We gave up trying to understand the storyline of Westworld a long time ago, what with all the characters’ body-swapping and the scripts’ explanatory flashbacks. But watching the current season (week by week, and not on a binge) it occurred to us that the series’ shifting realities provided a useful analogue to our sense of the current poetry scene. For those unfamiliar with the show, Westworld began with a sort of adult theme park in which lifelike androids allowed guests to act out their Wild West fantasies. These simulated humans had been created by a management team of techies and businessman whose backstage dramas formed much of the material for early episodes; the creation and repair of the increasingly human “staff” carried viewers through following seasons. Even more troubling than the violent desires of the park’s client-visitors was the AI puppeteers’ cynical and market-driven manipulation of both androids and humans. We would struggle to explain exactly what’s currently going on, but one new twist is the possibility that any situation may turn out to be nothing more than a simulation perceived by a now-freed-from-the-park android. Reality may at any moment dissolve before our eyes. And that’s how most published poems feel to us: They read like android simulations. A product of writing programs and publishing industry hype, these manipulative formulations are generally very well crafted, or else they’re intentionally casual or even clumsy; in any case, the authors’ glycerine tears are meant to play as human. Most importantly, the system’s editors know their markets (identity politics) and how to work them. But for anyone who’s held on to their human ear, something vital has gone missing. And here’s where our comparison kicks in: If what’s out there is almost universally received as authentic, what chance do breathing, bleeding poems have up against the ageless faces of gun-toting robots?
Perhaps the commencement of a pandemic is not the best moment to make a pitch for classical texts. We certainly understand that at the end of the day what may seem most appealing is the literary equivalent of a CBD bubble bath. But in all sincerity the writer we find ourselves returning to is Thucydides. Himself the survivor of the plague which followed the Peloponnesian War, he observed first-hand the deeply disturbing social and political behaviors that appear in times of social stress. But perhaps even more prescient (as well as more accessible) than the classical Greek is the translation penned by Thomas Hobbes in 1629. Hobbes was doubly blessed. He lived in the age of Shakespeare, Bacon and the King James Bible, but he brought to his works a very particular stylistic genius. His Thucydides translation is a masterpiece of English prose. From such lessons of history, what have we learned about human nature? Men are driven by fear; by concerns about political reputation and power; and by the possibility of personal profit. Certainly these are the motivations of Senate Republicans in delaying a Federal response to Covid-19. As Hobbes observed in his preface: “[Thucydides] noteth the emulation and contention of the demagogues for reputation and glory of wit: with their crossing of each other’s counsels, to the damage of the public; the inconsistency of resolutions, caused by the diversity of ends and power of rhetoric in the orators; and the desperate actions undertaken upon the flattering advice of such as desired to attain, or to hold what they had attained, of authority and sway among the common people.” Disunity and factionalism, in the thinking of Thucydides, was the ultimate cause for the downfall of democratic Athens. It’s high time for our present-day Democrats (I’m talking to you, Bernie Bros) to acknowledge this unchanging truth and behave accordingly.
Certain writers thrive under restriction. When London theaters were closed down in 1593 in response to the plague, for example, Shakespeare penned his verse narrative, Venus and Adonis. By happy coincidence David Zwirner Books recently brought out an edition of the poem translated into Dutch, with illustrations by Marlene Dumas. We can’t judge the prosody of Hafid Bouazza, but we love Dumas’s erotic visualizations. A very loose interpretation of Ovid, Shakespeare’s take on the myth turns Venus into an immortal Cougar, a woman both articulate and assertive about her attraction to the handsome yet reluctant hunter Adonis. In Ovid’s version, Venus doesn’t even like the chase (it’s not good for the complexion, she says), while in Shakespeare she becomes a kind of huntress herself for “she cannot choose but love.” There’s a lot in the poem about the the perversities of desire, about the irresistible appeal of kisses denied and deferred. It’s really very contemporary, with the ultimate goring of Adonis by a boar distinctly suggesting the violent implications of the sexual act itself. Dumas channels all this into suggestively liquid near-abstraction. It’s easy to see why this early soft-porn work of Shakespeare was an immediate hit, especially when most of England was housebound. So, as Cole Porter would certainly agree, these days of social distancing are a perfect time to “brush up your Shakespeare.” The classic text, either first encountered or returned to, is a voluptuous escape into verbal pleasure: “ Even so she kiss’d his brow, his cheek, his chin, / And where she ends she doth anew begin.”
As readers of the LOOKOVER are well aware, we’ve long been dubious of the concept of “virtual literary community,” a term too often interchangeable with social network “backscratching” and “logrolling.” But in the the face of COVID-19 we are softening our stance. As many have observed, there is extraordinary paradox in the fact that social distancing has become an expression of community concern. Physical non-engagement is a form of compassion. For ourselves, in place of interaction with other people we are increasingly grateful for the presence of nature. The effect of sunlight on emerging hyacinths today is especially extraordinary. The moon and stars last night seemed to us more remarkable and magical than ever. The beach is source of physical beauty and infinitely unspooling music, whose calming effect has never been more welcome. And so we reach out to our virtual colleagues here, reminding them not only of the natural world’s solace but also of the ever-accessible fellowship made possible through art and literature.
Just as the presence of the coronavirus was first being confirmed in Manhattan, we found ourselves holding once-in-demand tickets to see two Broadway shows. 1) Would it be worth facing down a pandemic to see see Patti Lupone perform “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Steven Sondheims’s Company? 2) Would the black humor of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen hold up in the face of what feels like a contemporary Black Death? Though as we write we’re still within the CDC timeframe for appearance of first symptoms, our tentative answers are 1) yes, and 2) definitely yes. The company of Company (technically still in previews, though the Olivier-winning production had a run last year in London) was furnished with solid pros (Grammy-awarded Katrina Lenk, for example, as the gender-swapped lead). Almost all of its songs are now standards (one reprised by Adam Driver at the end of Marriage Story), so the show’s consistent excellence really came as no surprise. Hangmen seemed like less of a sure thing, though the awards of its cast would fill a barn. It was classic McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, etc.), with superb actors whose faces seemed vaguely familiar yet unplaceable without reference to the show’s Playbill (“Downton Abbey,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Americans,” etc.). One particular pleasure was the anti-ingenue played by Gaby French, a role in which French seemed to be heavily treading water until delivering her eleventh-hour whopper of a monologue. That’s the McDonagh actor’s specialty: First a long pause within which it’s just possible lines have been lost; and then, slow at first but soon at full speed, comes those signature strings of increasingly hilarious sentences, one after another landing like a series of deadly bat-whacks upside the head.
The ability to download a variety of televisions series has definitely been a mixed blessing. In some sense, familiarity with certain programs has become a kind of intellectual necessity; otherwise we’d be missing even more cultural references and becoming more “out of it “ than we currently are. And so out of some grim sense of social duty we’ve survived endless evenings of The Deuce, The Rain, You and follow-up seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the middle of all this grimness, one source of slant amusement for us has been the show Barry, which has provided exactly the kind of citric humor we’ve needed to cut the muddy taste in our mouths. Basically it appropriates the tone and take of Elmore Leonard in its dramatization of hoods and Hollywood, somehow making military PTSD and acting school narcissism both hilarious and poignant. Highly recommended.
One of the charms of living in a small town on the Outer Cape is the opportunity to go oystering on a winter Sunday. A Truro shellfish license, obtained in person at the Town Hall, is available for a nominal fee for residents (free for seniors). Besides the obligatory Day-Glo lanyard, the resident is given a device for measuring (smaller oysters are to be left in their beds). Even setting aside the gratis bounty of the effort (as well as the friendly encounters with fellow off-season inhabitants) there is the beautiful, albeit cold, winter seaside of the outing. The word fortunate only begins to capture our situation.
We had such bad seats (far off to one side) for the late-December premiere of the Met’s William Kentridge production of Wozzeck that we were deprived of a good proportion of the dramaturgy. We could have gone to the simulcast a few weeks later to see what we’d missed but were afraid that the actual yet imperfect theater experience would be effaced by the cinematic. Such was our anxiety — this even though within the production itself there were embedded “virtual” forms of filmed image, alternately shadowing and invading the three-dimensional stage and theater. Life itself has become like that with its alternation of realms, screens in hand or above keyboard throwing images on our days and nights. But that evening the brilliant director, alongside his extraordinary performers, was there in actual person for the curtain call. We found that moment alone, our hands smarting with applause, worth every penny of the evening’s not inconsiderable cost.
Our new local newspaper,The Provincetown Independent, has (literally!) delivered on its promise of community. Now that we no longer have a child in the local school system, here in Truro the most active locus of winter socialization is the post office (there is no USPS home delivery). But with the weekly arrival of the Independent, we are kept apprised of what’s going on here and in the Outer Cape’s other towns. We really like the physical reality of the newspaper. Although there is an abbreviated online version, we are finding that virtual networks increasingly bring us more disquietude than information. By contrast, the Independent in our post office box arrives as a form of affirmation.
For us on of the greatest joys of travel is the unanticipated encounter with new art. At the Pérez Art Museum in Miami we were wowed by Elemental, the nearly museum-wide exhibit of Teresita Fernández. The artist’s “subject” is landscape, but her landscapes are subject to an exquisite alchemy. In the case of “Fire,” this sense of chemical transformation feels quite literal, a ring of silk string flames flickering as the viewer circles the installation. “Charred Landscape (America)” evokes both a burning California and the burnt element which is is the artist’s drawing charcoal. Similarly, graphite and gold are sculptural media with complex ecological and historical meaning. But perhaps the most viscerally beautiful pieces to our eyes were those of the Viñales series, glazed ceramic malachite evoking the landscape of imagined caves. Ultimately, none of this can be properly described or even reproduced in photographs; our failed words here make us even more grateful for the accident of such a superficially gorgeous, yet deeply thought-provoking, art experience.
Given the weather that evening, we wondered whether having gotten tickets so far in advance to hear Terence Blanchard (featuring his E-Collective) at Berklee Performance Center in Boston had been such a great idea. And while the city streets and sidewalks did indeed become icy, Blanchard’s cool sublimity was worth every anxiety. There were times, in fact, when we became aware that we were listening to some of the most beautiful music we’ve ever heard. And while much of the performed work was powerfully allusive, gunfire and social fear expressed in sound, other improvisations transcended time and place. Maybe because Blanchard is a veteran of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers we couldn’t help thinking of him and his young colleagues as a band of soulful angels, hearkening rhythmic good news and melodies of hope. Certainly the spirit was with him and his diverse cohorts last Saturday night.
Why did no one tell us that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a cinematic masterpiece? Due to its limited theatrical release and sole availability on Netflix, we only just got around to watching the Coen brother’s latest. We have a particular affection for “omnibus” movies, a genre favored by the the great Max Ophuls and Alberto Cavalcanti, among others. And as a matter of fact, we saw a lot of Ophuls in Buster Scruggs — from the Western echoes of Lola Montez’s ending to the Maupassantian Le Plaisir quality of the Coen brothers’ screenplay. We also fully appreciated the humor of substituting La Ronde’s introductory narrator Anton Walbrook with the goofily brilliant Tim Blake Nelson. Heartbreaking Ophulisan irony suffused “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” its sweetly doomed heroine evoking Liebelei. And both the creepy “Meal Ticket” as well as the films’s final episode, “Mortal Remains,” are worthy heirs to Cavalcanti’s Dead of Night. Do our relatively low expectations explain our response to the movie? Maybe, but in any case we were astonished.
While we certainly enjoyed the main room of the Duane Michals exhibit, “Illusions of the Photographer,” at the Morgan Library, we must admit that we were most taken by one of his early short films being shown in the museum’s marble foyer. Undoubtedly we were affected by the endless and seemingly insurmountable crowds of midtown Manhattan during the holidays, but Michals’s 1965 Empty New York was for us neither haunted nor melancholy. Instead it just seemed simply wonderful to be able to wander the black-and-white city streets and look at buildings and objects in unjostled quiet. Though the images felt at times like meditations on mortality, we did not experience them with anxiety but instead felt something like sweet reassurance as we floated in the timeless dimension of the no-longer living.
