Some find the ringing of village church bells maddening; others take comfort in their regular tolling. Either way, their pitched marking of the hours neatly divides each night and day. One analogous function of metered poetry is to remind readers of time’s passing. An intensely experienced poem reaffirms not only the importance of “living in the moment” but also suggests a kind of peripheral awareness of the measured nature of mortal days. Something of churchbells’ alternate effects of irritation and affirmation, or so certain readers have told us, can be found in the rhythmic reminders dividing the lines of Nine Over Sixes.
Last week we visited Expo Milano 2015, whose stated motto is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” As far as its architectural offerings, we especially admired the opening “Pavillion Zero,” with its nod to Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, though there were many, many astonishing structures throughout the exposition. Some of these fantastically designed buildings showcased specific countries (from the incredible Palazzo Italia to the festive food shacks presented by Holland); some represented institutions or even corporations; a handful of others presented transnational “subject clusters” such as “Cocoa and Chocolate.”
The foodie theme of this contemporary “world’s fair” was underwritten by the premise that though cuisine is a projection of culture, it has a uniquely intimate relation to nature. Therefore many exhibits at Expo Milano placed great emphasis on issues of sustainability and indigenous methods of agriculture. But because so many of these visual arguments used breathtakingly high-tech methods of exposition, there seemed to us to be an inherent conflict between such exhibits’ stated goals and their means of thematic expression. Despite its cutting-edge and energy-saving methodologies, the Expo obviously came about in large part as result of corporate money, industrial methods and commercial enterprise. And so, though we did very much enjoy our afternoon (Czech beer, Swiss chocolate, Israeli frozen yogurt), we couldn’t quell our doubts about such large-scale environmentalist propaganda — whose “green” premise we nevertheless wholeheartedly embrace. In the end, to be perfectly honest, the whole thing struck us as an enormous (albeit informative) food court.
One cultural attribute that has come into focus more sharply on our European travels is the American tendency to judge poets by their personal behaviors and political opinions rather than by the excellence of the work itself. In some sense this form of judgement is a version of “political correctness,” though as a national phenomenon it long preceded the catch phrase that came about as a critique of the university. We are especially dubious about “social service” poetry — texts whose primary function is to express the perspective of returning soldier, the sexually abused, the imprisoned and the disenfranchised. It is our opinion that art should not necessarily be obligated to draw attention to, let alone compensate for, the failures of government programs and legislative measures. What is called for in these instances is political activism.
Elsewhere in the world there is less requirement that a poet be a source of political wisdom or a practitioner of ethical behavior. Papers presented at this summer’s Ezra Pound conference at Brunnenburg, for example, attempted to make the argument that the poet was fundamentally “green.” But as Charles Altieri rightly pointed out in his talk, there is an essential contradiction between the impulses of High Modernism and contemporary environmentalism. Certainly that difficult hero of Pound’s Cantos, Sigismondo Malatesta, embodies a kind of willfulness which, to put it mildly, valorized the human over the natural. He was unscrupulous and murderous, but this “furtherer of humanism” (as Jakob Burckhardt viewed him) did build the Tempio Malatestiano Right or Wrong? In a phrase we hate in other contexts, we can only observe, “It is what it is.” But the truth remains that “good” or “nice” people don’t necessarily write poetry worth reading, while certain problematic individuals have been among the indisputable masters of the art.
We’ve been reading Ezra Pound’s translation of Enrico Pea’s Moscardino, published in 2005 by Archipelago Books. As has been noted, it is a less than perfect volume (for example, the narrator’s nickname is translated by Pound as “Buck” with no explanation of it as a rendering of the book’s Italian title), but it is nevertheless a fascinating suggestion of what Pound might have written had he attempted narrative prose. The original book’s material has been described by Massimo Bacigalupo as a “wild, primal world,” which is as much a description of a particular Tuscan context as a more universal psychic locale. But as evidence of his misunderstanding of certain subtleties of nonliterary Italian, the 1941 date of this attempt at American linguistic equivalency suggests to us a more ominous example of Pound’s tendency to interpretive error. His “misreading” of Italian politics, of course, would have considerably greater consequence than his lifelong tendency to textual willfulness.
