Philip Larkin once remarked that he would like to visit China, but only if he could come home the same day. (I could do another week here on funny and/or curmudgeonly things he said.)
He also said in his Paris Review interview that writing a poem was, for him, a way “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” (As coldly scientific as that sounds, he of course also wrote some of the most beautiful and moving verbal devices in 20th century English. And he did go on at least one overnight trip abroad, to Germany, or so I’ve heard.)
Having written and now recently published a book of poems about traveling in China, Iceland and Japan, I’ve often thought of Uncle Phil (as I think of him) and these remarks of his when someone asks me what my book is about, or especially why I wrote it. But to tell you what I tell people, I first have to share another quote.
Jasper Johns said that sometimes life gets so close we can’t see it anymore. Small children and the outrageously wealthy aside, who doesn’t sometimes feel like that? Work or school – or both – plus getting there and home again, taking care of kids (if you went against Uncle Phil's advice and have some yourself), cooking and cleaning and hopefully somewhere in there sleeping… It’s hard not to get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday living and feel that life – real life, the good life, whatever cool thing your friends are doing (and posting pictures of on Facebook) and you’re not – is rushing past you in a blur.
Next thing you know, you’re one of those people who say things like, “I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday” or “Where did the summer go?”
Whereas traveling in another country can have the exact opposite effect. You notice everything – or try to. Because everything is new and different and strange (mostly in a good way). For instance, going to the bathroom in Japan can be an adventure in itself: one involving high-tech toilets and a quick change of footwear. Ordering dinner in Iceland can be too: do I feel like whale pepper steak or is tonight more of a fermented shark kind of night? Should I try the puffin? Or plokkfiskur, perhaps?
Finding yourself in another country is like putting on a new pair of glasses. Everything snaps into focus. Everything seems brighter and sharper.
Which is, of course, like writing a poem – or like what it takes to write a poem. Traveling and writing poems are both about finding your way, in all the different senses of that phrase. And in both cases you have to pay attention.
I think it was Jordan Davis who once said that’s the biggest thing: you have to be present. Show up and pay attention. That’s the job, you poets – and you travelers. And notice how this thing connects to this other thing. How they are – or aren't – like the things you know back home. How this reminds you of that.
And now we’re making metaphors. And now the world just got a little smaller.
I wrote poems about being in China to create verbal devices that would enable me to go back to China, if only for a day or an hour, and only in my imagination – and so that (so my hope goes) interested readers could do the same. What I wound up with on the page is a mix of memory and imagination, of course, and so not exactly the China I set foot in some years ago.
And interestingly the best part for the poet (for this one, anyway) wasn’t that finished verbal device, but the process of building it, how the words – or the search for the right ones – kept spurring me on to remember more, imagine more, to go back there again and again.
And finally it’s worth remembering too that one of Larkin’s most beautiful poems is about a journey (again, in all the senses), albeit a domestic one. Listen to him read “The Whitsun Weddings,” which picks up steam slowly but surely, like the train the poet travels in--
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
--and then ends with the most beautiful rain.
I want to tell you about one of my favorite poems at the moment. It’s from Lord Byron’s Foot, by George Green, which was selected last year by David Mason for The New Criterion Poetry Prize and recently published by St. Augustine’s Press. As an editor at The New Criterion, I was thoroughly delighted by Mason’s choice, since I had championed George’s work on a number of occasions, both in the magazine and in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets.
I remember showing up several years ago to a marathon reading organized by Roddy Lumsden at a bar up by Columbia University. We were asked to write a poem based, I think, on some theme—the theme, like the poem I produced, was eminently forgettable.
After a couple hours of poems sliding by like fried eggs off of memory's Teflon, George got up (he may have been the last reader, in fact) and read “Bangladesh.” So surprising and so weird was this poem, we were rapt. You could have heard the reshelving in Butler Library. And funny! So funny. The abrupt, associative segues and the logic-defying half-slapdash, haphazardness of the narrative resolves, quite mysteriously, into a unified, warmly satiric portrait of an age that we lived though in Downtown New York and loved for its Bohemian craziness and, and, now, in hindsight, for the wince-making tartness of its bittersweet excesses. He wrote the poem the night before, he told me, when I said how much I liked it.
Riotous and sweetly sad: such a killer combo. Bravo, George Green!
We have to start in 1965,
when all the gay meth heads couldn’t decide
which one they most adored, Callas or Dylan,
both of them skinny as thermometers,
posing like sylphs in tight black turtlenecks.
Then, gradually, a multitude of Dylans
began to fill the park, croaking like frogs,
strumming guitars, blowing harmonicas,
hundreds and hundreds, several to a bench.
But there was only one Maria Callas,
sequestered in her gloomy Paris pad
and listening to Maria Callas records
(and nothing but), her bulky curtains closed,
which works for me because it worked for her.
What doesn’t work is three David Lee Roths,
one checking bags at Trash and Vaudeville, one
strutting with ratted hair up St. Mark’s Place,
and one zonked out in tights and on the nod,
surrounded by the Dylans in the park.
David Lee Roth times three would mean the times
would have to change, and so a roving band
of punk rockers began to beat the Dylans,
chasing them through the park and pounding them
senseless, then busting up their folk guitars
or stealing them. They even torture one
unlucky Dylan by the children’s pool,
holding him down to burn him with Bic lighters,
then cackling when he begs to keep his Martin.
Later on at the precinct, deeply troubled,
a sensitive policeman contemplates
the crimes. Why were marauding gangs of punks
beating the Dylans in the park? He asks
himself, repeatedly, not realizing
that they, the punks, were cultural police
determined to eradicate the Dylans
and purify the park of Dylanesque
pollutions and corruptions, rank and abject
folk rock recrudescences, and worse—
that odious and putrid piety,
the sanctimoniousness of all the Dylans,
the phony holiness that peaks for Bob
(his faddish Christianity aside)
during the benefit for Bangladesh,
where George insists that Yoko not perform
and John agrees ’till Yoko blows her stack,
and they start primal-screaming at each other,
John flying out of JFK and nodding,
and Eric flying into JFK
and nodding. Well, Ravi would go on first,
the one and only Ravi Shankar, folks.
I saw him five times, three times high on acid,
the first time straight with Richard and his mom,
Debbie, who drove us down from Podunk High
to see him at the Syria Mosque (long gone,
bulldozed in ’75). Debbie’s not well.