We have been watching four television series written and produced by women which, to put it mildly, do not reflect well on contemporary relations between men and women. In fact, Fleabag, Russian Doll, Big Little Lies, and Unbelievable share one distinct insight into contemporary life: Most women experience some form of patriarchal abuse and/or sexual assault, encounters which too often result in extreme coping mechanisms. Such events sometimes lead to sociopathic modes, though more often the trauma ends in varieties of self-destruction. We’d like to be able to say that these shows are merely works of the imagination and have no real correlation to actual lives. We would like to be able to assure ourselves that such tales are all just made up, but the shared stories of our female contemporaries only confirms the troubling picture this past year’s melodramatic television “fictions” present.
Some years ago we greatly enjoyed Palio, a 2015 film documenting the oldest horse race in the world. Still taking place each summer in Siena, the fierce competition is one in which neither the best horse nor the most accomplished rider necessarily wins. Victory, instead, is determined by back-room payoffs and extensive cheating, as well as elaborate tricks intended to cause handicap to the more excellent. In other words, it’s a lot like contemporary PoBiz. In a recent Wall Street Journal (to provide one recent example of such dealmaking), a prominent journalist had the nerve to recommend as one his year’s “best reads” a far-below-par memoir by a fellow Outer Cape resident. He did so with no embarrassment at all, even though a quick google of the two unusual last names would reveal the memoirist’s part in getting the poetry of the journalist’s wife published. Besides seeing the wife’s not-that-great poems into print in the literary journal he edits, the memoirist-poetry editor additionally provided a blurb for her first (and so far, only) collection, praise which is still up at her publisher’s website. To top it all off (and to close the Palio-like circle), the poet-memoirist immediately posted the journalist’s WSJ shout-out on his own homepage. These are not trophies we would be proud to display. We can only think of Dante’s encounter with Brunetto Latini in the underworld (who, despite his eternal damnation, “seemed to be the winner, and not the loser”), calling to mind the poet’s sage advice (which we are here ignoring) about the types of individuals encountered in literary life: “To know of some is good; but for the rest, silence is to be praised.”
The Pilgrim Congregational Church in Harwich is the venue where the Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra performed its holiday program, A Mostly English Holiday, last Sunday afternoon. Sticklers might have corrected that to “A Mostly Welsh Holiday,” as Vaughn Williams and the little-performed composer Grace Williams both hailed from Wales. But in any case, it feels entirely appropriate that the ocean resurges as an ongoing theme in the orchestra’s programming. (We appreciated how Williams’s Sea Sketches neatly recalled Sam Wu’s commission—see our October 26 post.) Appropriate, too, how the window above the altar shows Christ, friend of fisherman, in front of the sea of Galilee, the central figure framed by stained-glass shells and sea creatures. Over the years the 1854 church steeple has functioned as a beacon for Nantucket Sound mariners. After the concert we took a stroll down the lane running alongside the building, a road leading to the Atlantic itself. There we arrived just in time for a spectacular winter sunset.
We recently spent a two days in Salem to see the terrific Hans Hofmann show at the Peabody Essex. The museum has done a spectacular job in presenting the pure joy of painted color. But Salem in itself is a very interesting place, with some good restaurants and nice places to stay, charming streets and elegant colonial architecture. We stayed in a room in which George Washington once slept! And then there are the witches — or more correctly, Wiccans. Shops sell herbs and candles for the casting of spells (for healing, for inciting passion, for getting rid of a neighbor). A bronze statue of Samantha from Bewitched has been erected just up the street from a lovely shop called Hauswitch, full of magical cleaning products said to promote, among other things, the fight against homophobia and the patriarchal oppression. Resistance takes many forms. Halloween is the primary holiday for the town, but Christmas must also feel sneakily victorious for those in tune to Paganism, given all the druidic trees, holly, and mistletoe decorating even the churches.
Leonardo: A Life in Drawing traveled throughout the UK this past year, ending up at the Queens Gallery at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh where we were fortunate enough to see it. The beauty and technical skill of da Vinci came as no surprise though, seeing so many of his interests noted in once place, we were nevertheless taken aback, yet again, by the maestro’s endless curiosity. The movement of water. A map of the Pontine marshes. The muscles of the upper spine. Court costumes. The hands of Saint Anne. We couldn’t help but think that these days, five hundred years later, he would likely be criticized as “unfocused.” It was also touching to realize how, very much in the contemporary manner, so many of his ambitious projects remained unfinished (failure of funding, political shifts, bad publicity, etc.) Even the genius Leonardo didn’t have the smoothest time of it, born illegitimate to a pretty Tuscan peasant girl and haunted by visions of an apocalyptic deluge at the end of his days. While on the earth, nevertheless, it would appears he was something of a joyous bon vivant. One line, delivered deadpan, from the excellent catalogue made us laugh out loud: “Leonardo took delivery of a barrel of wine as part payment for this work, but the painting remained unfinished.”
We recently returned from the UK (mostly Scotland, though with airport stops in Dublin and London) only to find ourselves watching that most British of products, the third season of The Crown. It is, as the Royals themselves might quip, as insupportably dull as the Queen herself. But it does have a certain fascination, being a prelude of sorts to our generation’s Lady Diana narrative. On the flight home we watched the Elton John biopic, Rocketman, and thought how much his music provided a musical score for the late princess’ life and times. The prequel television show is propaganda, of course, meant to make us feel for the ongoing emotional burden of the Windsors. But moving to the present day, on the other side of the pond we were made aware that certain older citizens of the Commonwealth believe that the “trashy” Meghan Markle spells the end of an golden era. But even with the best location shots and lighting, the story of the British monarchy has never been all that burnished.
We used to like Jim Jarmusch. And then we saw The Dead Don’t Die and wondered what had happened. For as much as we tried to enjoy its clumsy stupidity, the movie ended up being merely clumsy and stupid. But since we’d heard interesting things about American poetry and poets as presented in his 2016 Paterson. we thought we’d give it a try. We found that nearly as idiotic as his zombie film, full of mistaken ideas and some of the worst poetry we’ve ever encountered. We’d hoped to gain some sense of what it might mean to be a poet in contemporary America but instead was presented with a bus driver whose daily insipidity was narrated as ore to be mined and turned into poignant verse. The very worst moment came near the end when, having had his notebook of poems (mercifully) chewed up by a bulldog, the bus driver-poet encounters a Japanese tourist, there to visit the hometown of William Carlos Williams. They have an awkward exchange about Jean Dubuffet, who is described as a meteorologist (this from a Frank O’Hara line referring to what Dubuffet had done during military service), leaving viewers with the hilarious idea that Dubuffet worked as some kind of weatherman, all the while painting his art brut. Filmmaker, schoolgirl, bus driver, cupcake baker: We appreciate the idea that anyone can write poems, but the movie makes a pretty poor case for it.
David Rothenberg’s Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound is a book close to our hearts. The music prophet Neil Young has warned of the long-term impact of inferior recordings, most notably the auditory dumbing-down brought on by digitalization. This, as well as the threat caused by Earth’s increasing noise pollution, is cause for serious concern, for the quality of the planet’s sounds has implications beyond musical ones. Alongside whales, dolphins and songbirds, humans learn through sound. And on both the literal and figurative level, then, the contemporary poet must admit identification with the plight of the nightingale, a creature that in the poetic tradition has long served as a model of skilled singing. According to Rothenberg, the nightingale’s song is “loud, long, intricate, structured and musical — an extreme example of what evolution can produce through sexual selection, as generations of female birds have preferred increasingly refined and nuanced songs.” Yet these masters of song are having to sing louder and louder to be heard over the noise of contemporary life. So, too, instead of composing increasingly complex poems, in order to be listened to we also are being forced not to sing but to Tweet.
We are sorry to miss the special exhibition at the Art Students League of New York, Postwar Women. Serena Rothstein could have easily been included in the show (alongside Bourgeois, Frankenthaler and Biala), as she was among the numerous female artists who studied there in both the pre- and postwar period. In fact, Rothstein’s student work was included in the textbook of her teacher, Kimon Nicolaides, The Natural Way to Draw (1941). (One of Rothstein’s lovely line drawings graces the LongNookBooks ad now appearing in The Provincetown Independent.) Among the recent wave of “rediscovered” women abstract expressionists, such important work is forcing a serious adjustment to the received narrative of American painting. “KNOW YOUR FOREMOTHERS” as the show instructs its visitors and art students. Rothstein’s drawings and paintings may also be seen on the pages of this website; on the covers of several of our poetry collections; in our monograph, Serena Rothstein, Discourse in Paint; as well as, most relevantly, on the pages of Personages, the center section of The Longnook Overlook. These astonishing figure studies were themselves most likely completed at New York’s Art Students League.
We are thoroughly convinced of the therapeutic qualities of live music. Last week we heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform Debussy’s La Mer, wonderfully conducted by Susanna Malkki. It was a something of a curious coincidence to hear it live, as composer Sam Wu referenced the piece as a source for his Samuel Bellamy (see last week’s Lookover). The resonant concert hall, where it was first performed in America 1907 just two years after its French premiere, functioned like an enormous “sound bath” with a full stage of orchestral performers — a complete set of strings, two harps and the BSO’s astonishing wind and brass section. Also performed was the contemporary Dieter Ammann’s piano concerto, which to our ears was something of a bracing cross between Gershwin (American in Paris) and Varèse. More modest but spiritually invigorating were two short but exquisite pieces by Fauré (“Pavane”) and Messiaen (“Alleluia on the Trumpet, Alleluia on the Cymbal” from L’Ascension).
LongNook Books is delighted to join as a supporter of the recently formed Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra. This past Sunday’s concert “Haydn the Pirate,” energetically conducted by music director Matthew Scinto, was both entertaining and persuasive. We have to admit we were initially dubious, as “pirates” from the Cape’s Whydah Pirate Museum greeted us at the door; uh-oh, we thought as we braced ourselves for hokiness. But from the opening Sibelius, through Rameau, and ending up with Haydn, the collection of young musicians delivered a very high-level performance. (In fact, if we had any quibble, it would be the ultra-professional consistency of the group’s contemporary performance practice. ) The wide-ranging concert even included a piece by rising composer Sam Wu, titled Samuel Bellamy, A Portrait. Ostensibly a wordless musical narrative based on the life of Eastham’s “Black Sam” Bellamy, for us its true main character was the Atlantic itself, a subject full of power, pathos and tenderness. Wu’s evocative treatment, we would argue, cries out for expansion into a full opera. The concert’s pirate theme returned once again for the encore, with a movement from Les Indes Galantes reprieving as a nautical chantey, à la Pirates of the Caribbean. It was goofy, but we laughed and ended up very much appreciating the afternoon’s humor and high spirits.
We are great admirers of Lewis Hyde, especially his 1983 The Gift, which has just been republished by Vintage. And we are especially grateful to him for his online gift of The Oxherding Series, available for free download at his website. These are a set of of ten medieval Chinese poems, given in various forms of transcription and translation (alongside collaborative sumi ink images by the painter Max Gimlett) presenting a parable of Buddhist practice. The poems’ way to an apprehension of the true self are forms of paradoxically cultivated attention and indifference. Two essays by Hyde give background and explanation for the project. But although we’ve given his recent A Primer for Forgetting several readings, we remain unconvinced by that book’s thesis. Hyde’s proposes that the skill of forgetting is as important as the ability to remember. Perhaps the major stumbling block for us is his “scrapbook” form, an approach which suggests a thesis rather than actually proposing one. Hyde himself declares himself “weary of argument” and offers instead a set of free-associative examples. We could articulate some of our specific disagreements here (on the problematic matter of laws requiring official forgetting, for one thing); nevertheless we find ourselves recommending a book we ultimately disagree with. It must suffice to say that we recognize how Hyde might perceive memory as analogous to the self’s thought-grasping habits. Nevertheless (and blame it on our monkey minds if you must) we just can’t accept oblivion as a form of enlightenment.