Discussion of who should appear on stamps and currency is usually of little interest to us. But as we travel through Italy, seeing how poets, painters and sculptors are honored and remembered, we believe Americans need to be reminded of art’s resistance to the vicissitudes of time. In centuries to come, what American name will remain familiar to all? One prediction: Walt Whitman. For while we deeply admire Melville, Dickinson and O’Hara (or Whistler, or Rothko, or Calder), we are most certain that it will be Whitman’s presence that is least likely to fade. Not only do we hear him in much contemporary European poetry, we see him in one of America’s most admirable exports, a valuation of the individual self (experienced through the lens of sensual and sexual identity) that, of necessity, precedes recognition of shared humanity. Sometimes it takes distance — both linguistic and geographic— to see such cultural realities clearly. With all respect to Ulysses S. Grant, let’s replace him with Whitman on the fifty-dollar bill.
We had the great privilege to be taken down to the vaults of Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library a few months ago. Though our visit took place back in the deep snowdrifts of winter, we haven’t forgotten what a heated thrill it was to see a First Folio up close, out from behind glass. We looked at a Second Folio belonging to a Spanish House of the Jesuits, with offensively lascivious lines blacked out. We viewed a Quarto of Romeo and Juliet printed without the author’s name, as at the time of its production the play was far more famous than Shakespeare himself. We held the notated prompt book from a production of Hamlet starring John Barrymore. But perhaps the most moving object was the tiny pocket volume of Shakespeare’s poems, signed by its owner Walt Whitman. That we were able to hold this in our own hands, actually touching the great poet’s signature, was truly one of the most extraordinary sensations of our lives.
We unexpectedly found ourselves last month at Harvard’s Memorial Hall. Technology-based art installations have a tendency to leave us cold, but not in the case of artist Brian Knep’s “Deep Wounds.” Created as a consideration of “the universal and complex challenges of conflict transgression and reconciliation,”the interactive experience brilliantly integrated the intellectual and the emotional, bringing the American Civil War back to contemporary consciousness. The smooth surface of historical knowledge was torn asunder by the reality of individual loss, as each living footstep across the stone floor opened onto a dead soldier’s name. We’re not sure exactly how Knep managed this feat of movement-sensitive imaging, but with the opening and closing of one stylized grave after another, the pain of both Union and Confederate losses was movingly re-enacted and re-experienced.
In her reading at Chelsea’s Bowery Gallery last week, Mary Maxwell made a few observations about her sense of the sometimes agonistic relation between spoken and written poetry. It’s become a widely received idea that a “good” poem is one that plays well in a reading context, with laughs or appreciative nods from an audience indicating lyrical “success.” A number of contemporary writing teachers have even proposed such feedback as a test of poetic excellence. Given their tendency to write easy-listening verse, we certainly understand why many poets would propose such a standard; for them, immediate accessibility is all. But a poet’s audience may not be that of her contemporaries; it takes time for certain works to make their way (literary history certainly supports this alternate narrative, with Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein as two tellingly diverse examples). For one thing, some kinds of poems do need to be seen in print to be fully understood. Or what at first may seem difficult or inaccessible to the ear can become in time, paradoxically, a preferred style. Despite the poet’s concerns that her new work might be fundamentally “page poetry,” for her book’s publisher the enthusiastic reception given by the Bowery Gallery audience to the initially unfamiliar forms of Maxwell’s Nine Over Sixes was especially heartening.
We were very happy to see that one of the winners of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Grants was a new rendering of Gaston de Pawloski’s New Inventions and the Latest Innovations, to be published by Wakefield Press. It’s embarrassing that only recently did we become aware of the full extent of the Wakefield list. And it’s in nearby Cambridge to boot! It’s as though, unbeknownst to us, someone especially lively and literate had been living next door.
It also turns out “he” is often hilariously shocking in his observations. The design of the “Handbooks” series, elegantly pocket-sized volumes with place-marking gatefolds, is charming. But it’s their ribald and continental content that merits attention here; in short, these are some of the funniest books we’ve ever encountered. We name a few favorites: Charles Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy; Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living and his The Physiology of the Employee; Pierre Mac Orlan’s A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer.
The best portions of Pierre Louys’ The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments are too lewd to quote. His Pybac, as the back cover accurately describes it, is “possibly the filthiest collection of poetry ever published.” Each poem of the series, composed in Alexandrines, begin with the phrase, “I do not like to see…” What follows are rhymed descriptions of sexual perversion we think even Sade couldn’t have imagined.