Last August she was totally Alzheimered
and, my sweet lord, she made a pass at me,
which was embarrassing. Rebuffed but proud
she sat down on the porch swing with a thump,
and, chirping like a parakeet, she swung.
Tomorrow: I attend the dress rehearsal of my daughter’s grade-school production of Romeo & Juliet and come away impressed not only by the performances, which were super, but also by the playwright who clearly has what it takes!
If Venice is married to Death - the small island of San Michele is the offspring of this union. It takes an entire day to visit San Michele, the legendary Isle of the Dead. The entire island is a cemetery, which resembles a labyrinth consisting of many contrasting sections, almost like miniature islands within one larger island. One of the most striking and memorable "rooms" of this labyrinth is the children’s section: children’s graves, most of them recent, with photographs, toys, flowers… On marble stones kids’ faces are so painfully alive, smiling, laughing, celebrating the joy of their too fleeting lives. The contrast of their youth and their surrounding is heart-wrenching. We do not associate death with youth, yet children are much closer to that vast non-existence from which we all come from and where we all end up, and the thread which binds them to that "forever beyond" is much shorter than with most adults.
A turn in the labyrinth of San Michele – and a 19th century cemetery comes into view, with forgotten graves, some half-decayed, names no longer decipherable… Another turn – and an island of gravestones for nuns appears all neatly organized in rows like brave little soldiers conquering the heavens.
A narrow path leads to an open sea of flowers of the most recent graves – after 12 years of temporary residence in San Michele, they will be transported elsewhere. At San Michele, the post-mortem real estate seems to be just as coveted and unattainable as guaranteed indulgences. One more twist of the road - and the foreigners' section is found. The Isle of the Dead is home to many famous artists.
Visiting Isola di San Michele in Venice was a sort of pilgrimage for me. The impact of Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky in music and theater, specifically their collaborations in Le Noce, Le Sacre du Primtemps, Pulcinella and Petruchka, was the most influential in the 20th century. Their legacy is felt by every living composer, choreographer and producer today.
In death, they stand as they stood in life: Diaghilev’s overpowering large gravestone and Stravinsky’s modest plate without any overstatement, but at the center of attention by visitors.
I am always interested in the offerings the living bring to the dead. Diaghilev's grave is covered with… ballet slippers. Real, worn ballet shoes which dancers bring as offerings of their gratitude to him. On Stravinsky's grave there are also several glued pieces of paper with handwritten music, offerings from composers, perhaps.
Next to Stravinsky is the gravestone of his wife, Vera. Her grave is the mirror image of his, yet her stone-plate is covered with leaves, and there are no "gifts" of burning candles, slippers or music pages. Even in afterlife, she is in his shadow.
Joseph Brodsky's work was introduced to me in Russia when I was thirteen. His name did not mean anything to me then. Simply someone once gave me a few typed pages with his poems. My teenage reaction was one of shock. His work was unlike anything I had read. His poetry was real, it spoke to me in a powerful way, it was a calling, a recognizable, irresistible voice addressing me directly. It was impossible to ignore. When I arrived to the United States in 1991, one of my wishes was to meet Brodsky. This meeting happened, and his support of my work meant the world to me during that crucial time of my life when everything I knew was left behind.
Brodsky's wish was to be buried at San Michele. He visited Venice often, always in the winter. This was the city of his love if one can be in love with a city. Yes, Venice, more than his native St. Petersburg, was the city of his dreams; Venice, with its glorious decay, its endless reflections, its past so vast that it already contains its future.
Brodsky's grave is simple yet beautiful, with overgrown flowers and many special offerings from visitors. There was a cigarette on his grave-stone (he was a heavy smoker), a Watermen fountain pen (his favorite brand); someone left a few old Soviet coins, which I personally thought would not be the most welcomed gift by this deceased. And, of course, candles and flowers.
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate - not too far from Brodsky lies another famous poet, in many ways Brodsky's opposite – Ezra Pound. Pound's grave is large yet unkempt.
I spent long hours wandering this cemetery, listening to the seagulls, deciphering the writings on the graves, and thinking of Time. Time is always abundant in Venice. Venice is cradled in Time just as it is draped in death. This cradle song of death is comforting, quiet and peaceful. In a world where everything multiplies and doubles with reflections, San Michele provides perspective which widens the horizon and unearths the essence.
Sometimes, before falling asleep, I imagine what it would be like to spend a night at San Michele, listening to the moon-beams splashing the water and the occasional cries of birds. I imagine the ghostly concerts and poetry readings featuring that never finished symphony or a poem and wonder if the dead are just as curious about the living as we are about them.
Arriving home after several months of travel, and while taking some time to recollect experiences by organizing photographs, I came upon images of one of the most memorable trips of last year. It was my first visit to Brazil, where I performed a Mozart piano concerto in the city of Curitiba with a superb orchestra led by Maestro Osvaldo Ferreira.
Brazil made an indelible impression on me. After my performances in Curitiba, a modern city with all the 21st century commodities, I spent ten days traveling and learning about this mysterious, vast, multi-cultural country, buzzing with creativity. I took a detour to a part of the world both terrifying in its isolation and achingly beautiful - the last point of civilization before the great expanse of Amazon rainforest between Brazil and Colombia. Twelve hours by fast boat from Manaus lies a small town on the south bank of the portion of the Amazon River known as the Solimões. It is called Tefé, no roads lead to Tefé. It is only reachable by boat or small plane. Lonely Planet describes it: "It’s not that there is anything wrong – it’s a perfectly agreeable place, just not particularly memorable." Yet, it was in Tefé where I found one of the most extraordinary sites in all my travels.
The heat and humidity were unreal. As I walked from the port up the hill, I saw hundreds of large black birds circling up in the distance. Soon I realized these were vultures. The image was unsettling yet hauntingly beautiful, so I walked towards the birds. The heat was melting the sole of my sandals. After about half an hour, I reached the gates of the place I was looking for. What I encountered is a memory that will stay with me forever. A cemetery that was a charnel ground, with some of the most chilling (in spite of the heat) yet mesmerizing images of a place for the dead. Here are some of the images:
Walking Delhi with Himanshu Verma, an emerging arts curator, follows a trail where poets share top billing with rulers and religious leaders. Poets get prominent positions in India’s history – literally – with their shrines and tombs near those of emperors and saints across Delhi.