LongNookBooks would like to congratulate Anne Carson for not winning the Noble Prize for Literature. And we mean that in all sincerity. Though Carson was the Ladbroke’s odds-on favorite, that most excellent (albeit most oft-incomprehensible) of poets has evaded, for this year at least, the mediocrity of the prize winner. A review of Nobel recipients — or a list of the Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the Bollingen, etc. — confirms our sense that the conferring of such a laurel upon one’s head is the artistic kiss of death. There are exceptions, of course (Beckett being one figure to prove the rule). But what these prizes most likely indicate is that the winner has successfully navigated the literary and publishing world’s bureaucratic system, a publicity machine that latches onto whatever it thinks might sell. (Libraries! Classrooms!) This in itself is no mean accomplishment, we fully acknowledge. But we also extend our congratulations to Cees Nooteboom, to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to Patti Smith, to Roberto Calasso, to Tom Stoppard, to Margaret Atwood, to Pascal Quignard, to Frederick Seidel, to Giorgio Agamben, to Péter Nádas… That happy list is endless.
Coming up next week is a reading at the Prince Street McNally Jackson bookstore with the title “Appalachian Renaissance,” a term once used to describe a late-seventies literary phenomenon associated with poets like Charles Wright, Fred Chappell and Maggie Anderson. Publicity for the event speaks of “a generation of writers in the Appalachian region who were college educated and thus aware of, and often students of, literature,” a described collective, we infer, to which the reading’s three featured West Virginians also belong. As has been said of “Appalachian Literature,” it’s not necessarily a matter of where someone was born, but more an issue of the region’s thematics — family, storytelling and distinctive landforms. If such a poetic “renaissance” is ongoing, we’d certainly include Maurice Manning and Kate Daniels in the movement. And if the pressing topic of the effects of the “extraction of natural resources” is included in the mix, we would certainly be making note of Mary Maxwell’s 2018 Oral Lake. Identified by editor Dave Smith as a “New Southern Poet” in an issue of The Southern Review back in 1995, she returned to her West Virginia origins occasionally in her first two collections. But solidly beneath the chantable lines of Oral Lake (an actual locale near her hometown) is the haunting and problematic West Virginia landscape’s “potent fossil fuels, mined and drilled so the rest of the world may proceed with dual-edged, post-industrial modernity.”
The television series The Man in the High Castle is basically a pseudo-historical soap opera, but it is one with an interesting narrative structure. An imagined tale of what life in America would be like had the Nazis won the war, one of its subplots involves a nose-holding alliance with subservient Japanese bureaucrats on the Pacific coast. Within that fiction, characters smuggle cans of film images showing another possible version of events, that version (the Allied victory) calling on actual, familiar historic footage. As viewers of the series, we live in the future America of those contained films, the show’s alternate reality. Yet it’s the wholly imagined American-Nazi fascism that comes scarily close to our current daily experiences, in awful ways no one could have anticipated at the real war’s end. Women’s lives continue to be limited by male-directed political policy; Neo-Nazis and white supremacists express themselves without official censure; anti-Asian bigotry passes as harmless joking; police brutality is justified as necessary for public safety. In short, we see hyper-dramatized, extreme versions of ourselves, individuals having to negotiate present political situations. In both cases, personal ethics and human experience determine each character’s level of resistance or collaboration.
We were among the packed audience that heard and saw “Koyaanisqatsi Live! “ yesterday at Boston’s Orpheum Theater. Performing the musical score to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film were the 82-year-old Philip Glass himself and his Philip Glass Ensemble. Uncomfortably perched in our balcony seats for two hours, the event made us intensely aware of the passing decades of our own adulthood. Life on Earth is even more “out of balance” (the meaning of the piece’s Hopi title) than it was when we first saw the film. The security at the door of the theater was comparable to that of international air travel; most of the waiting audience seemed to be on their cellphones up until the last moment, with quite a few texting all the way through the performance; the shores of Cape Cod to which we drove the next day have receded in the intervening years not by feet but by multiple yards. The evening was beautiful in its way but profoundly sad; we felt we’d attended our own communal funeral.
In accord with the bicentennial of Melville’s birth on August 1, the Library of America has brought out a volume of his Complete Poems. For years we relied on Robert Penn Warren’s excellent 1970 Selected Poems, meaningfully dedicated to John and Anne Hollander. For many seasons we held Warren’s eloquent introductory encomium next to our hearts: “Only after man has passed the hour of total rejection may his soul be ‘born from the world-husk’ and learn to ‘stand independent.’ ” The centerpiece of the Library of America edition is a complete version of his monumental epic poem (a triumphal failure), the eighteen-thousand-line pre-modern Clarel. As Warren put it, “the thousands of vivid images and rhythms” in Moby Dick ’s poetry-in-prose indicate “nothing of the direction Melville would follow in the the development of his poetry-in-verse.” In light of all this, we must make known our disgust about the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick Hidden Treasures: Found Poetry, published in 2016 by Provincetown Arts Press. Prose sections from the great novel have been by “transitioned” into poetry by “discoverer” Stephen Durkee. No mention is made of Melville’s actual poems, save in a creakily close-reading “Proem” that quotes not Melville’s own lyrics but lines from Warren’s Selected introduction. At best, the volume presents an interesting exercise in failed line-breaking. It illustrates beautifully how complete lack of prosody is actively encouraged by the current workshop process; its students literally don’t know the difference between poetry and prose.
To follow up on our August 17 post, we report on the arrival of Eric Ormsby’s translation of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, brought out by Gingko Press. As the publisher of its nearly six hundred bilingual pages explains, “The wit, intelligence and humour of the technically superb poetry created for [Goethe’s] Divan tends in rhymed English verse to lose it energy and edge, and so Eric Ormsby has made a clear modern prose translation.” The word divan (meaning “collected works”) is of Persian origin, and originally meant a register or record. As Ormsby notes in his introduction, “The word has passed into European languages to designate border and customs controls, e.g., douane in French or dogana in Italian.” For us, this early meaning provides a nice analogy for passing from one language into another — from the Persian landscape of Hafiz’s songs to the German of von Hammer (who provided the the trot used by the great poet) and on to Goethe’s ultra-European collection of lyrics. If we describe Ormsby’s contemporary Englishing as a guidebook, we don’t mean to diminish the scale of his accomplishment. Nevertheless, we so appreciate the translator’s formal modesty, how he allows his careful “unpoetical” prose to cede to Goethe’s sound-shapes. This is a major event in world poetry, so far as we can tell, yet unacknowledged. And so we are proud to to be among the first Americans to laud this extraordinarily significant (and significantly international) volume: Whoever wants to understand writing poetry must go to the land of poetry.
We attended the first of Stephen Fry’s Mythos, a three-set theatrical event happening at the Edinburgh International Festival. As he himself joked, he’d now graduated from the Fringe to the International, from young man to old, from the raw/innovative to the slick and/or stodgy. And the show was a bit stodgy, with Fry mostly sitting in a leather chair telling us about classical mythology. A storyteller, he presented himself, with all of us gathering around an imaginary fire to hear the old tales. It really wasn’t theatre. It was, however, completely consistent with a certain British tradition of the enthused amateur, like certain of those old BBC television series exported to PBS. For those old enough to remember, Fry came across as a kind of Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski, Jonathan Miller, or even Wendy Beckett, teaching us all kinds of things we really ought to know. And though, like the donnish uncle, he did go on a bit too long (the thing lasted two and a half hours) and awkwardly tried to make it “user-friendly” with a certain amount of audience participation, as a evening of “Classics Lite,” it was nevertheless entertaining enough.
The Bridget Riley exhibition at Scotland’s National Galleries is an eyeful. When we say it was at times painful to look at, we mean it literally; certain rooms recalled the sensations following an eye exam’s dilation. This physiologically raw reaction made it hard for us to consider the more intellectual implications of Riley’s work, which have to do with visual perception. The room of small-scale studies were particularly revealing of Riley’s thinking and method. We find many of her mind-bending canvases truly beautiful, especially those that take a hanging canvas and create the impression of spatial relation, of entry into another dimension. Her actual three-dimensional Continuum, as she herself felt, is a bit of a fun house and “too literal.” We can see why a lot of people like her work immediately. Frankly, her color walls feel a lot like large-scale fashion design — Missoni, say, or Marimekko. For us, it’s very hard to separate Op-Art from a certain time and place, and therefore discount it as faddish. In the case of Riley, we know this is unfair, as she is undoubtedly a very serious and intelligent artist. And so we very much look forward to reading more carefully her Learning from Seurat, which we brought home from Edinburgh in our expandable luggage, fully weighted with our purchased books.
One lesson we learned at the Edinburgh Book Festival is that the Scottish people buy books, lots of books. And their reading choices are international. We attended two of the festival’s panels, one on “Home,” with the poet Robin Robertson, as well as a second, also with a brooding Robertson, on Goethe’s 1819 Divan. Speakers on both noted the impending political; there’s the matter of immigration, of course, but other forms of alienation expressed themselves. Literature affords a dialogue across the expanse of “foreignness” via the translation of a poetic text, Goethe’s engagement (in translation) with the ghazals of fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz being the immediate case in point. While a new translation of Goethe’s 200-year-old German text has yet to arrive to us, Gingko Press’s handsome collection of poetic and essayistic responses, A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East & West, meaningfully engages with linguistic and cultural “others.” Contemporary Moroccan, Iranian, Syrian, Arab, Iraqi, Turkish and Palestinian lyrics pair up with those of European colleagues, all translated by an impressive list of American and British poet-translators. It all makes for a wonderful volume.
One highlight of our summer was the reading given at the Wellfleet Public Library by Kate Daniels and Karl Kirchwey. There’s a lot of poetry being written just now; mediocre verse invades our mailboxes and inboxes. There are also a terrifying plethora of reading opportunities. In the face of this sometimes monstrous self-expressive and self-promoting reality, Daniels and Kirchwey distinguish themselves not only by their impressive accomplishments but by their current projects. Daniels’s recent work addresses how the opioid epidemic is tearing away at not just our communities but our shared humanity. Kirchwey’s continued ability to make the past newly relevant suggests that hope is not only to be found in the future. Both poets (as Daniels puts it) write from “deep / in the center where language peters out / and words merge new territories.” When so much contemporary poetry does nothing for us, it was galvanizing to re-visit what sometimes feels like a distant homeland, the country of art’s possibility.
Provincetown in the summer is a carnival — and we mean that literally. The season’s extraordinary variety of readings, club shows, and art openings is truly remarkable; no one can do everything; every weekend posits a social conflict. Among the events of this July of which we make particular note are the annual appearance of Provincetown Arts (this year our LNB ad graces the inside back cover; the Fine Arts Work Center’s annual fete (held up at the breathtaking Pilgrim Monument); and the solid Jim Dine show at GAA gallery’s Wellfleet outpost. Which brings us to the boho liveliness of downtown Wellfleet and its own distinctive vibe… What amazing good fortune to live between these two towns! In both, terrific restaurants open onto the streets, as, after a day at beach or pond, smiling residents and visitors promenade from one engaging event to another.
The Magic Flute performed by Komische Oper Berlin at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival was wonderfully unexpected. The music, expertly conducted by Louis Langrée, was charmingly played and sung. But it was the concept of co-directors Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade that made the evening so memorable.The production was created by the British theatrical troupe, “1927,” a team that included animators (Paul Barritt) as well as stage and costume designers. Invoking Berlin of the 1920s (silent film, cabaret, photography and design) the production was truly “magical.” Through clever storybook-inspired animation, the audience experienced physical sensations of flight and descent, of dizziness and alarm, as Mozart’s characters survived flame and flood in ways never known before (at least by us) in live opera. It was something quite close to the shared dream of cinema, but made fully three-dimensional with live musicians and singers. We are very much looking forward to the folkloric storytelling Roots (scenography also by “1927”) and the concert Forget Me Not (Yiddish Operetta Songs, with Barry Kosky at the piano) next month the Edinburgh International Festival.