We suspect we are not the only ones to find this comic oddity amusingly prescient of Georges Perec’s I Rememeber; Wakefield has also brought in their “Imagining Science” series the great Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. This melancholic inventory of three days on the Place Saint Sulpice has been masterfully translated by Marc Lowenthal. The book succeeds at what much conceptual poetry is currently failing to achieve, the sublime banality of experience captured through catalogue.
Other Wakefield titles deserving the highest level of critical attention include Paul Scheerbaart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention; René Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays; and Jean Ferry’s The Conductor and Other Tales. It’s incredible to us that this last book (part of “The Library of Cruelty” series, published in 2013) appeared with so little fanfare. Film buffs (Ferry wrote screenplays for Bunuel, Malle, Clouzot) or enthusiasts of Raymond Roussel (about whom Ferry wrote three books as well as the brief “Raymond Roussel in Heaven” included in the collection) should have certainly paid notice. We deeply regret that are not in a position to write proper reviews; all we can do is thank Wakefield for making these fantastic volumes available to English readers.
While there’s something deeply disturbing about forced coherence (cultural theory based on strict applications of historical materialism, as one example), we find the current taste for the half-baked comparably unsettling. In too many collections of “essays,” analysis has been replaced by autobiography and recollections of personal trauma. We’re not sure the “meaning” achieved at the end of such volumes extends beyond the understanding of their creators; to be crude, it feels highly onanistic. Collage has its uses, and in creative (as opposed to critical) endeavors, there’s even a place for “randomization.” But is it really fair to throw unfinished efforts (sometimes literally!) into a box and let the reader try to figure it out? There’s great beauty in the idea of the archive, we admit. That sections from a journal, for example, can be assembled with interesting effect is inarguable. But the present rage for the memoir presented in fragments has become brutalizing. After considerable time and effort slogging through such volumes, it’s become evident to us that — like a jigsaw puzzle picked up at a thrift shop — several crucial pieces have gone missing.
John Ashbery, who mentioned that he was reading the Selected Poems in a recent interview, is only one among a group of distinguished advocates for the British poet Nicholas Moore. We haven’t made our way all the way through that remarkably hefty volume, though we note with admiration the excellent introduction by Mark Ford. To be frank, we really first came to know Moore as the author of Spleen, first published by Anthony Rudolf’s Menard Press.
It is one of our most favorite books. Moore’s introduction to his translations of Baudelaire’s “Je suis comme le rois…” is full of irascible acuity; it confirms one of our private convictions that irritation may, in fact, be the true mother of creativity. (For example: “The more violent the contradictions of belief in the world the more necessary, I believe, is an astringent wit, and a bite at things that need biting.”) Annoyed by the premise of The Sunday Times 1968 translation competition (judged by George Steiner), Moore proceeded to provide thirty-one versions of the target text, all submitted under different names and addresses hilariously provided at each lyrics’ close.
But the translations’ introduction is so full of truth and good sense on the paradoxical relation between translation and poetry, we are compelled to quote further: “A poem is the result of translating any subject matter, seen or heard or read or felt, smelled or tasted, imagined or perceived, into poetic terms; and not only into poetic terms, but into the particular terms of the poet who writes it.” Or this: “Language, whether or not it is a built-in physical grammar with which man is endowed by his inheritance, is virtuous precisely because it can’t ‘communicate’; it can only indicate; the communications people have with it are ipso facto imperfect, and precisely because of this lend their lives interest and value they would not otherwise have. It is precisely the fact that each man within the limits of his own society and culture speaks his own language that makes him human.”
It would be quite easy to dismiss the work of Jean-Michel Othoniel as merely beautiful. His “Secret Flower Sculptures” exhibit this winter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, delightful helixes of blown glass and metal, for example, had something of the quality of oversized jewelry. And though you might not know it at first, given how immediately appealing his sculptures are, Othoniel is a very bookish and somewhat esoteric artist. We are taken by his articulate and thoughtful book, L’Herbier Merveilleux, an English translation of which we found in the Gardner gift shop. It is, among other things, a kind of botanical curriculum vitae: My obsession with the hidden meanings of flowers, and with their symbolism, is not only a key to reading old paintings, it is also a way of looking at the world — and an expression of my desire to see the marvels that surround us. Also on display at the Gardner were water-color sketches for his “Water Theater Grove,” the first permanent contemporary art exhibit at Versailles. These fountain sculptures, opening to the public just this week, were inspired by yet another book discovered by Othoniel at the Boston Public Library, Raoul-Auger Feuillet’s The Art of Describing Dance. We much look forward to seeing Othoniel’s new “water ballets,” as well as revisiting his Kiosque des Noctambules on the Place Colette, the next time we’re in Paris.