The place to be buried in Delhi from the 14th to 19th C was Nizamuddin, a village named after the exalted Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Not far away is a vast World Heritage site, the tomb of Humayun, the second of six powerful Muslim Mughals who controlled Northern India from 1527-1707. Eternity in the vicinity was a mark of status for nobles and warriors too. But who is buried closest to the white marble mausoleum of Nizamuddin who died in 1325, none other than his disciple and eminent Muslim poet Amir Khusrau, who died just six months later.
If all you know about Hindu-Muslim relations in India is the wrenching partition in 1947 and subsequent political assassinations, the relationship between this saint and poet and the broader culture is a good place to get perspective on why India is simultaneously the Hindu capital of the world and the second largest Muslim nation.
Most, not all, of the Islamic Mughals were tolerant of people of other faiths, including the indigenous Hindus. Khusrau was a cultural cross-pollinator, writing poetry primarily in Persian but also in Hindi. He drew on both languages for the first known printed dictionary. His poems take several forms, but Khusrau may be best known for expanding the development of ghazal. Khusrau mined ghazal for lyrics with his fusion of Persian and Indian musical traditions to create the Sufi devotional music, qawwali. Hindu and Muslim pilgrims, not to mention music lovers, still crowd the courtyard between the tombs of saint and poet for Friday afternoon qawwali.
The path to the tombs twists through narrow alleys and bazaars, a bustling Muslim marketplace since the Middle Ages. One route goes past a still-preserved sandstone step well built by Nizamuddin to provide water and a scenic meeting place in the neighborhood.
Then picture eight or nine singers and musicians, called a party, performing powerful poetic lyrics of love and longing. The intoxication with the beloved is understood to be the divine, but oh how well the metaphors work for the mere human as in a Khusrau excerpt below:
O sweetheart, why do you not take me to your bosom?
Long like curls in the night of separation,
Short like life on the day of our union.
Flash forward to Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), a master of ghazal, who was alive during the unsuccessful Indian rebellion against the British in 1857. Traditionally ghazal is a short poem of divine anguished love, in couplets all using the same rhyme, with the poet’s name in the last stanza. Ghalib expanded the focus to philosophy and the troubles and mysteries of life. For example, he compared his unhappy arranged marriage to a second imprisonment following the confinement of life itself.
Reading samples of Ghalib’s poetry at his tomb in Nizamuddin and his house in another old Delhi neighborhood invited comparisons to American contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. His subject matter is as broad as Whitman, but his spot-on death metaphors more powerfully conjure up Dickinson.
In between chronologically is Rahim, Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana (1556 – 1627). A Muslim who wrote Hindi couplets, Rahim was a powerful minister in the Mughal court of Akbar. The Hindu god Lord Krishna is often featured in his poetry. The marble and sandstone on his tomb in Nizamuddin were stripped off and recycled for an 18th C tomb elsewhere. The base remains intact as does respect for the wisdom of his couplets:
The tree does not eat its own fruit, the lake does not drink its water.
For the welfare of others, the good one accumulates wealth, so says Rahim.
Here’s my video of Verma reading Rahim. Verma runs several multidisciplinary arts initiatives, including Red Earth and 1100 Walks. (Don’t miss his food-centric street tour of Old Delhi if you’re in town.) Verma is himself a devotee of Krishna.
The thread of poet prominence continues in India’s modern political history. Nobel Laureate Tagore Rabindranath died in 1941 before independence but was an influential intellectual friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. Tagore first called Gandhi a Mahatma, or great soul, and the name stuck. In 1913, Tagore became the first non-European to win a Nobel prize, for a collection of poems Gitanjali in Bengali and English.
Words of the poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, songwriter, artist and educator pop up all over India. He even gets the last word at the Taj Mahal where a Tagore quote fills a huge wall near the exit and describes the marble marvel as a “tear drop… on the cheek of time for ever and ever… a garland that would blend formless death with deathless form.”
The experimental school Tagore founded educated Indian leaders in a variety of disciplines including Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate economist, and Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and the prime minister for 15 years. (She was lucky enough to get the surname Gandhi from her Parsi husband.) Gandhi kept a framed picture of Tagore with an English excerpt from Gitanjaliin her home study; words in a prominent vitrine in her museum that lead a mind without fear to “where the clear stream of reason/ has not lost its way.”
As the mother of two daughters in college, I chose to start 2013 at the New Delhi protests over the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a female paramedical student. I was in India to meet my eldest daughter who’d been traveling with a classmate born in Nepal. As a poet and former journalist, I also dove into the language of the event, spending my nights surfing the extensive coverage in English on 24-hour news channels and reading the robust print media. Many of the words were worrisome.
"Eve teasing" is a common media moniker in India for a broad spectrum of sexual harassment, essentially everything that falls short of rape. Verbal street harassment, flashing and molestation are all a lot more serious than the archaic euphemism suggests. In a 2012 poll, 78 percent of New Delhi women reported verbal or physical sexual harassment and 98 percent of young men admitted it's commonplace among their friends.
I sensed a hunger for leadership in framing the debate. The presence at protests of so many young men as well as parents with their children was encouraging and mirrored hopes for change reported by media. I discounted fringe theories such as the regional minister who concluded, “stars are not in position.” (One expects noise from the most conservative corners as I recalled the barbaric theories about rape from several U.S. Congressional candidates this fall.) Most discouraging, however, was the range of government and religious officials across the nation who blamed women for the violence, whether because of immodest dress or a decline of Hindu values. The son of the President of India, a member of Parliament, called female protesters "highly dented and painted" women who “have no connection with ground reality.” A popular Delhi spiritual leader said the gang rape victim could have saved herself by praying at her attackers’ feet. And far too many of the screaming heads on television were yelling for chemical castration even though experts pointed out that violent crimes against women are more often about power than sex.
Even the propensity to label the 23-year-old a girl in headlines indicated how language contributes to the lack of respect and response from the streets, the police and the courts. Only one of more than 600 rapes reported in New Delhi in 2012 has produced a conviction. And few people dispute that rape is vastly underreported because of the widespread conviction that only people with political connections will get any semblance of justice from corrupt, underpaid, poorly trained and mostly male police departments and the overwhelmed and understaffed courts.