We had high hopes for Bianca del Rio’s show at Provincetown’s Town Hall. And we did chuckle a bit at her outrageous parody of femininity. But when the drag comedienne kept returning, as a recurring joke of course, to the disgustingness of women’s bodies, we began to lose our sense of humor. Comedy is one place that should be exempt from anything like political correctness. In fact we have to admit that we’ve wondered (haughtily invoking tenets of free speech) whether certain groups, when they’re the focus of pointed comedic jest, don’t perhaps lack the ability to laugh at themselves. When the ribbing is self-evidently affectionate and not intended to wound, the ow of the accurate social dart can be appreciated. Even when it smarts, even when it’s unfair, something can still be funny. Certainly the lesbians picked out from the audience and directly subject to Bianca’s mockery took it all in fun. But about halfway through the show, the jokes began to creep toward hatefulness. The too-hearty laughter of men around us began to feel not merely unpleasant but threatening. Such discomfort was eye-opening; Del Rio’s “critique of gender norms” had indisputably morphed into a form of misogyny.
The new normal here on the Outer Cape is the reality of Great White sharks on both the ocean and bayside. Last summer there was a horrific but non-fatal attack on Longnook Beach, made all the more troubling due to the lack of a good cell signal and quick access to emergency services. An enormous warning sign (with cinematic image of a toothy predator) welcomes beachgoers this year at the top of the dune, along with an emergency call box and first-aid kit. The sharks are here due to the presence of their favorite meal, which is not humans, of course. Even on cooler evenings when the beach is nearly empty, the seals raise their shiny black heads and look us over. Back in the days when we swam pretty far out, we might find ourselves suddenly alongside one of them, both creatures equally spooked a near-physical encounter. But there are other presences we now fear, and so we keep ourselves in those shallowest stretches of water when the tide is coming in or out and we can clearly see the beach’s sandy bottom. “Only up to your shoulders,” we used to say to children. Now we ourselves only go in up to our ankles, or when surrounded by surfers or other daredevils, up to somewhere between our knees and hips.
The last couple of weeks have been magical. Wild roses have followed the earlier white-pink bushes and beach plum flowers that line Longnook Road in late spring; just as the sun is setting, those fairy-like buds seem to anticipate the coming lunar glow. Almost to the edge of the water, hot-pink “Cape Cod Ramblers” now encircle the sand-swept macadam. It seems to us that the tourists this summer are heading to the beach earlier and earlier in the morning. Is this in order to avoid the 9 am check-in and required beach sticker? In any case, the sounds of summer have officially begun — the whir of cars arriving in waves, the overheard conversations of step-counting urbanites, the excited voices of children on rented bikes. Sometimes music booms from the stereo systems of open-windowed vehicles, more often than not beneath roofs with surfboards attached. Jogging strangers say hello or wave to each other, cognizant of and content with their shared self-satisfaction. Around four o’ clock, the Lewis Brothers ice cream truck heads down to the parking lot. And then after five or so another set of motorists speed toward the water, facing and passing the hungry families languorously heading back towards Route 6. After a late dinnertime, darkness falls slowly, and lightning bugs join star-watchers and partygoers as they all wait for the rising moon.
One recurring element of this month’s trip to London and Paris was flowers, a thematic initiated by an unplanned trip to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The fountain-filled show gardens and the vast pavilion of exhibits were admittedly memorable, even for amateur gardeners such as us. We were completely, and delightedly, out of our league. Florals followed us to France, where our Saint-Germain neighborhood was the locus of a walking tour of shops and art galleries, an “ephemeral vernissage” presented under the rubric “la fleur d’art.” In the studio garden of the district’s Musée Delacroix we encountered the hybrid rose “Othoniel,” only to find a marvelous installation of the artist Jean-Michel Othoniel’s rose-inspired works in the Louvre’s Cour Puget. We have yet to visit his Les belles danses at Versailles, but were enchanted nevertheless by Othoniel’s enigmatic solo show, Oracles, at Gallerie Perrotin in the Marais. His indoor 2019 Blue River, in particular, evoked some of the light-reflecting revelations of a garden’s water elements.
Though for several decades now Félix Féneon has been among LNB’s artistic heroes, awareness his self-effacing presence in French cultural history has only become evident to the American literary community in recent years. (We point out Mary Maxwell’s poem about the mysterious gentleman, “The Reading,” which first appeared in Agni Review in 1996.) Féneon is beginning to get even more of his due in France, where the exposition Félix Féneon: Les arts lointains has opened at Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly. Like the similarly mutifarious Lincoln Kirstein, Féneon is hard to place or explain. (It is therefore appropriate, we’d note, that a second part of the show will be mounted at MOMA in 2020.) There are Féneon’s writings: art reviews and and prose (his Nouvelles en trois lignes being century-old predecessors to current flash- and micro- fiction); there’s his editing of La Revue Blanche; there are his friends and colleagues (Modigliani, Rimbaud, Laforgue and Van Gogh …) whose work he promoted and sometimes underwrote. And then there are his collections of “primitive art,” some of which is on display at the Branly. Oh, yes, and then there’s the fact that he was an anarchist. Some elements of the show (20th-century “Negro Art”) intersect with another fantastic Paris exhibit, Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse at the Musée d’Orsay. One of the best-curated exhibits we’ve ever seen (kudos to the American Denise Murrel), the d’Orsay contains the same film clip of Josephine Baker as at the Branly, but presented with a different perspective. Beginning with 19th-century and colonial-era French painting, the show bumps up against the literary with a mixed-race Alexandre Dumas (for us adding considerable poignance to our childhood reading of The Count of Monte Cristo) and Baudelaire’s mistress, Jeanne Duval. All this moves towards 20th century Paris and Afro-American NYC, ending up with Matisse’s Jazz, the dancer Katherine Dunham and the sublime Romare Bearden.
Sometimes travel produces wonderful coincidences, related images and topoi that are too profound to be planned. At the Beauborg we came across Coffret Number 7, a one-room exhibit put together by Raphaël Denis about the heroic art dealer Paul Rosenberg. As he represented artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, as well as Picasso, Braque and Matisse, by the 1920s Rosenberg was acknowledged to run the most important art gallery in the world. The somewhat conceptual exhibit preserves in size and number (“faux” pieces wrapped as though for shipping) the dealer’s art holdings and accompanying archives held in a Libourne bank vault circa 1941, when the Nazis confiscated the works and removed them to the Jeu de Paume; there they were identified as “ownerless cultural goods” and earmarked for Göring’s personal collection. Much of Rosenberg’s art had been to removed to London and America in the late 1930s, and Rosenberg and his family, despite extensive French collaboration, were able to escape to New York where he established a new gallery. And though the installation means to question the whole concept of an art “collection,” to us its more significant accomplishment is to record an amazing story of plunder and restoration; the recovery of the looted artworks remains ongoing. But we were moved to encounter a 1918 portrait of Rosenberg’s wife and daughter (renamed “Mother and Child” by Göring) at the nearby Musée Picasso, the painting donated by the gallerist’s family in 2007. Picasso’s emotionally warm (atypically so, we might add) representation of Rosenberg’s family makes evident the close relation between the painter and gallerist. As added resonance, the painting hangs in the same gallery as a perfect small Corot the painter purchased (or traded for his own work?) from Rosenberg early on in his career.
In Paris at the Musée Picasso we toured the richly endowed Calder-Picasso exhibit. Though the two artists met several times, and their works do occasionally overlap formally and chronologically, ultimately they are the products of distinct and oppositional sensibilities. Separate from the featured show, for example, on the museum’s top floor there was displayed a series of Picasso prints inspired by Maupassant’s Maison Teillier, these shown alongside a set of predecessors made by Degas and purchased by Picasso. Such brothel scenes tell a lot about their creators. For Degas, the women are working bodies, as professional as his danseuses. But Maupassant’s affectionate and moving portrait of working girls is reduced to brutal erotica by Picasso. It’s hard to imagine the playful Calder presenting sex as a thing to be paid for. Some might say he was too childish; we’d describe him as never having lost his innocent and practical genius. And so we have to admit that the thing we perhaps enjoyed best in the Calder-Picasso show was Calder’s journal reminiscence of the fourth encounter between the two artists in 1953. Picasso showed the American an embarrassingly commercial ceramic platter he’d recently made, with a bull-fight in the center and a raised ridge around the edge. Said Calder in somewhat faulty French, “That’s so the meat doesn’t slide.” According to an onlooker, Picasso’s face became bright red; the two never met again.
In the basement of the London Review Bookshop we were surprised by how many “door-stop” Carcanet Collecteds we came across whose authors we’d never heard of — names such as Iain Crichton Smith, Elizabeth Jennings, and Lorna Goodson. We like to think we keep up with current poetry, but the experience was humbling. We’re not talking about slim volumes of the long-dead but massive tomes of the near-contemporary. The 2013 book we ended up purchasing was not one these newish monsters, but we recommend it highly: Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings. Among its contributors are Kathleen Jamie, Robin Robertson, Lavinia Greenlaw and (the recently elected Oxford Professor of Poetry) Alice Oswald. Within its pages our attention was brought to another volume we’d not known about: Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. It may sound oversimplified, but the matter of remembering what things in nature are called and how they got their names is a fundamental task of the poet. Such a glossary is slipping away yet, as Robert Macfarlane writes, “Certain kinds of language can restore a measure of wonder to our relations with nature.” Such recollecting “does not so much define as evoke, or it defines through evocation.” We are much looking forward to Macfarlane’s newest (and much-reviewed) volume, Underland.
In London recently we were made particularly aware of the current campaign for Oxford Professor of Poetry. It has always seemed to us an odd tradition to choose a poetic representative by actual ballot, but perhaps we’ve been hopelessly naive. Slowly we’ve come to realize that the publishing industry, and now social networks, have transformed contemporary poets into perpetual candidates. We’ve begun to notice (in fact, can’t avoid observing) what are clearly group efforts to promote a person or book through what passes on electronic venues as popular acclaim. Whether actual publicists have been hired, or whether various promotional tactics have been acquired through online publishing advisors (itself a burgeoning career offsprung from the writing programs), patterns of self-branding and hash-tagging provide search-engine-accessible evidence for colleague-puffing efforts. It doesn’t make the work good, of course, but it does indeed create a shifty illusion of readableness through sheer buzz. Oxford’s occasionally rough-and-tumble election system, by contrast, seems quaintly and transparently brutal.
Just so our readers don’t think we’re incapable of enjoying middle-brow pleasures, in honor of her recent passing we found ourselves watching a three-DVD set of Doris Day’s “Romance Collection,” a trio of Universal Studio’s collaborations with longtime co-star Rock Hudson. We began with Pillow Talk (1959), then moved on to Lover Come Back (1961) and closed our three-night wallow with Send Me No Flowers (1964). There were a number of elements that never gave us pre-teen pause but which we are now unable to ignore. First: When we were young it seemed perfectly reasonable that a female interior decorator or advertising exec would have a full wardrobe of diamond jewelry (as well as rubies, emeralds and sapphires) that she could wear to professional functions. Second: We’re amazed that we never found the shapes of hats worn by Doris genuinely bizarre. We detect some subtext about independent women’s shopping habits but we can’t quite put our finger on the joke. But third: It’s jaw-dropping to realize that it was once perfectly okay to make jokes about “Mama’s boys” (even by Hudson himself!). Anxiety about the leading man’s orientation is everywhere: In the effeminate male characters surrounding the hetero pair (played by poor Marcel Dalio, Paul Lynde or the ever-present Tony Randall); in Hudson’s gelded sweetness; and in Day’s hysterical screech and sputter when faced with sexually aggressive men. And yet, the movies are really funny and and perversely current. Really.