When we find a book truly dreadful, our response is usually the result of great disappointment. Such is certainly the case with Claudia Keelan’s book of translations, Truth of My Songs: Poems of the Trobairitz. It’s not only jarring but occasionally nauseating how the sensibility of the originals (on the left-hand pages) bears no relation to what Keelan provides on the right; she appears to be counting on the fact that few of her readers will know any Occitan. In principle we understand her attempt to make these lyrics contemporary, and the working premise that these were the “pop songs” of their day isn’t terrible.
But there’s no justification for attributing J Lo song-stylings to the elegant and skilled Beatrice de Die: “Baby, your value / is seen by all who see / and so I’m asking please, / stay and take care of me.” Or to put in the mouth of Garsenda de Forcalquier, and then her lover Gui de Cavaillon, lines such as: “You so blubber in my lover junk, / so don’t go slow to my nose worth. / Then you’ll blubber in the grassy cover, / because I’m phew with snotty hurt… Your upper town-town skanks my stutter, / your stanky rank-rank burns my butter,” etc.
We appreciate the enthusiasm of Keelan’s introduction, but she is misinformed when she writes that the women troubadours were “the first sustained, cultural instance of women’s writing.” Though not much of their work is extant, the archaic and classical Greek tradition included not only Sappho but also Corinna, reputed teacher of Pindar. There are also indications that the trobairitz were familiar with Latin lyricists, some of whom wrote in the voices of women; the works of the Roman Sulpicia, however, would have been attributed to Tibullus. For some reason Keelan believes all the women troubadours were “teenagers” (as was, in fact, Sulpicia), this even though they were almost all married women.
While we admit the fascinating culture of twelfth-century Southwest France is quite complex, Keelan makes an especial hash of it (re: her summary of the Cathar heresy). We’re even almost OK with her over-politicized interpretations and invocations of Ghazala Javed and Pussy Riot. “As the Republican party continually strives to regain control of women’s bodies in the US,” she writes, “… the trobairitz’s powerfully defiant poems remind us that the his in history has been questioned for centuries.” Again, OK, but while their aristocratic performed songs are a lot of things, it’s just not possible to characterize them as “proletarian critique.” They are the opposite of coarse. In the end, it is our opinion that Keelan most betrays the the lyrics of the trobairitz by making them so ugly. What a lost opportunity.
At LongNookBooks we like to think of ourselves as good readers. Difficulty doesn’t put us off. As most literary enthusiasts of our generation we read the first wave of continental theory the way many contemporaries tried psychedelics — with a kind of reckless openness to new experience. But we’re at a loss to understand most of what we read on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blogs these days. Verbal muck is the best way we can describe it, even when we (think) we agree with the writer’s opinion. Maybe “Politics and the English Language” is viewed as a retrograde text these days, but the implications of such lack of clarity for poetry (if not also politics) deeply troubles us. Astonishingly clumsy and misguided formulations of “featured bloggers” regularly drop a theorist’s name (Arendt, Barthes, Bataille, Benjamin… all the way to Zumthor) as legitimization, though rarely with a specific quotation or reference. We assert with some certainty that such thinkers would be aghast at the misapplication of their ideas. And then there are the reviews and interviews of contemporary poets (endless, endless) who speak and write with a incomprehensibility once associated with the sensations of a very bad trip. Anyway, we post these observations as a warning to those contemplating a crossing of Harriet’s desert quicksand…
We were greatly amused by Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” piece in the April 10the TLS. We, too, were curious about the bestselling title, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. For one thing, it’s a pretty little book; it goes without saying that its design was clutter-free and the layout of its chapters highly organized. Important points are conveniently set in boldface type. And, after a quick perusal of Kobe’s thesis, we were indeed inspired to toss out the socks that no longer “sparked joy.” But like Dirda, we hit a wall when it came to the matter of books. For one thing, we are living proof that “sometime” does not mean “never.” It is true that we are unlikely to re-read our entire collection of poetry volumes; and to be perfectly honest, some of them (over-promising first-books, for example) rather do give us a feeling of dread; but we glance at the majority of others for purposes of a melancholy pang or joyous pleasure nearly every day. We couldn’t possibly give up our section of cultural history; Wikipedia is no replacement for that. Art books are art; not having those would be like living in a house without windows. And while there’s a lot of great literature we have yet to read (most of Tolstoy, for example), our attitude is that we’re not dead yet. The truth is that the only shelf we find it easy to empty is, in fact, the one packed with self-help books like this one by Marie Kondo.