Even so, there is no shortage of reporting about violent attacks each day. In two national newspapers, daily roundups of recent rapes across the nation are headlined “Criminals Everywhere” and “Meanwhile…” In early January those briefs included a dead 16-year-old found hanging from a tree, a 15-year-old allegedly kidnapped by a neighbor dead in a school toilet and a 15-year-old held captive and raped for 15 days by three men from her village.
It’s dangerous to be female in India from the womb to old age. The list of causes is long and complicated: aborted girls, female infanticide and neglect, domestic violence, sexual violence, dowry and family disputes. From cradle to grave, males get a larger share of family resources whether for nutrition or health care or mosquito netting for malaria.
“If there’s one glass of milk left, it’s still going to the boy in the family,” said a mustached, middle-aged office manager at the New Delhi protests on New Year’s Day. “It’s just disgusting how we treat women of all ages.”
He’d approached me with a very nervous mother and her teenaged daughter he’d just met, in case my camera meant I was a reporter. Their faces were already partly covered by bright scarves, which they instinctually pulled even tighter as he relayed their dilemma. The 17-year-old went to the police at her mother’s behest after being raped by a neighbor in South Delhi. Not only did the police do nothing, the man and his friends are now regularly threatening mother and daughter. “Can you tell me who they can talk to who will take them seriously?” the man asked.
The stakes inherent in that question are quite high. About 25 million women could be alive if the suspiciously low ratio of women to men in India was more in line with areas of the world with more equal gender care, according to research published in December in the Economic & Political WEEKLY.
The analysis of government mortality data concluded that 100,000 women are burned to death each year and another 125,000 die from violent injuries rarely reported as murder or suicide.“The plight of adult women in India is as serious a problem as that of young girls who were never born or die prematurely in childhood,” wrote the authors Siwian Anderson of the University of British Columbia and Debrai Ray of New York University. They called for further study of their hypothesis that the excess adult deaths are “associated with the custom of dowry which has been linked to bride-burning and dowry-death if promised dowry payments are not forthcoming.”
Women have made enormous strides in India in recent decades in education and workplace opportunities but still live in a patriarchal society that has traditionally defined them by their relationships as daughters and wives and mothers. The visible successes of Indian women among the uncertainties and opportunities of the global economy makes them a target of the vast numbers of young men, many unemployed or underemployed, who outnumber young women of marriageable age.
“The modern woman is seen to be on a collision course with our age-old traditions, part sex goddess part super achiever, loathed and desired in equal measure,” Sagarika Ghose wrote in a column in The Hindustan Times. “A profound fear and a deep, almost pathological, hatred of the woman who aspires to be anything more than mother and wife is justified on the grounds of tradition.”
Amartya Sen, an economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 and pioneered the concept of missing women, notes that the acceptance of elite women in top positions of political power since India became an independent nation in 1947 does not have a trickle down effect. In his book of essays The Argumentative Indian, Sen places improved gender equality high on his list of what India needs to maximize opportunities in the global economy. If the nation needs a model on how to do better, he and other respected voices say look no further than the teachings and example of Mahatma Gandhi.
I started 2013 in the footsteps of Gandhi, literally; his last steps are marked on the path where he was assassinated in 1948 for his advocacy for equality for all of humanity. Beside those steps, beside the Gandhi museum, the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia hosted an interfaith prayer meeting for “Peace Dignity Equality Justice & Respect for Women and Girls” on New Year’s Day. A picture of Gandhi towered over the open-air auditorium as I sat down with a book of his writings I’d just purchased in the museum shop.
“Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity to me, the female sex, not the weaker sex,” Gandhi wrote.
I flipped the book over and printed on the back binding was praise of Gandhi’s vision of greatness by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet whose words I happily bumped into all across India.
No poet has to be convinced that language can be a compass.
Upcoming this week: Indian writers on respect and reform, a poets walk with a Delhi arts curator and a review of an extensive new anthology of Indian English poetry and interview with the editor.
We were only in Athens the second week of January, after three weeks in western Crete, and while the differences were noticeable, so were the similarities in the ways people we know or heard about are enduring and talking about year five of the financial crisis. Crete is self sufficient and semiagrarian: even men and women who live in the cities are closely tied to the villages where their families are from and where they still get their oranges, lemons, olive oil, and raki—in some cases from farms they still own and work. Nevertheless, one couple with a son who's an officer in the military, married with one child, told us his pay had been cut by a third. And Chania's youngest alderman, a high school tech teacher, isn't completely sure he'll have a teaching job next year. Athens, of course, is another big city, some four million, I think, with all political extremities well represented, the left by anarchists and Communists, the right by the protofascist anti immigrant Golden Dawn. While it's tempting to think that a country as cosmopolitan as Greece could never be taken in by an ultra right wing, it's worth remembering that the Communists lost the civil war that tore Greece apart after the Allies drove out the Nazis in 1944. People here are too nervous, said an actress in Athens who plans to leave as soon as she can, first to France and then possibly to the U.S. The take home monthly pay of our cab driver to the airport, who studied in Germany, had been reduced to 400 euros from 500. She has no faith in the current government or, worse, in any government that could replace it. By the way, nonstop flights to Athens from New York and back resume March 15. Whether they stop mid October as they did last year, for the first time in recent memory, probably depends on whether the Greek economic situation improves in the interim. That seems unlikely.
Harold Pinter nearly killed me. Not with a knife, a bullet, or a karate chop, but with that most deadly of all weapons, a lofty sneer. While I was working at Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, Surrey, England in the late 1970's, I spied Pinter, alone, standing by the bar during a break in the filming of one of his screenplays. A few years before I had worked with John Bury, a great British scenic designer on my Broadway show, The Rothschilds, and John who became a good friend to me, was a close friend of Pinter. A bear of a man with the most delicate, meticulous talent - and a gruff, generous, elegant heart, John had been the designer of most of the Pinter shows for the National Theater for which he had been highly praised for creating sets that revealed the unspoken menace of Pinter's work.