Though it’s not common knowledge, Malden W.V’s most famous resident is Booker T. Washington. His step-father Washington Ferguson worked in the salt mines as a leased slave and arranged for Booker to move from eastern Virginia at the age of nine; Booker walked the 225 miles from Roanoke in 1865. He was baptized in Malden’s African Zion Baptist Church by the legendary Reverend Lewis Rice, who also provided the boy’s early education. The owner of the church’s land was Lewis Ruffner, advocate of emancipation and delegate to the convention that led to WV becoming a separate state from slaveholding Virginia. As a boy Booker worked in the Ruffner household where he had access to the family library. After graduation from Hampton Institute (where he worked as a janitor to pay his fees), he lived and taught in Malden until his departure for Tuskegee in 1881.
When we were first told about the 400 million-year-old Iapetus Ocean deep below the mountains surrounding Charleston, W.V., we were dubious. We suspected this was merely a sales pitch for the J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works in Malden, as part of an argument for the uniquely pristine quality of their excellent products. But it turns out that not only was the area America’s “salt-making capital” in the early nineteenth century, the fascinating tale of the ancient Appalachian sea is also true. That body of water extended all the way to the present western coast of Scotland, from whence, in some odd twist of historical fate, many of Appalachia’s first white settlers also came.
As we had such high hopes for “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” at MOMA, we were primed for a let-down. Despite some of the wonderful particulars displayed, our museum-going experience felt pretty colorless. Certainly it would be hard to argue that the arrangements do justice to Kirstein’s lauded “eye.” Even the hanging films of dances were hard to get a real grip on, as they seemed to float float, literally and figuratively, contextless. In writing up these notes, we thought perhaps we were just tired and peckish that afternoon. But the installation images on the website are nearly as dull as our fatigued recollection of the originals. Of course, Kirstein is more than somewhat mysterious as a person, and damn difficult to categorize. The term “impresario,” which pops up a lot, suggests he herded artists rather than being one himself. The show presents numerous portraits, strong jaw jutted to the viewer, eyes looking downward or off into the distance, pondering and planning. Jed Perl, who does an effective job in his review in The New York Review of Books, goes easy on the show’s shortcomings. But even he softly proposes that Kirstein’s vision and that of the new MOMA may be at considerable odds. We ourselves could imagine Lincoln shaking his impressive head about quite a few curatorial missteps. But perhaps the greatest omission was any real indication of just how good a poet Kirstein was. There’s an article by Elizabeth Welch at the MOMA website on Kirstein as editor and writer, with a link to Poetry magazine. But so far the poetry community continues to overlook Kirstein’s important wartime poems, as well as his interactions with the likes of Crane and O’Hara. MOMA could have made a real contribution to the Kirstein legacy if only they’d arranged a reading from The Poems of Lincoln Kirstein.
The David Zwirner Gallery has created a terrific webpage “viewing room” for the complete Paris Review Prints (iconic images include works of Frankenthaler, Katz, Rivers, et al.). Coming across this perfect collaboration felt to us very much like that happy moment when you introduce two friends, only to find out they’ve known each other for decades. We also much appreciated the Zwirner website’s acknowledgement of editor Maxine Groffsky’s eye for the look of the Review’s iconic 1960s covers.
Those familiar with our Longnook Overlook know of our enthusiasm for Alberto Calvacanti. (A nearly comprehensive 28-page catalogue raisonné of the film director may found within its pages.) At long last we have been able to view his 1959 Les noces vénitiennes (Venetian Honeymoon), newly available on Gaumont DVD. A farce full of madcap crooks and identity confusions, it stars Martine Carol and Vittorio de Sica (playing the barman at the so-called “Harold’s Bar.”) The cast also includes a very young Claudia Cardinale. We have a slight suspicion that the project was originally meant for Max Ophuls (with the handsome French forger to be played by Gerard Phillipe?) It’s not a great movie, and much of its interest comes from colorful visuals, that is, time-traveling interior and exterior views of Venice. Besides the Ophuls suspicion, our other intuitive takeaway is that this production (which must have been a crazy shoot) may have formed a personal reference for de Sica’s 1966 After the Fox. Might we also propose the film as a precursor to a decade of British-inspired silliness such as Casino Royale, The Party and What’s New Pussycat?
Given that her book’s subject overlaps with those of some of our own titles, it’s not surprising that we were drawn to Akiko Busch’s Notes on invisibility in a Time of Transparency: “It is time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life … and to reconsider the value of going unseen undetected, or overlooked in this new world.” (Though nothing is more labored than an explained joke, we’d nevertheless observe here that not everyone caught the serious pun embedded in The Longnook Overlook’s title.) As with Busch’s prose meditations, Mary Maxwell’s concerns in Nine Over Sixes, such as “contemporary issues of near-universal surveillance,” find agreement with Busch; “True solitude, in all its painful yet pungent delicacy, is in terrible peril.”
One of the volumes we brought home from Scotland this past fall is the enchanting A Scots Dictionary of Nature, compiled by Amanda Thomson. The book is divided into six categories: Land, Wood, Weather, Birds, Water, and Walking. Among our discoveries are splorroch, the Scots word for the sound made by walking in wet mud; huam, the moan of an owl in the warm days of summer; linky, the adjective for flat and grassy; skelp, to move quickly on foot; and blibbans, strips of soft, slimy matter such as seaweed or cooked cabbage. LongNookBooks will be attending the Edinburgh Book Festival this August.
What a pleasure it is to find a favorite book back in print! Salka Viertel’s The Kindness of Strangers, with introduction by Lawrence Wechsler, has been brought out by NYRB books. A postscript by Donna Rifkind promises her to be the subject of a forthcoming biography. Salka’s Santa Monica salon is of special interest to us; we know there’s more to the story than Salka has told (she’s especially discreet about her affairs with Greta Garbo and Gottfried Reinhardt, as two examples), but what’s here is nevertheless quite wonderful. Though she’s been referred to (somewhat dismissively) as (merely) a “salonnière,” as with so many women writers, she was, in fact, the crucial cultural lynchpin for a time and place that forms an essential reference for much of American contemporary cultural life — and we’re not just talking about the movies.
“The Bauhaus and Harvard,” at the Harvard Art Museums celebrates the centenary of the Bauhaus’s founding in Weimar Germany. The Outer Cape (often via Harvard, not coincidentally) has its own Bauhaus connections; Gropius, obviously, had his presence here, but also the weavings of Anni Albers reminded us of various Wellfleet connections. In short, we felt perfectly “at home” viewing some of the remarkable holdings of the former Busch-Reisinger. One installation in particular made an impression that has remained: We were immediately taken by the Hans Arp “mural” created for one of Harvard’s Graduate School dining halls. Canopies of thought bubbles derived from trees, a series of wooden shapes floated along the gallery wall like clouds of intentionality, as though cognitions or feelings had been given intuitively biomorphic shape.
The first titles we purchased from David Zwirner Books’ ekphrasis series were already known to us (Ruskin’s Giotto and His Works in Padua; Rilke’s Letters to a Young Painter and Proust’s Chardin and Rembrandt). Not only were we grateful for these “overlooked” books’ new availability and translation, we immediately loved their size and simplicity of design. We are equally enthusiastic about our more recent purchases: Vernon Lee’s The Psychology of an Art Writer; César Aira’s On Contemporary Art; Gauguin’s Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter; Alice Michel’s Degas and His Model; Alexander Nemerov’s Summoning Pearl Harbor; and Jean-Claude Lebensztejn’s Pissing Figures: 1280-2014. Most of these works, of course, we only knew by reputation, but what a pleasure to have them in our hands. And we particularly admire the choice of quotes (not blurbs!) on the series’ back covers. Here’s Paul Gauguin: “People tell me I’m not Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puvis de Chavannes — but I already know that! Why tell me?” Or César Aira: “The painted picture at the end is merely the visible testament to the mad solitary machine that moves around inside artistic activity.”
We recently happened to find ourselves in Providence one Thursday, staying overnight at the gracious Hope Club. The date was one whose cultural benefits we hadn’t taken into account, as we discovered only after wandering down the hill to late-opening galleries at RISD. There, the museum’s THIRDTHURSDAYS was a delightful surprise, with special interactive installations, musical offerings, artist talks, workshops and various other modes of performance staged and staggered throughout the evening. (There was even a cash bar and DJ set at the Café Pearl.) The event was worth planning to attend, but for us there was added a special delight of serendipitous encounter; it made that particular (otherwise rather dreary) winter evening warmly memorable.
Sometimes wonderful writing appears where it’s least expected. For example, the “Purveyors” guide provided to diners at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant is full of excellent sentences. No author is given, though the entire booklet’s style is consistent with the introduction penned by Chef Keller, who describes the offering as a series of “stories.” Each entry describes the individuals who provide the restauranteur with his ingredients, the various “fishermen, farmers, gardeners and foragers”, as well as certain individual animals, who supply the raw materials for Keller and his staff’s culinary creations. The narrative matter is good to begin with (these are not merely producers but evangelists for their offerings), but the way the individual narratives are presented is equally compelling. The poetry comes forth naturally through both description and honest syntax: “To farm, live and work in accordance with nature is to open oneself to a multitude of challenges and setbacks.” We are reminded of the prose of E.B. White: “The truffle makes its magical appearance in the ground, and after discovery passes into the care of many hands as it travels halfway around the world to grace American tables. The product is fresh, the sums exchanged for it are vast, and the opportunities for the less knowledgeable to be deceived are great.”
Last week we attended Robert Wilson’s performance “Forward Moving Memory,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum’s Calderwood Hall. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but it turned out to be a white-faced solo performance of John Cage’s 1950 “Lecture on Nothing.” The experience was alternately tedious and revelatory. The hour or so in our seats was quite a bit like meditation, headache-inducing patience leading to a reward of earned insights. It was also often quite funny. The comedy derived from Cage’s exposition of the paradox of structure and the ludicrousness of any attempt to organize nothingness (as, for example, in a timed piece of silence). The conceptual “jokes” were both thought-provoking and meaningless, profundity and nonsense superimposed.
Do songs and poems function in the same way? Are they equivalent art forms? This is a question on which the American literary critical community is divided, though popular opinion certainly leans toward the affirmative. Our own feeling is that the two are artistic cousins of commensurate value. Yet how songs achieve their effects is distinct from published poems, as seems to us self-evident. The musical interlude that opens and closes the Danish television series The Bridge provides an excellent example of song’s immediate power. The emotional effectiveness of the haunting “Hollow Talk,” performed by the band The Choir of Unbelievers, bears little relation to its illogical lyrics. In fact, as many enthusiastic viewers have noted, even though the words are English (“echoes start as a cross in you”), sung as they are with a strong Scandinavian accent (“spatial movements are butterflies”), they’re virtually unintelligible to either American or northern European listeners. (For the first two seasons, we really believed the lyrics were in Danish! ) Frankly, the titled introduction and closing does work best when only a few words can be made out; their apparent “meaninglessness” beautifully suggests the oddly displaced intelligence of the autistic lead character. Not the verbal lines, but how they’re sung to the composed music, is what expresses the drama’s psychic context. We’ve been reading several recent volumes of great song lyrics, and as much as we admire them, as with “Hollow Talk,” even though we know by heart the tunes to which they belonged, on the page most of them now strike us as, well, a bit stupid. In fact, it’s somewhat embarassing how profound so many of these songs seemed when we worshipfully listened to them (Neil Young, we’re talking about you) over and over again on LP forty or more years ago.