For us the “take-away” from the British television seriesWolf Hall is “control your narrative.” For those whose Tudor history was first drawn from A Man for All Seasons and Anne of a Thousand Days, the TV characterizations of the two Thomases, Moore and Cromwell, came at first as a bit of a shock. But then we were deeply amused and fascinated at how the roles of scoundrel and saint can be so effectively reversed. Through rhetoric and that lawyerly slight-of-hand known as plausibility, history becomes a fresh drama; and everyone knows entertaining fiction trumps dull fact anytime. Henry the Eighth as an athletic dolt in need of Viagra — it’s completely credible in this context. And then there’s the face and demeanor of Mark Rylance, whose poker-faced sad-dog eyes are truly hypnotic. We suspect Wolf Hall’s dramatic premise wouldn’t hold up once we got to Wife #3 and beyond, but as to what can happen to anyone’s life in the hands of an imaginative biographer, it makes for quite a cautionary tale.
The snows are almost completely melted here on the Outer Cape, revealing once again the gray-green geography of the National Seashore. We think of Dryden’s translation of the Georgics, where Virgil’s Latin lines become, “And happy too is he, who decks the Bow’rs / of Sylvans, and adores the Rural Pow’rs.” Virgil’s observation also serves as the epigraph for Nine Over Sixes, though his words (fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestis) are translated somewhat more literally by Mary Maxwell: “A lucky poet is one who’s had acquaintance with the country gods.” Maxwell will be reading from her new book at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge on April 17 at 7pm.
At LongNookBooks we’ve always been advocates of the “composed” book, where a page’s layout and its linguistic content are inseparable elements. Our latest publication, Mary Maxwell’s Nine Over Sixes, began as such a concept. The poetry collection’s visual manifestations do not merely complement the book’s verbal expression; textual design and textual denotation are fully integrated as part of the volume’s reading experience. We would even go so far as to argue that the book’s paper and ink form an essential part of its expression.
On the eve of its official publication date, we try to imagine pitching such a manuscript to a conventional publisher, arguing for the “meaning” of the cover’s pearlescent cover stock and pewter foil engraving. Even if we managed to talk the business staff into it, we suspect that the logistics of such a venture would not be likely to go smoothly. The book’s eccentric use of differently shaded typeface to express certain rhythmic effects, for one thing, would likely end up as a traditional production editor’s nightmare. And though we acknowledge that, given its self-contained pages, Nine Over Sixes might make an very interesting e-book, a digital format would completely undermine the project’s conceptual impetus. We are extremely grateful to be able to be in a position to produce such a starkly beautiful and distinctly non-virtual “product.”
We’re crazy about VistaVision (the film process that had its heyday in the nineteen-fifties), though it’s a somewhat tangled love affair. We find ourselves completely enamored by the intensity of the colored image in films such as White Christmas, To Catch a Thief and The Trouble With Harry. We know perfectly well that The Court Jester, Funny Face and the Doris Day The Man Who Knew Too Much are not great films, but we can’t stop ourselves from watching these, if only for their hallucinatory effects. The almost abstract setups in The Gunfight at OK Corral, for example, with Kirk Douglas surprisingly outperforming Burt Lancaster, have the raw power of a painting by De Chirico. There are some indisputable masterpieces among the VistaVision catalogue, of course. There’s North by Northwest and its amazing tableau of textures (the panels of the Oak Bar, Cary Grant’s suit fabric, the stone base of the modernist getaway of the evil James Mason, to name just three). And then there’s The Searchers, which has the force of a communal dream, its heart- and eye-wounding presentation rawly dramatizing our nation’s racial palette.