It is, of course, an old story that a greatly accomplished creative aritst can be a boor, a thug, a liar, a nasty piece of work, a vain fop, or what you will. Nevertheless the way we behave in social situations, particularly awkward ones, reveals a lot about who we really are. For more of Sherman Yellen's post on his disagreeable meeting with Harold Pinter and its reverberations, click here.
every day millions of people die for our
I won't say it twice
let in a little
every day millions of people die for our
you're repeating yourself
so what, so what
- you're repeating yourself
- every day
repeat after me
you are repeating yourself every day and whatever
die after me
repeat after me:
shout it louder
-- Dina Gatina (translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich]
On Monday, October 15,at the midtown branch of the New York Public Library three young Russian poets read with three American counterparts at an event moderated by David Lehman. This is one of the poems read by Dina Gatina on that occasion. Gatina has won the prestigious Debut Prize for poetry in Russia. For more information, here's a link to Causa Artium, one of the sponsors of the event.
the immobile moment hovers in the air before
the thunder rumbles, and that moment of slackening
before the catastrophe lasts for millennia
until the frail wick of hope goes out.
bodies perform impeded motions
as though under water, yearn for love and blood,
under a savagely clear sky, the final sky.
like fish on the sea-floor, doomed generations
are born and die already before the anger
in the promise of catastrophe.
в обещании катастрофы
есть долгий миг, когда замирают люди
как, остановленное Навином, солнце в стекле небоскрёбов.
атомы и молекулы, вирусы и амёбы
словно поставили в карты на «веришь – не веришь».
медленный миг повисает в воздухе
чем гром прогремит, и этот миг замедленья
пред катастрофой длится тысячелетья,
пока не погаснет чахлый фитиль надежды.
как под водой, замедленные движенья
совершают тела, жаждут любви и крови,
под небом жестоко ясным, последним небом.
как рыбы на дне, обречённые поколенья
успевают родиться и умереть до гнева,
в обещании катастрофы.
-- Alla Gorbunova [trans. John Narins]
This is one of the poems Ms. Gorbunova read at the "warm peace" reading celebrating young Russian and American poets. The reading took place oin October 15, 2012, at the midtown branch of the New York Public Library. Following the reading and discussion, the celebrants concluded the evening with navy grogs and vodka martinis at the Algonquin.
Morgan Lucas Schuldt passed away on January 30 due to complications from cystic fibrosis. I wanted to sketch a portrait of Morgan for this blog, wanted to write about not only his extraordinary life, but the love supreme that his poetry embodied. His death, though, is still too close, and it will take me just a little more time.
I attended his memorial services in Tucson, where he lived for much of the last decade of his life. Like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg before him, Morgan was a thoroughly Jersey boy, but he found a home in Tucson. He found Mark Horosky and Adam Chiles. He found Stephanie Balzer and Barbara Cully. He found Boyer Rickel.
The climate change from Vermont to Arizona—I mean going from unseasonable April warmth in New England to anomalous frosty weather in the Southwest—the mourning at various memorials those few days—as well as the bourbon that occasionally accompanies said grief—fused with passing a year earlier of Paul Violi—another friend and mentor—all this left me tattered. I returned to work at The Bookstore physically twitchy, emotionally worse.
After catching up with Matt on what I’d missed—including a poetry reading by Clampitt House fellow Bruce Snider—I was presented with a stiff manila envelope. Scrawled on the front was a signed note from the poet Barry Sternlieb: “For / Michael Schiavo / a few from the zen master. / (one just a proof, / the other a signed + / numbered edition— / primitive, but still / packing a punch!)”
I slowly unsealed the envelope. After removing one of the cardboard flats, I gently untaped the fine paper therein to reveal broadsides of Michael Gizzi’s “Extreme Elegy” and “Second Extreme Elegy” that Barry had printed in the mid-’80s. At one point, after a few months of employment at The Bookstore, Matt had informed me that I was only the second poet he’s ever hired. The first was Michael Gizzi.
Barry is a wonderful guy. We would talk whenever he’d stop by the store, and I know we talked about Michael Gizzi, but I can’t remember as I ever told him just how much I loved his work, how much it had, at one point, intimidated me, and then later enthused me with its familiarity. I’m sure I never told him that one of my favorite Gizzi books is Continental Harmony. And I’m positive I never told him that “Extreme Elegy” is one of my favorite poems not just in that book, not just of Gizzi’s, but of all time.
What I wonder is if Barry will ever fully understand what he did for me this past spring, even when he reads this. In that one moment, through that unassuming act, those poetic powers that I felt closest to, that I felt were forsaking me through the deaths of those whom I most loved and respected (M. Gizzi himself passed away in 2010), all at once, those powers announced their presence.
Not out of grief, no, but filled—and not of a sudden—with the consolation of the universe.
The Last Rites, man
3 helpings! Extreme
Triadic Unction a -bury
a -port a -ton, troughwater
deathward we glide, our viscera
slung The pitch
of New England the mind of an ear
shockt into blooming a -shire
a -vale a –wick oaken
lid going to sleep
ness of my life—America,
of foliage in voice
beside an axe
Canvas in moonlight an oversight
comin’ up backstream But only
a rheumy cache
of russet spittle
like oaken funk, New England, a tonic
Posted by Michael Schiavo on November 16, 2012 at 06:53 AM in Book Recommendations, Book Stores, Guest Bloggers, Obituaries, Poems, Religion, Science, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Adam Chiles, Barbara Cully, Barry Sternlieb, Boyer Rickel, Elegy, Extreme Elegy, Housatonic, Mark Horosky, Matthew Tannenbaum, Michael Gizzi, Michael Schiavo, Morgan Lucas Schuldt, New England, Paul Violi, Second Extreme Elegy, Stephanie Balzer, The Bookstore in Lenox
Sam Amadon and I have known each other for over a decade. We have much in common, particularly Connecticut. I had a few questions for Sam about his second collection, The Hartford Book, published this spring by Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Sam is also the author of Like a Sea, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010. His poems have appeared recently in American Poetry Review, Better, The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Ploughshares. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of South Carolina. We conducted this interview via email from our respective homes in Vermont and South Carolina.
What was the process of composition for The Hartford Book? How did it relate to your first book, Like a Sea?
I wrote the bulk of the poems that now make up The Hartford Book in 2004. It was my first semester at Columbia and I was working with Richard Howard. About once a week, I’d go to his apartment in the Village and I’d bring him three or four of these poems. He really showed me how to write them, but more than that he showed me that I could write them. I had thought of poetry as something careful and cool, and my poems didn’t sound anything like me (as in the “me” sitting in the diner opposite you). Richard changed all that. He was so excited by these poems; it was a motivation to write them. We’re obviously quite different people, Richard and I, and I think this was part of his fascination—it was like I was bringing him the news.