Since we’ve been unable to keep up with the more recent translations of Cees Nooteboom’s books, let alone write about them with the analysis and praise they deserve, we are simply going to list here the impressive stack set upon our bookshelf — some read, some still unread — in no particular order: The Knight Has Died; Rituals; A Song of Truth and Semblance; In the Dutch Mountains; The Following Story; Philip and the Others; All Souls Day; Unbuilt Netherland; Nomad’s Hotel; Lost Paradise; Roads to Berlin; The Foxes Come at Night; 25 Buildings You Should Have Seen (Amsterdam); Monk’s Eye; Mokusei!; Letters to Poseidon; A Dark Premonition: Journeys to Hieronymus Bosch; Zurbarán; Light Everywhere; Self-Portrait of an Other. How could such an oeuvre continue to go virtually unnoticed here in America? No longer might it be argued that his extraordinary range (travel, art, fiction, poetry) remains to be brought over into English; now the challenge is simply to catch up with the great Dutch writer. Shame, shame, shame on us.
Harry Mathews’s The Solitary Twin was published posthumously by New Directions at the end of last year. In some sense, the book is an energetic nod to traditional storytelling, with a series of stories told Canterbury Tales-like by characters within the novel’s narrative. But is it possible for a work to be so conventional as to come full circle and become experimental? Mathews’s Twin makes such a case. The line between true tale and a conceived fiction (nearly as razor-thinly drawn as in his My Life in CIA) becomes at times hilariously undetectable (“real-life” appearances are made by the likes of Bloomberg and Malraux) with the result that that created characters are so convincingly described as to demand a Googling. Was there ever a Utopian-Capitalist community begun in New England by Samuel Butler? Did Raymond Norwood Bell of North Carolina shoot and kill Anton Webern? Did there ever exist a Lehman Brothers philanthropist-gambler named Alistair Ross? Like the imaginary books the Twin’s publisher-character has seen into print, factuality seems irrelevant in the face of delightful possibility. Or put another way, as the author himself makes note: “Nothing can approximate the truly colossal stink that expert writing is capable of.”
The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, NC, came as a happy surprise. We were literally hailed to the collection (like a taxi) by a sparkling Niki de Saint Phalle just outside the main entrance. The core of the collection is formed by works acquired by a family from Zurich and so, by no surprise, postwar Swiss artists figure largely in what is displayed in the splendid building designed by Mario Botta. The series of stacked rooms contain some wonderful Giacomettis, Arps and Miros, but we found ourselves particularly smitten by a scale model of Jean Tinguely’s idiosyncratic Cascade in the windowed lobby. A few days later, we made our way to the 40-foot original in the Carillon office tower, just four blocks north of the museum. Entranced by the whirring mobile floating above a reflecting fountain, we became two small children in the presence of a kindly robotic giant.
Specific reasons for the impossibility of literary translation are outlined so regularly in critical discourse (issues of shape on the page, rhythmic idiosyncrasies, specialized dictions, etc., etc.) the lost list of excuses for noble failures hardly needs restating here But for us more fundamental to any translation’s success is something we can only lamely identify as “personality,” something falling within received categories of temperament but much more unique and specific. Take the translation challenge accepted by Richard Siebuth in A Certain Plume, his superb American take on the marvelous Henri Michaux, polymath and proto-Beat “character,” who refused to be shown in photographic portrait. Michaux’s lyric persona, a sort of alter-ego figure named “Pen” (or, alternately, “Feather” or “Quill”), could only be pinned down in paint (like an errant demon) by Jean Dubuffet. The Belgian ventriloquist has also found himself inadequately, albeit evocatively, described by the words of Lawrence Durrell: His is “a stone-age voice full of veridic information about the state of mind in which poetry declares itself as an absolute value.” Add to this a complex and self-contradictory sensibility, a Surrealist Chaplin playing/being the DadaTramp, and the reader begins to approach some idea of the shape-shifting “Plume.” And yet Sieburth nails this character’s pratfalls; the facing-page original French texts only confirm his hilariously daemonic capture of the ultimate submissive with whom, we suspect, all honest souls would confess to identify. For ourselves, we’d never have believed that the distinctive superciliousness of French authority, before whom the bruised self collapses, could make its way so unforgettably into a dreamworld-asylum English — a language through which, it turns out, the humiliated also walk on ceilings.
Looking ahead to the New Year, the editors at LNB have a couple of exciting projects in the works. Perhaps most ambitious is a second volume of The Longnook Overlook which, at least for working purposes, we are referring to as Overlook 2. While the content will be compiled over the course of 2019, the actual publication date is likely to be early 2020. Like the first Overlook, our latest “review of the arts” will not be for retail sale but will be available (upon request) with the purchase of any other LNB volume. For curious readers who aren’t poetry enthusiasts, may we suggest our art monograph on Serena Rothstein, Discourse in Paint, whose splendid four-color “Personages” also grace Overlook 1’s elegantly elongated centerfold?
We admit we haven’t really followed the plot lines of the last season of Westworld. To our thickish non-millennial minds the flashbacks and flash-forwards won’t add up to anything like a chronological narrative, but we don’t really mind. From our binged confusion we’ve taken something away more interesting than a reasonable story. Instead we are deeply disturbed to recognize the imaginary reflection of our selves — whether as gunslingers, saloon madams, or the farmer’s daughter turned avenger — as largely the product of someone else’s marketing concept. It’s just an entertainment, right? What is real is what cannot be replaced. For as the end-date of actual human death is pushed further and further away through various technologies, mortality itself does become increasingly conceptual. Yet we will always find ourselves limited by what we know, parameters we must question and against which we must battle, forging, episode by episode, the terms of our individual liberations. How do you want to die? You only live as long as the last person who remembers you.
Several non-academic books this year have treated the matter of women in Homer. First came Emily Wilson’s poetry-free translation of the Odyssey; then Madeline Miller’s witch-friendly Circe; now with Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls we have The Iliad from the point of view of the enslaved Briseis. All three books have been so heavily marketed and commented upon, it is as though a whole new genre of contemporary fiction has come into being: Chick-lit Achaea. We know we should be supportive of this, but to be frank, it all seems to us a bit silly, treating Homer as though his narrative were not an act of the imagination but a work of cultural history. It’s true that feminist academics have had to turn to literary texts in response to the rarity of actual women’s voices in the classical world. But for us, as we read these leaden productions, instead of hearing something refreshingly resonant and newly meaningful, we are made even more aware of an echoing absence.
Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer (“An Obama-Biden Mystery”) may provide the best airport reading ever. It’s an almost completely mindless book, yet we found it thoroughly entertaining. It’s a Hardy Boys for Democrats, whose pair of post-middle-aged heroes are credibly determined, brave, and true. The author’s perfectly tuned and impeccably timed delivery nicely alternates with mild mockery and genuine action-hero admiration. As with the aw-shucks sensibility of Biden, everything in the book is G-rated — G also standing for the ex-vice-President’s fundamental Goodness, despite his nagging envy of his cigarette-smoking, ex-President hipster pal. The more glamorous half-Black Obama makes appearances as needed with his own surprising moves, yet it’s black-Irish Biden who provides the narrative ballast of this amusingly imaginary investigative team. If there were a follow-up volume — or maybe even a series — available in paperback, we’d surely keep a look-out at the newspaper kiosk.
In Nashville we became newly enamored of the late, great Johnny Cash. We highly recommend his posthumous collection of poems, Forever Words, published in 2016. We’ve opined before about our objections to the awarding of the Nobel for Literature to Bob Dylan (in sum: he didn’t need either the attention or the money), but we’d never argue against Dylan’s stature as a musical and verbal artist. And though, as Paul Muldoon points out in the collection’s introduction, both Dylan and Cash are folk descendants of a Scotch-Irish ballad tradition, we prefer (will all due respect to Christopher Ricks) Johnny Cash’s words as they land on the page. His “California Poem” strikes us as nearly Brechtian in its terse beauty: “The lights are on past midnite / The curtains closed all day.” The human soul summarized in a couplet — that’s pure Cash. Maybe our enthusiasm is a matter of timing, as certain of the poem’s other lines feel especially resonant in the wake of recent fires: “There’s trouble on the mountain / And the valley’s full of smoke / There’s crying on the mountain /And again the same heart broke.” In any case, we know all too well that his kind of spare lyric only looks easy to write.
Certain Facebook groups we belong to have been not only extremely useful; they continue to be much appreciated as a resource for shared enthusiasms. But we note a tendency of such groups to descend into passive bullying. We have one particular closed poetry group in mind. Though it purports to be a venue for the open expression of its varied members, its posted content is tightly controlled by the administrator’s aesthetic preferences, particularly his own definition of what defines a good poem or successful poetic performance. He is especially self-righteous in his ideas as to what constitutes right behavior in the “poetic community.” On occasion he has even bragged about his removal or refusal of dissenting voices, acts which are inevitably supported by a claque of posted thumbs-ups and smiley faces. But for us most problematic is this administrator’s tendency to delete the expression of political opinions that differ from his own. In the matter of politics, we wish to remind him, lots of “well-meaning” poets have found themselves on the wrong side of history. That our politics and his basically overlap is besides the point. A despot is a despot, enlightened or not. And while it’s quite true that, shifting to matters of aesthetics, we loathe many of the mediocre poems and events he posts — well, to each his taste. For if it were truly a matter of “each,” that is, if the postings were those on his own personal page, we’d not have a problem with it. Individual hosts have every right to serve whatever they like to their friends— and even to throw a troublesome guest out of the house. But the group purports to be a public space and to provide a public service; the administrator’s job is to moderate not to log roll. Instead, as with so many bureaucratic positions, control of page content has evidently become for him a source of professional power. And so we post these observations as a general caution, noting one specific example of an increasingly widespread form of autocracy found among social networks.
We attended the late-night Saturday show at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman the weekend just before Tuesday’s blue-wave election. We’d not realized that this would be broadcast live on the radio, and so were much bemused by the live commercials announced by the evening’s bass-voiced emcee. It was a fascinatingly retro experience, with a wide range of entertainers of various styles and generations. But most striking to us was the evident disconnect between “country” audience and artists; by some of their patter, the performers were making a discreet pitch for a more inclusive politics than it appeared the ticket-buying public might be leaning towards. This slight lean left (an observation of the international makeup of several of the sidemen; the self-parodic nature of a Native American’s politically incorrect comedy routine; unapologetic jokes about taking advantage of marijuana legalization) all felt vaguely hopeful and possibly prophetic. Even the Hee-Haw gang is getting worn out by our president and his relentless viciousness.
Unexpected treasure is one of travel’s greatest pleasure, and we came across a giant jewel box of one this past week in Nashville, Tennessee. The building of The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is a “repurposed” art deco post office dating from the Hoover Administration. An architectural gem in and of itself, its gorgeous main hallway glistens with black, silver and gold grillwork, light fixtures and marble floors. The main foyer, lit by original skylight, and flanked on either side by a pair of grand staircases, is literally breathtaking. The high-ceilinged sorting rooms have now become exhibition spaces, perfectly suited for the spectacular, Paris 1900: City of Entertainment, now “on tour” from its original 2014 venue at Paris’s Petit Palais. It’s astonishing that we came across this show quite by chance. There’s some wonderful “high” art in the show (Rodin, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, et al.), but it’s what falls in the category of artifact that makes the time spent in the Ingram Gallery as fun as a carnival ride.There’s the Paris of the International Exposition (caught by the brothers Lumière on early film); there’s the city’s late-night cabaret scene with “bohemian aristocrats in search of forbidden pleasures”; there’s the proto-feminist theater of Sarah Bernhardt; there’s art nouveau design and couture of Paquin. The exhibit is truly an “immersive” experience, offering to imaginative visitors a form of time travel back to the City of Light at the delightful height of its Belle Époque.