Maybe it’s because we wandered into Gagosian’s Chelsea location somewhat by accident only a week after the show’s opening, but we were completely floored by the “In the Studio: Paintings” exhibit we happened upon that evening. Expecting to find more of the kinds of twentieth-century works we’d visited on the neighborhood’s surrounding snow-filled streets, we were stunned to encounter Chardin, Daumier, Eakins and Hogarth alongside Guston, Rivers, Rauschenberg and Dine. This wasn’t a iron-doored gallery anymore; this was a pop-up museum. We honestly don’t know how curator John Elderfield managed to pull this off; just the pair of Picasso “Atelier” (shown together for the first time in the U.S.) would have usually merited a blockbuster show with hefty admission fees and long lines. But there was even more jaw-dropping free stuff (Giacometti! Rivera! Matisse!) on loan in Gagosian’s themed space. Even the tone of the press-release description of this extraordinary event (it read: “The subject of the artist’s studio in works of art is a very large one with a long history”) had a quality of casual absurdity, of cummerbunds worn with high-tops. The experience was sort of like finding oneself sharing a discount store’s communal dressing room with a group of elegant and famous patricians.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Metromaniacs provided an entertaining respite from late winter snow. David Ives’ translation and adaptation of Alexis Piron’s eighteenth-century farce La Métromanie was performed by the DC company at the level of a very good university production, with a standout comic turn by Amelia Pedlow as a dizzy poetry Innamorata. All things considered, the company managed pretty well with the couplets penned by the brainy Ives — a writer better known for his Venus in Fur, among other original plays. (We did keep thinking to ourselves, however, “Where is Brian Bedford when you need him?”) But none of playwright’s distichs were truly elegant. In fact, the surfeit of clumsy rhymes became a self-conscious joke, one of several gags that grew a bit tired. Ives’ version of the farce (which was essentially about amateurish poetasters) ended up as a pointed reminder of the brilliance of Richard Wilbur’s translations of Molière. The production’s program handily explains to its audience that the “metromaniac is someone so obsessed with poetry they eschew all other pursuits”; it is evident that the prolific Ives has not so committed himself.
In his embrace of sonic variety, John Zorn is a model of artistic daring and generosity. Integrity is not a word often associated with the avant-garde these days, but it applies to Zorn’s vision. We like to think that his record label, Tzadik, has inspired some of our own enterprises. We listen to his recordings a lot, but we can’t keep up with his projects; we wonder if anyone really could. Some of the more recent CDs we’ve added to our collection (all them with Zorn hosting and/or collaborating alongside an incredible set of guest musicians) include In the Hall of Mirrors, The Dream Membrane, Myth and Mythopoeia; The Mysteries; Music and Its Double; and The Concealed. As these titles suggest, Zorn is into some deep stuff, and though much of it is way beyond the likes of us, we enjoy the regular sensation of pleasurable bafflement these discs provide. We have been particularly drawn to compositions that “riff” on the life and work of poets such as Blake and Rimbaud; and we particularly recommend his somewhat atypical On Leaves of Grass for long-drive listening. Here the poet’s “Body Electric” is transposed for urban vibraphone and Whitman’s musings are channelled into present-day background meditations, all-night wheels turning without pause like circular breathing.
We didn’t really think we’d like New York City Ballet’s reprise of Harlequinade. We knew we’d enjoy the all-Balanchine performance’s opening Square Dance with music by Corelli and Vivaldi. But the great choreographer’s revisiting of of Petipas’s Commedia dell-arte ballet with music by Drigo? Frankly, it sounded like a bit of a snore. But even though the first act’s setting-out narrative did sometimes remind us of why we’re not fans of most full-length ballets, the wholly “pointless” second act was fantastic, complete with a series of children’s parades supplied by students from the School of American Ballet. In both acts Tiler Peck as Colombine fulfilled every requirement we hold as necessary for a true “ballerina”: Her technical exactitude perfectly corresponded to the emotional sincerity of her character. Full of love for the ardent Harlequin (danced by the oft-airborne Joaquin de Luz), Peck/Colombine was first charmingly coy and then she was heartbreakingly tender. In the end, the happy union of the two lovers was not just deeply moving but completely enervating — something very much like the experience of love itself.
There’s no question that the time frame required for a proper perspective on excellence in the arts makes it difficult for any individual practitioner to persevere. In the face of misunderstanding or silence, it takes a lot of backbone for any writer not to give in and produce work certain to provoke immediate interest and acclaim. Poems particularly require more than a year for a critical readership to make a solid judgment about their “quality” and “longevity.” As a result, poetry “best books of the year” are especially meaningless; and “best poetry of the decade” becomes a category only slightly more valid. The traditional cycle of annual prizes simply doesn’t work for volumes of poetry, which is why cautious judges lean toward Selectedcollections for such honors (and also why we have a surfeit of current Selected on the shelves of bookstores). The bestseller model of mainstream publishing just doesn’t work, as serious poetry (like literary fiction, we might add) needs to stay available on a backlist for twenty years or so. Maybe such works should actually grow more expensive with each year; like fine wine, literary consumers should “get in” early, knowing that carefully crafted art increases not only in its value but in the pleasure it will give to its owner.