Anyway, I found a method for the poems: long, funny circles of talk that make shifts via association, and continually find their sad way back to where they started. That line also works as a fair description of most of my friends from Hartford. That’s part of what I was after: to bring out this way of being that feels local to the place, to the people, to me. After a long process of weeding out (I cut the book in half over seven years) and changing forms, I think I got some of that. In Like a Sea, I was trying to do everything but write The Hartford Book, not because “I wanted to get away from it,” but because I wanted to see how different I could be and still sound the same. Even the procedural poems in that book, like “Foghorns” which is drawn entirely from A Long Days Journey Into Night, feel to me as if they fit in a wide circle drawn around The Hartford Book.
Like almost everybody, I get really frustrated with the idea that half of poetry is off-limits. Or with the idea that you don’t have to read my poem, you just have to figure out which column it falls into on your aesthetic spreadsheet. So to some extent, I was happy to be publishing The Hartford Book after Like a Sea just to confuse matters. The best thing that came out of it, I think, is what it did to Andy Axel’s brain, evidenced here. With readers like him, I don’t think we have to be quite so afraid of the future.
How has Hartford/Connecticut as a landscape/place affect your development as a poet and the language in your work?
Well, Michael, as you might recall, it can be incredibly lonely. That’s partly what I think of when I think of Hartford. Driving in circles through empty streets and listening to the radio. Sitting by myself at the coffee place. Big empty parks. I didn’t do a lot of writing there, and I didn’t do a lot of reading. But for the part of being a poet that is about being alone, Hartford taught me how to do that. It’s not surprising that I grew up four or five blocks away from Stevens.
Tom and I had been searching for a way to do something collaborative together for a long time, but whatever we’d come up with seemed half as good as what we could’ve written on our own. In Controversy, we figured out the trick was coming up with a project that needed two authors, that couldn’t have been done by one person alone. Essentially what we did is a blind erasure. One of us would provide the other with sentences from a text that the other would erase, but we never told each other what they were erasing. And we added other constraints: if I took a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on my fifth bookshelf for Tom to erase, then Tom would take a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on his fifth bookshelf for me to erase. We picked the sentences ourselves, but chance had a role in choosing the pages. I really like how it turned out. It’s like a box of broadsides. Which is something I don’t think either one of us would’ve made on our own.
Does that process fall anywhere in what’s
been dubbed the Conceptual poetry spectrum?
I don’t know if I would call it conceptual exactly. I tend to think of conceptual writing as work that plays out a meaning that’s made off the page. Like Jackson Mac Low’s “Ridiculous in Piccadilly.” When you run through that poem, you “be poor always and unkempt”; you “be ridiculous in Piccadilly.” I don’t think that’s the case with what we did. I’d file Controversy under Procedural Epistolary. Because we were really erasing as a way to write to each other.
Do you consider the Hartford Whalers to be the 2006 Stanley Cup winner even though they won it as the “Carolina Hurricanes”?
No. But I did watch some footage of the end of the last Whalers game the other week, and wept a bit while looking for my dad and me in the crowd. Look I know that teams get moved, and the Whalers going to Durham is nothing like the Dodgers and Giants going to California or anything, but it has to be one of the stupidest and most wasteful thing’s that’s ever happened to a franchise. Rowland thought he’d move the Patriots to Hartford, so he let the Whalers go, and years later I drove by him walking his dogs on the street (when he was getting impeached) and shouted, “Governor, you’re an asshole.” If I saw Bob Kraft, I’d do the same thing.
We can both reconcile poets like John Berryman and Gertrude Stein in our own work, even though some consider them to represent disparate branches of poetry. Do you see these distinctions becoming more and more unnecessary for others?
Well it’s easy for me to do that with Berryman and Stein because we have so much in common—the three of us can’t shut up. Really, I think the idea of “disparate branches” is more to blame than the differences between any two poets. That’s the deception: all the long-drawn lineages. There’s no master plan that we’ll finally figure out, thank god. I don’t to mean to say that conflicts and influence, schools and rivalries don’t offer us anything, but that can’t keep us from reading these individual poems by these individual poets. We have to try to keep remembering that. Anyway I don’t think you reconcile Stein and Berryman—I think you put them in the same room and let the sparks fly.
What was it like to be published in The New Yorker for the first time?
Not to say that poetry hasn’t given me a lot, but it did feel pretty good to pay the last part of that month’s credit card bill with “the money from my poem.” It was unexpected. I sent into the slush for years. Turns out they actually read it.
Tell me a little bit about your current manuscript, Tourism.
With Tourism, I tried to play against myself section to section. Most immediately, this is visible in formal changes. There are poems in rigid syllabic patterns without punctuation. There are poems in received forms: Petrarchan sonnets and heroic couplets. But I also created difference by taking on subject matter that doesn’t quite fit with who I am. I never knew about the original Penn Station, the one they blew up to build MSG. And when I read about, I thought there’s a certain kind of poet who does research on something like this and then writes about it. Then I tried to do that myself, and by the end, I dropped the “there’s a certain kind of poet” part. The manuscript’s a departure from the first two—the word “Hartford” never appears—but inside, it’s full of these departures from itself.
You recently received your PhD from the University of Houston and are now teaching at the University of South Carolina. How have you found the experience?
I think if the MFA students I’m teaching weren’t generous and kind people who write interesting and daring poems that it would be a lot harder. For that I feel really lucky (beyond how lucky you have to feel just to have gotten a job.) I felt ready to make the move. I’m writing new poems now, after a bit of a drought, and I think teaching has a lot to do with that. Doing the PhD really gives you a chance to figure out what you think about workshop. You see how you think it should run, how you don’t think it should run. To my mind, it’s about being the best audience for the work. The idea that having someone waiting to read it—to really read it—has a lot to do with it getting written.
One of the derivations proposed for the name Canada is a Portuguese phrase meaning 'nobody here.'
-- Northrop Frye (in The Modern Century, 1967)
Compare to Gertrude Stein, "There's no there there," on Oakland. -- DL
Henry James and Edith Wharton often went "motoring" together. Wharton wrote about one such trip in A Motor-Flight Through France (1908). Here, she describes an experience with James while traveling in England:
From A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton
The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. […] While I was hesitating and peering out into the darkness James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. ‘Wait a moment, my dear—I’ll ask him where we are’; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
‘My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer—so,’ and as the old man came up: ‘My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.’