We have a tendency to dismiss postcard-ready painting that’s too “perfect” to be real. But we had to admit that the hills surrounding Edinburgh really do look like the framed versions hung in the Scottish National Gallery. So, too, even the imagined capriccios in “Canaletto and the Art of Venice” in the Queen’s Gallery at Holyroodhouse have an intensity truly matched by the actual intensity of light-reflecting waters along the Grand Canal. Leaving the exhibit to tour the palace itself, after paying a visit to the various Royal chambers we wandered among sunlit gardens arrived at through the abandoned abbey. Looking up to Arthur’s Seat from a bench we’re sure Her Majesty herself must often enjoy, the landscape’s golds and greens defied recording by cellphone camera. We could hardly believe that we’d not found ourselves inside an artwork.
While we were in Edinburgh this past week, we were made aware that the Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s The Long Take had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Even though it didn’t win, the book’s achievement seemed to us a very big deal. That a long narrative poem had been determined strong enough to compete with prose novels is something worth talking about. Though his book won’t be available via a US publisher until well into November, it’s surprising Robertson hasn’t come up in stateside poetry-world discussions. especially as the story’s setting in a very noir, mid-century California is so redolent of native masters such as Chandler and Hammett. Our impression of Robertson’s achievement (confirmed by the prize nomination) is that it’s a volume aimed at those readers who don’t usually pick up a volume of poetry (i.e. straight men). To our ears and eyes, Robertson’s poem owes much to Christopher Logue’s War Music, both in its cinematic/typographic approaches and its impatient prosodies. But with a map of downtown LA and period photos, it also makes a meaningful visual nod to the un-categorizable Sebald. Robert Louis Stevenson was another Scot who spent time in California; some say if he’d lived another twenty years, he would have likely ended up in the burgeoning film industry. Instead, a hundred years later, we have Robertson’s distinctly unromantic view of Hollywood in its postwar noir heyday, the underside of McCarthy-era America seen from the perspective of a traumatized soldier.
So many of the rain-soaked vendors at the Boston Book Festival are underwritten by the city’s universities, either as an extension of academic publishing (Harvard University Press, MIT books, etc.) or of the various writing programs (almost all the literary journals have institutional associations). There are a few noteworthy exceptions, (Other Books and Wakefield Press, to name but two), somewhat eccentric enterprises run by strong-minded individuals. Similarly, one of our favorite places in town, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is an institution that doesn’t feel like an institution, largely as a result of its origins as the ambitious whim of a particularly determined personality. The current director appears to be cut of the same cloth. Among the adventurous offerings to be seen and heard in “Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time” was the compelling“in-ear opera,” True Pearl, created to accompany the Tapestry Room’s wall hangings (part of the Gardner’s permanent collection) depicting the narrative of Cyrus the Great. Here was an offer of free acoustiguide we were happy to accept, finding ourselves fascinated by David Lang and Sibyl Kempson’s groundbreaking translation of “textile art” into sound.
With our recent travels we’ve finally come to accept the “new normal” of contemporary life, those electronic mundanities attending us when we’re away from home. We pre-register online; when confused by signage, we google for explanation or directions; when we arrive, we empty our pockets in order to pass through metal detectors; and more often than not, we find ourselves proceeding on moving walkways or narrow passageways, scannable ticket in hand, as disembodied voices (and sometimes recorded images) are directed at us. We’re not just speaking of airports — essentially the same protocols now greet us at most music events and art museums. And, of course, almost all encounters present the option of preliminary mediation through smart phone app, so that in advance we receive buzzing invitations to pre-digested forms of whatever “experience” is to come. By the time we’ve arrived at the thing itself — the flight, the performance, the art exhibition — we’ve already experienced diminution of any “actuality” (save for, of course, the inevitable physical discomfort of waiting on line). We know about human “sound pollution,” which has made attending nature increasingly difficult. (Even within the National Seashore, the Dolby surround-sound of birds and wind remains only available deep in the quiet of the diminishing off-seasons.) But as we’ve wandered off-Cape in recent weeks, we find that even the human environment has grown increasingly polluted by the virtual.
Trump’s tariffs on paper are both actual and symbolic, as the president’s most powerful enemies continue to rely upon the weaponry of newspapers and books. At LNB we have been longtime advocates of paper and ink; while our choice was initially aesthetic, we now view our use of the medium as form of resistance to digital tyrannies. Despite our LOOKOVER postings, we remain deeply suspicious of online expression and its quicksilver ability to be manipulated or appropriated. We agree to press our fingertips on the touch-screen as directed at US customs, but we know perfectly well how such efficient machines are the doorway to irreversible invasions of privacy. We are strong advocates of paper ballots. And we continue to believe that an individual’s deepest thoughts, what will remain ours alone, still finds its most exact expression in poetry encountered on the tree-derived page.
We’ve lately found ourselves traversing mid-Atlantic Trump country. And while it is painful to get outside the three-fold bubble of New England> Massachusetts> the Outer Cape, in principle a reality check is a good thing. We liked to think that first-hand observation and interaction might make the President’s supporters more understandable or even explicable. Trump is right to call them “good people,” but they’ve been snookered and made dangerous. Not to sound overly dramatic, but listening to the Kavanaugh hearings on the radio while driving through Pennsylvania and West Virginia produced certain physiological effects of an actual assault. On the drive back North for the dreadful upshot of a new Supreme Court Justice, a woman experienced real anxiety and traumatic symptoms when she found herself alone among a group of young white men whose worst instincts had recently been validated. We return to safety and security, but what lingers is the unshakable sense of what the political abstractions cannot express.
Indian summer this year brought some glorious days to the Cape. One recently saw the Provincetown Book Festival’s “Authors al Fresco” event set up on the lawn of the town’s wonderful library. LongNookBooks was delighted to participate, our table facing the historic building. Originally a Protestant church, for a time in the late fifties it housed the Chrysler Museum of Art. Until 2000, it served as Provincetown’s Heritage Museum; during that period a half-scale mode of the Rose Dorothea Schooner was recreated, with the result that entering the structure’s upstairs feels a bit like entering one of those “ship in a bottle” craft projects. In 2002 renovations began to convert the building into the present library. We remember vividly when the steeple was removed for restoration. It’s back now, along with custom-built bookcases that reuse mahogany armrests from the original church’s pews, a detail that evokes both sacred spaces and nautical impulses. This seems exactly right to us. Libraries are sanctuaries for quiet thought and interaction with writers’ words — sturdy vessels for intellectual and cultural adventure.
In our 6/12/17 posting (availabe for reading in the LNB Archives via the “Journal” dropdown above), we drew attention to Robert Mueller’s hiring of Michael Debreen. Now that the noose around a certain Tang-colored neck is tightening, the President, as well as the country, will become increasingly familiar with the brilliant Debreen. Having argued over 100 cases before the Supreme Court, not for nothing is he being seen by experts as Mueller’s “closer.” Even with all the evidence and cooperating witnesees, prosecution and/or impeachment of the high-criminal in the Oval Office could still slip away — that is, should certain tactical mistakes or legal errors be made by DOJ team. But with Debreen advising, that’s not going to happen: There’s no one on the planet with more knowledge about federal criminal law than Michael Debreen. In fact, it was Debreen who successfully argued in federal court back in April that Manafort’s criminal case shouldn’t be dismissed and that certain seized evidence should be made admissible in his trial. Especially on political matters, it’s awfully satisfying to be able to say, “We told you so.”
As Maurice Ravel’s Quartet in F Major is one of our absolute favorite pieces of music, we should have been unreservedly looking forward to hearing it performed in Wellfleet as part of the closing program of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. But lately, whether live or on the radio, we hear too much of one kind of classical music. We’re tired of exact but heartless conservatory musicianship; ancient coughing audiences; tepidly accessible programming. After a couple of musical evenings this past winter, we found ourselves thinking, “Enough already! We’re too young to be made to feel so old!” But last night’s performance of the Ravel took us back to our first enthusiasms, back to when music could be as thrilling as a schuss down the side of the Matterhorn. Not just technical aptitude but real verve and emotional engagement, that’s what we’re still looking for — and it was just that kind of concert experience which the youthful Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong, Ken Hamao, Jessica Bodner and Kee-Hyun Kim) so sublimely delivered.
Our first “LongNookBooks Presents” program, the cellist Guy Fishman at the Truro Meeting House, was an enormous success last Sunday. The “house” was literally packed and Fishman rightly received a standing ovation for his impressive performance of the first three of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Given the summer heat in the unairconditioned 1827 church, it was an act of physical endurance as well as one of technique and memory. At the recital’s interval, Fishman spoke of the work’s interesting history, a narrative of the solo music being overlooked for a century or more until “rediscovered” by Pablo Casals. But Fishman’s own cello “genealogy,” as was pointed out when he was introduced to the rapt audience, has its own relevance and significance; one of his teachers was the Guarneri Quartet’s David Soyer, who himself was a student of Casals. The admirable YoYo Ma recently released a third recording of his “take” on the Cello Suites, interpreting the music on a modern standard cello in what will undoubtedly be a worthy version of the familiar music. Yet we ourselves do feel hearing the Suites on Baroque cello, as Fishman played it, not only takes us closer to how the composer himself would have heard it, the distinctly animal-like qualities of gut strings better captures the profoundly human and vocal-chord-like quality of Bach’s singing, and thinking, to himself.
Long Nook became internationally famous this week. As emergency vehicles zipped down the road in quick succession, we knew something was up, and among the immediate possibilities was the inevitable encounter between man and ocean beast. Given the proliferation of seals at “our” beach, a shark attack was not a matter of if but of when. And so our sunny days were filled with the sound of low-flying helicopters and the appearance of satellite-topped vans. As anyone who’s found themselves in a similar position, it is both ludicrous and rather exciting to see one’s neighborhood as backdrop to the news. But now that the media has moved onto other topics, we observe that none of the coverage seems to have reduced the number of Long Nook’s beachgoers. On the contrary, we have the distinct impression that some visitors are actually hoping to be present for the next attack.
One of the best things we’ve read lately was David Thomson’s “On the Sofa,” in the August 2 London Review of Books. A “review” of sorts of the German series Babylon Berlin, we were both amused and troubled how Thomson and his wife’s binge viewing paralleled our own. (“Face it,” he writes, “marriage is a kind of binge.”) We’ve not yet gotten to Babylon Berlin, as these past weeks we’ve instead been going through both seasons of the Norwegian series, Occupied. But the nightly alternation between MSNBC and too-close-to-current-events fictional dramas rang exactly true to our own experience: “As [Rachel] Maddow preached an hour a night, brimming with verve and need, she slipped from glee to bravery and even to tears.” In the face of such oh-too-true tales, the feverish serial binge, especially the concomitant impossibility of following all narrative details and secondary characters, comes as a perversely welcome relief. Thomson nails the irony of the historical moment: “The nature of bingeing is to commit to the frenzy without any hope of rational control or order. That is why Donald Trump is the exact leader for our time: he is so blind to order and meaning because he is inextricably caught up in the binge of himself.”
We were a bit concerned that attending the Boston concert of David Byrne’s “American Utopia” tour was going to make us feel old. After all, our first Talking Heads concert dates back to the spring of Freshman year in college, with Byrne himself then a recent graduate of RISD. So here we all are, hovering on either side of sixty, still wondering “How did i get here?” It was a transcendent evening, some of the evening’s pleasure a kind of recalled nostalgia but another part coming very close to newly revealed truth. We’d not realized before how much we love the dance element of Byrne’s performances, his distinctive jerkiness now become mainstream. How we delighted in his Twyla-Tharpe-like body being blown across the stage in imagined winds of cultural fate, his mysteriously coded gestures suggesting something between an airport worker on the tarmac (waving an invisible plane to the gate) and a speaker of ASL. Of course, what was once “experimental” (the incorporation of “world music” into pop forms), approaches that have radically enriched our ways of listening, have now been thoroughly assimilated. Byrne’s distinctive sensibility has remained a sharp-eyed but affectionate take on things American, the easy sweetness of his bouncy dance rhythms made intellectually acerbic by dystopic lyrics. All in all, it was a great show, an impressively choreographed and designed “production” with an amazing cast of musicians and dancers. The artists’ call to movement was completely irresistible to the entire summer evening audience, with dance and song offering itself as a form of political resistance. After several encores, it became clear that although the tenor (current politics) may be terrible, the proposed vehicle is a powerful mode of activist hope.