Recent real-life events in Copenhagen seem to have been prophesied by our binge viewing of the ten-episode television series, Bron-Broen (The Bridge). (An American version of show, which we didn’t follow, was shown last year on FX.) A well-written police procedural about a joint Swedish-Danish police investigation into the doings of a “Truth-Terrorist,” the series’ first season follows the violently despicable doings of an individual who is apparently attempting to use his actions to draw attention to issues of social inequality, immigration and homelessness. It turns out that he’s just twisted, with a personal vendetta against one of the police officers involved. The show is about a lot of things (differences in the temperaments of Danes and Swedes, for example), but in the end, it makes a point we agree with: Whatever the political, religious or social motivations they present for their actions, terrorists are just very troubled individuals, nothing more than psychopaths and criminals with unjustifiable agendas.
An alternate title for Jed Perl’s Art in America: 1945-1970 could have been Stylistic Excellence in Mid-Century American Prose: A Reader. The Library of American volume is like a museum containing room after well-lit room of both familiar and unfamiliar treasures, a series of galleries displaying artworks of greatness and beauty whose existence as an impeccable collection was long presumed to be only a rumor. Some of these pieces (Edwin Denby’s, Susan Sontag’s, Hilton Kramer’s) are familiar to anyone fairly well-read in the period’s art history, but other newly discovered sentences literally took our breath away. Among Perl’s offerings, here’s Lincoln Kirstein on the sculptor Elie Nadelman’s “Femmes-Bébés”:
They are flowers from the folk-lore of cities; the vision of theatre, circus, opera, ballet, which boys who live in the provinces, and who have only seen pictures, or posters, know must be the living magic of white nights on the boulevards or on Broadway… If one is willing to follow through Alice’s deep door, this tiny world comes alive: the dancers dance; the naked bodies are transparently clothed in jeweled spangles, in feathers and womanliness; the curls seem faintly gilded coils and snakes; the tiny rose-bud faces gleam with pouting and provocation, suffused in their tidy, morbid glamor, and despite any definition, they remain mysterious relics of the practice of glamorous cults in our huge nocturnal towns whose meaning we sense but cannot say.
Or here’s James Agee (coincidentally, a lifelong comrade of Kirstein’s) on the urban subjects in the photographs of Helen Levitt:
These are pastoral people, persisting like wild vines upon the intricacies of a great city, a phantasmagoria of all that is most contemporary in hardness of material and of appetite. In my opinion they embody with great beauty and fullness not only their own personal and historical selves but also, in fundamental terms, a natural history of the soul, which I presume also to be warm-blooded, and pastoral, and, as a rule, from its first conscious instant onward, as fantastically misplanted in the urgent metropolis of the body, as the body in the world.
Or here’s the great James Baldwin on his lover, the painter Beauford Delaney:
There was a window in Beauford’s house in Clamart before which we often sat — late at night, early in the morning, at noon. This window looked out on a garden; or, rather, it would have looked out on a garden if it had not been for the leaves and branches of a large tree which pressed directly against the window. Everything one saw from this window, then, was filtered through these leaves. And this window was a kind of universe, moaning and wailing when it rained, light of the morning, and as blue as the blues when the last light of the sun departed.
Raphael Rubinstein’s The Miraculous was not what we expected. From what we’d read we’d somehow gotten the idea that the book was “about” artistic anonymity. And though it’s true that the fifty prose pieces describing various conceptual art projects did refrain from identifying their creators, it was actually easy enough to check the provided index for the names of the artists involved. What we instead took from the book was a visceral sense of how tentative the whole project of art actually is. One “chapter” described a performance artist who failed in his attempt to cross the Atlantic in a tiny boat with limited food and water, as he hoped to survive through an encounter with “the miraculous.” That’s how the experience of creating art can seem — daring, optimistic, and most likely, pretty hopeless. Success, in any of its definitions, feels completely fortuitous.