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: ‘In short’ (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), ‘in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to…’
‘Oh, please,’ I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, ‘do ask him where the King’s Road is.’
‘Ah—? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?’
‘Ye’re in it’, said the aged face at the window.
(after Henri Michaux)
Life is a labyrinth, and so is death,
A labyrinth without end, said the Master of Ho.
The slave remains in chains.
Prometheus is born again to suffer again.
One prison opens onto another,
Corridor onto corridor.
The river feeds its tributaries.
The river and its tributaries are a labyrinth,
And the man who believes he can shuffle off his coil
And live to tell the tale
Is the card shark who shuffles the deck
The centuries also live underground, said the Master of Ho.
-- David Lehman
This was my birthday present from Cheryl and John, who hosted a fabulous birthday dinner party for me in the garden here. It's a feast of colors and flavors, as is my stay here. Cheryl Fortier is the Director of Moulin a Nef, the artist colony where I'm staying.
artisanal soap shop in town
One of the four artists staying here left today, so it was a little bit sad. In the morning, I walked into town with Yona Harvey, the other American poet in residence here, and we stopped in the soap shop, where the proprietor makes all the soaps as well as eau de toilette, with every possible scent. I bought the violet one because it smelled just like the candies of my youth that my son now also likes.
Here are the four of us: Aurelien Morrisse (French painter), Michelle Acuff (sculptor, visual artist, who left today), Yona Harvey (American poet), and moi (NY poet who would rather use color than words). I am hoping, perhaps, in a later post to talk about their work.
It's also the 56th anniversary of the day Nasser took control of the Suez Canal, which began the Suez Canal Crisis, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt, not least of whom was Edmond Jabes, beloved poet/philosopher, who moved to Paris. Would he have become the writer he became had he remained in Egypt? Would the taste of exile be so palpable in his work?
Color, eau de toilette, and exile. These are the three moods of the day.
I suppose I came here because even these brief sojourns elsewhere are the way I, like many artists, can, in a self-imposed exile, receive the word in the desert. For Jabes, the Jew was the quintessential outsider, the "foreigner of foreigners."
at the base of the clock tower in Auvillar, in homage to Marcabrun
Auvillar is the birthplace of Marcabrun, a troubadour poet born around 1100, who is famous for writing a song that was used as inspiration during the Crusades, in which Jews as well as Moslems were massacred.
So my stay here continues to be rife with contradiction. As it turns out, the Garonne may be off-limits for swimming because of all the pesticide run-off. To be continued . . .
My father, the author of the name that stands in ironic counterpoint to my olive-skinned, decidedly Mediterranean face, the Hennessy in all of my colonial and cosmological confusion and a devout non-believer himself, was studying psychology through out my childhood. By the time he got his Ph.D., just as I was leaving for college, my mother had also taken up the couch and eventually they were both studying down in the mines at the New York Psychoanalytical Institute. The complete works of Sigmund Freud, and next to them the complete works of daughter Anna, occupied the most prominent spot in the house, the mantel over a useless fireplace. We all grew up knowing very well how we "felt" about everything—even before we actually felt it. There was no way we could march unconsciously through all of those Oedipal dramas, my four sisters—each an Electra—and I. We were steeped in myth.
Your ancestors may not have spent time on quite the same merry-go-round of religious belief as my Sicilian forebears (see yesterday’s post,The Moody Temple), but we’ve all grown up with Freud on the mantel. Oedipal is prominent in our lexicon.
My favorite character from mythology is Pan, the Falstaff of the ancient world. Despite his great comic timing, you could say that Pan was a bit of an Oedipal wreck. Funny, though, to say that Pan had Oedipal problems: Oedipal, that is, in the contemporary shorthand. But he didn’t want to kill his father, Hermes, and there was no danger of his sleeping with his mother, Dryope—she wouldn’t let him anywhere near her.
Hermes had tricked the mortal shepherdess Dryope into marrying him: after she refused him when he came to her as a god, he transformed himself into a goatherd and seduced her that way. Pan’s “birth-defects,” the goat-legs, wonky ears, and horns, were a cosmic joke—retribution for Hermes’ cunning. Pan had a face that even a mother couldn’t love, and Dryope skipped out, furious at Hermes, disgusted by her son. If nothing else, Hermes had a sense of humor. He found the baby Pan delightful. He gave the boy music lessons and launched his career as a solo artist.
So why call Pan’s problems Oedipal?
According to Freud, “(Oedipus’) destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so” (4:262; Vol. 4 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press). But Freud butchers the myth of Oedipus here. This wasn’t Oedipus’s fate at all. Even my father the Freudian would agree.
About ten years ago he and I had an interesting conversation. I was teaching a class called “Metamorphoses: Myths and Modern Literature” at Boston University; the next day I was going to begin our discussion comparing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Greek, a late-twentieth century revision by the playwright Steven Berkoff. At the end of Berkoff’s version, full of wild and ranting Cockney logomania, Eddy and Wife (Jocasta) decide to stay together. As for blinding and exiling himself, Eddy says, “Bollocks to all that. I’d rather run all the way back and pull back the sheets, witness my golden-bodied wife and climb into her sanctuary, climb all the way in right up to my head…”
Dad clucked at that, calling it the obvious irony.
But for the nihilistic anti-hero Eddy, buzzing and fucking his way through working-class London, that ending is inevitable.
"Machinery will have so much Americanized us, progress will have so much atrophied our spiritual element, that nothing in the sanguinary, blasphemous or or unnatural dreams of the Utopists can be compared to what will actually happen."
That statement was written 150 years ago by Charles Baudelaire in an unfinished work published posthumously in 1887, 20 years after his death, and translated by Richard Howard in a little book called Intimate Journals. Merely change the word "machinery" to "technology" and it sounds fairly accurate.
Compare it to this contemporary aphorism by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Lebanese, educated in French schools in Lebanon and at the University of Paris as well as in the U.S.) from his recent aphorism collection The Bed of Procrustes:
"The book is the only thing left that hasn't been corrupted by the profane: everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad."
I only realized how strong the pull of the marketplace is when even I was tempted to allow ads on my personal blog Whirlwind in order to make some money. Thus far, I have resisted the call.
I came to France (and the Basque Country) to continue my work on aphorisms. And, of course, I felt I should read some collections by the French, especially since it seems, according to Alfred Corn, that the French were the ones who began to treat aphorisms as witty, pithy statements.