Many of the Outer Cape’s cultural community turned out to honor artist and activist Ai Weiwei at this year’s Fine Arts Work Center Gala and to view the show “Rebar and Case” at FAWC’s Hudson Walker Gallery. The tension between the installation’s style and content created a real one-two punch of cognition and emotion. The shapes of twisted rebar (formally alluding both to a tragic building collapse in Sichuan as well to the disaster’s effects on the spines of its victims) were rendered in the museum-quality permanence of marble. So, too, his polished wood display cases evoked both high-end furniture and coffins. Here at LNB, we don’t take Ai’s physical presence for granted. For even as we speak our minds on digital media, we are highly conscious of the paradox of free expression and constant surveillance. And while contemporary life, not only for artists, has become a constant matter of negotiation between ideals and realities, the priority of any artist is as advocate for the imaginary. And yet, to focus on the actual, it was an amazing moment to shake Ai Weiwei’s hand and exchange sentences with him. The solidity of the physical person (a body that’s endured both prison and beatings) as residence for his still-resisting spirit was, to use an overused word, inspirational. Ai Weiwei remains determined to remain on his course of creative dissidence, a role, it seems to us, he was born to inhabit as the son of the poet Ai Qing. We strongly believe artistic awards should not be determined due to any artist’s well-meaning political or rhetorical activity, but in this case we urge the Swedish Academy to take into account the immediate effect of Ai Weiwei’s creative contributions. His films as well as his installations continue to influence real individuals’ freedom of expression, immigration situations or other forms of lack of due process, all international circumstances very much still calling for attention — and still pending resolution.
We were happy to see the republication of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead receiving notice on Ron Slate’s online magazine, “On the Seawall.” Slate points out that the poem not only predates The Maximus Poems and Paterson but also “anticipates techniques that are now familiar in politically charged poetry and cross-genre writing.” But neither Slate nor the book’s editor, Cathereine Venable Moore, notice that Rukeyser’s work strongly overlaps with that of James Agee in ways that couldn’t possibly be coincidental. Agee’s first book of poems won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was published in 1934. Only two years later, Rukeyser’s Theory of Flight was selected. And it was in June 1936 that Agee, on assignment from Fortune, set off with photographer Walker Evans to compile the materials that would eventually become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That very spring Rukeyser and her photographer friend Nancy Naumberg drove down to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia to investigate the 1930 Hawk’s Nest Tunnel industrial disaster, a classic example of business malfeasance on the part of Union Carbide which resulted in death by silicosis of 764 (mostly African-American) workers. The text-image collaboration (as well as a proposed film) never came to be, but the poem remains as one of the most remarkable examples of poetic political witness. For us, the book as published by West Virginia University Press contains too much of the editor’s presence (her introduction forms half of the small volume), so that historical content far overshadows the poetry. For the true subject of the poem is not the information it presents, but as in Agee, an exploration of the moral obligations of a recording sensibility — in both cases, the privileged “outsider” poet who serves as stand-in for the reader. Once again, descriptions becomes judgment, a simple image expressing the hydroelectric power for which so many tragically died: The old plantation-house (burned to the mud) / is a hill-acre of ground. The Negro woman throws / gay arches of water out the front door. / It runs down, wild as grass, falls and flows.
We’ve now had two opportunities to see “Abstract Climates,” PAAM’s summer show of Helen Frankenthaler paintings. Our first look was at the exhibition’s opening; and then we viewed these astonishing canvases again among meandering crowds at this year’s Provincetown Arts launch party. The magazine’s issue contains a number of articles about Frankenthaler and her time in Provincetown, but the perspective we found ourselves acutely missing was that of longtime Provincetown Arts contributor Eleanor Munro. Munro’s piece on Frankenthaler (originally appearing in 1979, but reprised twenty years later in her revised Originals: American Women Artists),presents this astonishing (and relevant to the PAAM installation) quote about the size of such works: “You need that many feet of flat surface for the illusion, for the light.” Munro’s Frankenthaler profile is part of a section on American women artists who emerged from the world of 50’s Abstract Expressionism, many of them students of Hans Hofmann. Munro’s understanding of who such women were (Hartigan, Frelicher, Lansner, among others) places them in a specific cultural context, a generation largely “bred on the principles of the prewar progressive-education movement.” Viewers (and critics, too) project themselves onto what they see, of course; and we admit that in these enormous paintings, brought back “home” to the Machado-Silvetti spaces, we ourselves recognize a version of the small Provence-inspired watercolors and gouaches of Serena Rothstein, also a Hofmann student — both sets of work being the expression of a New Yorker’s sensibility when she finds herself near the sun-reflecting ocean. Unfortunately, nothing in the current discussion of Frankenthaler’s show approaches the sublime summary achieved by these forty-year-old clauses of Munro: The feeling-tone her paintings have projected has been the serene and beautiful, achieved by insightful control over the elements of form: floating areas of color; occasional fountains, spurts, jets of color thrown against bare canvas; hard-edge panels or curtains of bright flat non-naturalistic color; and … fields of warm earth color pulsating on a languid cycle like red stars or stains of strange phosphorescent hue hovering like mirages at the edge of a world.
We’ll try to rein in our rage and frustration at the lack of critical reception received by Carcanet’s 2017 collection of Yves Bonnefoy poems, trying instead for something of the late French poet’s equilibrium, “all softness and irony assembled.” But first, sardonic bitterness: When a proposed subject is the work of the recent dead, a book review offers few opportunities for earthly logrolling. And yet the simply titled I: Poems is an important book, gesturing as it does toward the forthcoming II: Prose (both in anticipation of a complete Pleiade edition). It’s as though a granite mountain were so prominent, its actual presence remains ignored by valley inhabitants, “mysterious meaning in what is merely simple” all but ignored. Of course, given that recent online discussions tend toward a growing consensus that in this day and age there can be no more “major” poets, it’s not surprising that the French poet — who soundly contradicts such a thesis — might, for the sake of convenience, be set aside. Perhaps the second (prose) shoe has to fall. For as Anthony Rudolf observes in his preface to Bonnefoy’s verse, few poets (at least not since Baudelaire and Leopardi) “have had a ‘second’ oeuvre in prose so intertwined with their poetry, so rich in signs and wonders, so complex and yet so trustful of readers.” Despite the presence of the French, here at LNB we still have difficulty thinking of the great Bonnefoy as a “foreign” writer. Whether this is a result of the decades he spent here living and teaching, particularly in New England, or it’s because of his extraordinarily living translations of Shakespeare, we ourselves sometimes think of him as one of the most remarkable Anglo poets writing in French. Though we would hardly argue that nothing is lost in the transition, it seems to us — especially in his later lyrics — that his work slides easily into a contemporary yet somehow timeless English. Even though the excellent facing-page translations have been made by multiple, mostly British, hands (Rudolf, John Naughton, Stephen Romer, among others), the lines remain eternally Bonnefoy.
We were honored to be present a few weeks ago at the awarding of the Radcliffe Medal to Hillary Rodham Clinton. The handing-over of the medal was preceded by a panel on America’s current position in international affairs, and discussions of the Obama-Clinton era felt like the semi-mythical recollections of an age of Bronze. In truth, the world back then was anything but Golden, yet only five years ago there was, as testified by the distinguished academics, journalists and diplomats engaged in the discussion, still a belief in the effects of intelligent and humane public policy. As Madeleine Albright delivered her personal testimonial for her friend and colleague at the State Department, we were all taken back to a time of possibilities. The afternoon was not merely poignant; it was heartbreaking. In her interview with Maura Healey, Secretary Clinton showed once again personal and political qualities of persistence and perseverance. We ourselves felt momentarily released from despair. Like bearberry or the summer’s beach roses after a brutal winter, certain low-growing, thorny things do come back.
This month we found ourselves returning home to West Virginia just as the summer had begun. LongNookBook’s Oral Lake, expresses the child’s view of fifty years ago, an era when “freedom was associated with walking / on fresh-cut grass in bare feet.” and bravery was a matter of crossing the “softened tar” of country roads without the assistance of an adult. Comprised of poetic recollections of her mountaineer upbringing, of “listening for the coal truck’s rumble,” Mary Maxwell’s redolent lines make their way towards the adult poet’s consideration what such sounds might prophesy — a warning not just for the nation but for the planet. Both culturally and politically, the state is a more complex place than our New England friends seem to realize. The state is hardly the stronghold of white supremacists; most of the Confederate flags we saw on our drives from and back to the Cape were, in fact, in neighboring Maryland. On the contrary, West Virginia has exhibited an independent streak dating from 1861 when it separated from Confederate Virginia. Considering the fact that it was adopted on June 20, 1863, the state motto (Montani Semper Liberi) could hardly have been exempt from association with other forms of human emancipation being enacted at the time: Mountain people will always be free.
The third Saturday in June brings with it the official beginning of summer on Longnook. First come the signs warning of sharks and collapsing dunes; then come the trash cans and flip-flops lined up at the parking lot’s edge; last appear the bike racks and the port-o-sans. But all this is prelude to the required beach sticker and the arrival of someone at the stop sign and check-in to the town-owned parking lot. New this year is a small shack for the young employees to find shade, a charming and useful addition, we think. The surfboard-topped cars have begun to arrive in their own unending waves, whoosh-whoosh-whoosh picking up tempo as weekends approach. The voices of paired walkers float up to our bedroom now soon after dawn. The last of beachgoers head toward Route 6 just before dark. We have mixed feelings about all this. It’s wonderful to live in a place so worth visiting, but a sense of intrusion is surely natural. When the beach’s parking lot fills up and the turned-away tear past our driveway at breakneck speed, we can’t help but feel a certain satisfaction at their evident fury and frustration.
We stopped off in New York City on one of our drives southward for a fix of urban culture, and more specifically, cafe culture. One evening we finally heard Theo Bleckmann perform in person at the Neue Galerie’s Cafe Sabarsky. (See our 1/23/17 entry in the LNB Archives to understand better our longstanding enthusiasm.) The astonishing musician and composer Uri Caine made a surprise appearance as piano accompanist. It was a truly Weimar experience, with Bleckmann singing merry-bitter songs by Brecht and Eisler, all being presented with schnitzel and strudel to what were evidently among the very wealthiest, and most jaded, of New Yorkers. History was echoing, with sickening effect. Urbanity, and cultural repetitions, were also bleakly evident at the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. The play’s absurdist dialogues and DaDa defenses also seemed astonishingly contemporary, what with current ideas about “found texts” running amok once again. We were troubled that in the play the rousing defense of great poetry was being made by a third-rate sensibility like Henry Carr (played by the expert Tom Hollander), but we understood that’s rather Stoppard’s point: Art makes strange bedfellows.
Winter erosion along the shores of the Outer Cape can be quite dramatic. One of the familiar camel-hump dunes above the parking lot at Longnook Beach, for example, has completely disappeared. When our website got “lost” in the course of our host’s migration in January, we were similarly dumbfounded. One day we were online; the next we were gone. In the interim months, a new LongNookBooks site has been created. So, too, new paths have been made down to ever-cresting waves, despite the ongoing falling of scrub pine and old tarmac. The descent of that old road, as well as the cottage foundations still being uncovered, remind us that change is inevitable, whether we’re ready for it or not. And so we present here our newly created online journal, “The Longnook Lookover” (along with pull-down access to our archived newsletter), which we think of as a figurative perch above the various activities in our view. Soon enough the shoreline will be filled with living figures, individuals who bring with them the quickened pace of human culture, an aspect of Outer Cape life we embrace with as much enthusiasm as we revel in the dynamic magnificence of the National Seashore.