We want to make clear we think it’s a terrific little book. That gap between our expectations for Rubinstein’s concept and our reading of it, however, has made us wonder — first, about certain reviews of his book that take a more more cynical and “trickster” view of his enterprise than we do, and secondly, about how the artists themselves feel about the manner in which Rubinstein has framed some of their projects. Just as the author might find our brief summary of The Miraculous highly reductive, the subjects of his descriptions might well take exception to the way they’ve been reduced to a page or two. It’s unsettling to realize that when we write of our sincerest emotional connection to an artwork like The Miraculous, we ourselves may misunderstand, or even distort, the creator’s intentions. At such times, our sense of the potential for failed expression is almost overwhelming.
Something the pianist Ian Watson said last week (just before his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #12 in A-flat major at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center) got us thinking about, of all things, cheese. As Watson attempted to describe the difference between the fortepiano he was playing and the “creamy” sounds of modern instruments, our minds wandered to the whole idea of auditory tastes and expectations. No one needs to make a case for the haunting, almost animal, vocality created by gut strings, especially when they’re played by the amazing cellist Guy Fishman, who joined Watson for two other Beethoven works. The fortepiano was, to be honest, a harder sell.
But Watson’s adjective set our thoughts wandering onto how the pleasures of the familiar play such a part in both cuisine and music. One reason we’ve come to enjoy much “historical performance” is that it forces of us to reconsider many of our assumptions about how classical music “should” sound. It’s not that any one approach is better or worse than the other; like varied and piquant offerings of the cheese course, they’re just different. Sometimes it feels to us that too many contemporary performers think louder and faster equals better; but honestly, a handful of performances of early music with “authentic” instruments have been borderline unpleasant. But as we’ve already said, though we couldn’t entirely get on board for Watson’s fortepiano, Fishman’s classical cello-playing (particularly his renderings of Beethoven’s Magic Flute variations) was as energetic and revelatory as any “new” music we’ve encountered.
The recent James Laughlin bio by Ian S. MacNiven, “Literchoor Is My Beat,” reminds us of our own encounter with the publisher in the late seventies. Just as the book presents him, Jas was handsome, generous and courtly — as well as something of a rake. We would describe MacNiven’s consistently dull prose as very much a “revised version” of the familiar tale. (There are lots of significant personal and professional details left out; for example, we’d love to know more about how exactly May Swenson came to be an editor at New Directions in the early sixties. And there’s an astonishingly novelistic narrative embedded among the acknowledgements; after the deaths of their respective spouses, MacNiven is now married to the New Direction’s vice-president, Peggy Fox, who “nominated” him to write the biography.)
Reviewers of the book have tended to focus on the “character flaws” (i.e. philandering) exhibited by Laughlin. But for us this seems beside the point. The fact is that the man was a real person who treated those he encountered as something other than commodities; he paid no attention to either accountants or marketing experts. There’s a considerable element of noblesse oblige about all this, certainly. And as far as his own poems, when they were taken seriously by some we respected, we remained silent about our own belief that it was a matter of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” redux. But what an emperor! His rule was a remarkable, if imperfect, era of editorial enlightenment. There are many who would argue that a span of 20th century literature running from 1936 to 1997 might be (with appropriate nods to Barney Rosset and others) justifiably labeled the “Dynasty of New Directions.” Though it only ended twenty years ago, to us it feels like a far more distant era.
Though numerous seasons of Person of Interest have come and gone, the show only became familiar to us through a recent month of binge-watching what’s available on DVD. For us, much of the various episodes’ interest has been their location shooting in NYC’s downtown. Many street corners are eerily familiar; in fact, the brick structure housing our once-local swimming pool serves as an exterior stand-in for the series’ police station. The show’s locale is not exactly the NYC we knew in bygone days, of course. For one thing, actual Manhattan streets are more intensively policed and therefore safer — at least for its well-heeled residents.
Perhaps due to our middle-aged ex-urbanite status, Person of Interest struck us as positively futuristic. The show’s initial “science fiction” premise that everyone is “under watch” seemed an entertaining stretch. But as we worked our way through the discs, the closer the fiction plausibly came to overlap with reality. The endless unfurling of crimes anticipated and prevented has almost convinced us that the near-universal surveillance underwriting the show’s concept may be partly responsible for “the new New York,” a mall-like entity of security and consumerist existence. We’re not the first to note that the part of the city in which we used to live has developed into a stage set for those who write code. And so we ourselves have become another pair of walking clichés, full of analog nostalgia for our former neighborhood’s creative residents, quirky individualists who had nothing but distrust and disdain for both the military and metropolitan officials.