The problem I have with some of Baudelaire is that he is so often interested in shocking us out of our bourgeois propriety. And that is the most dated and least shocking thing about him. As when he starts off on the first page, declaring:
"Love is a liking for prostitution. There are no pleasures, not even noble ones, whose origin cannot be traced to prostitution. . . . What is art? Prostitution."
Are you beginning to yawn?
"Commerce is essentially satanic."
Only a deeply religious man could seek to offend the pious by talking of Satan. (moi)
[Though, now, since I have had a night without internet service and thus time to ponder, I wonder if Baudelaire wasn't right after all: that even my contemplation of allowing ads on my site wouldn't be a kind of prostitution. . .]
In a future post, I'll talk about one of my favorite French aphorists, Edmond Jabes, an Egyptian Jew by birth.
I'll leave you with one sketch for an aphorism (an aphorism for me encompassing the personal "horizon," which is part of the etymology of aphorism, as in setting boundaries [see my little essay ])
Today on my bike, I rode by Avenue Monplaisir, but I knew if I stopped, I would not find it. Is that my fate: to knowingly (or, perhaps, unknowingly) be passing my pleasure by?
Psalm on Sifnos
One does not want,
O Lord, to heap
Up by still waters
Of words a cairn
But hopes to attend
A small covert
Whose leaves salty
Will shed light over
A thickened plot.
One wants at last
To cede the field
And mastic tree,
To olive and stone,
Stones in the fruit,
Seed in the stones.
Like this poem by Stephen Yenser, a straight-razor-witted fellow Hellenophile I got to know on a visit here several years ago, the island is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. From the ferry, Sifnos looks denuded, its smooth volcanic peaks all sun firing across a yellow skull. Disembark, though, and you begin to see that flora here is cunning, vines shifting along every available crack in stone, tamarisks lining the beach, olive trees low and orderly up on the terraces digging their roots deep.
The people living here are pretty clever too; over the last five thousand years they’ve developed an architecture and agriculture to survive in style. Their houses are all clean lines and square angles, a series of unfolding cubes, thick-walled to be cool in summer, warm in winter, and painted uniformly white, shutters a limited variety of blue, green, brown, and pink. The blue and white domes of churches—one for every day of the year, one for every sixth Sifnian—speckle each inhabited hillside. Shrubs, vines, and fruit trees surround the buildings: lemons, limes, oranges, figs, pomegranates, mimosas, almonds, cascading bougainvillea, shady grape arbors, banks of flowering capers and night-blooming jasmine, enormous geraniums, and on and on. Beyond the limits of each town there are farmers’ fields, orchards, and pastures, chickens pecking, goats grazing, the odd cow, pig, or sheep poking, donkeys, horses and mules performing their tasks or stalling in attitudes of sublime passive aggression.
And of course there is the sea. Visible from virtually every inch of this island. It’s kind of blue.
Our arrival on Sifnos was a happy accident. In the summer of 2000, we found ourselves between apartments—Sabina Murray, Nicholas, our first child, two years old at the time, and I. In September we were to move into free housing on the campus of Phillips Academy, Andover, where Sabina would serve as writer-in-residence for three years, but until then we had nowhere to go. We looked into summer sublets and seasonal rentals in Boston, Maine, southern New Hampshire, the Jersey Shore, all places near friends or family, but found nothing we could afford. It was actually cheaper, in the last years of the drachma, to go to Greece for a couple of months, than to stay in any of those local places. We moved around the Aegean that summer, but Sifnos was our favorite spot and we continue to return there when we can.
Our apartment on Sifnos abuts the grounds of the chapel of Panagia Ouranofora, once a temple to Apollo, the god from whom our town, Apollonia, the island’s capital, takes its name. Lengths of marble column and fragments from the walls of the temple have been integrated into the more modestly designed church, and ancient marble blocks still provide a few of the long steps up from the steno, the path that cuts between a block of terraced white Cycladic houses and Mamma Mia, the popular Italian restaurant next door.
I feel deeply moved by this site; I’m at home here.
Last week I was wandering around the giant warehouse of a bookstore on the rue de Rennes called the FNAC, and in a fit of nostalgia I found myself face- to-face with the “Literary Criticism” section. It was a sad moment. On a whole floor bursting at the seams with novels from every continent, histories of every century, sociology, religion, political theory, and you-name-it---and in the country that has inspired countless budding literary critics the world around….Literary Criticism got two small book cases. They looked embarrassed, those two minuscule towers wedged between two other bookcases labeled “Biography” and “Literary History” (and literary history turned out to mean textbooks designed to prepare French students for their various state exams). This Literary Criticism section was nothing to shout about. It had some recent editions of Blanchot, a translation of David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction; books by the 17th century scholar Marc Fumaroli, and almost everything by Antoine Compagnon, a brilliant writer, but alone on that shelf in thinking about how criticism has evolved and what it might mean today. Also, mis -shelved but inviting, Eric Fottorino’s exposé of his years as writer and editor in chief at Le Monde: Mon tour du "Monde". Some good books, some great books, some enervating books, but they added up to nothing-- no sense of a movement, no collective energy.
All of which made me reflect on the state of literary criticism in general. The last big thing in France, before cognitive science at least, was called “genetic criticism.” By comparing manuscript variants of masterpieces on their way to being published, genetic critics hoped to discover something really interesting about literary creation. These genetic critics had the following intuition: Maybe what the French theorists meant in the 1970s when they announced the death of the author was not so much that the author was dead but that the book was alive! And if you could get as close as possible to whatever set of choices constituted the making of a book, you would have committed an essential act of criticism—and gone one better than interpretation.
You have to be a pretty serious nerd to love genetic criticism. Whereas Michael Gorra has taken the same insights as the genetic critics, the same scholarly finesse, and created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end. His meditative and deeply pleasurable Portrait of a Novel : Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece cured my melancholy over the state of criticism by page xxiv—and I hadn’t even started the first chapter. I’m reading galleys, and his book is going to be published at the end of August. Dear Reader, order it!
Gorra has invented a genre that ought to catch on among literary critics in search of a method: the biography of the novel. It’s not obvious what the biography of a novel should entail, but the first thing Gorra does is to show us James’ Portrait of a Lady as it has always been for him—a living, breathing miracle. There are the essential things, beautifully done…. Where James was when he wrote Portrait of a Lady, his state of mind, his family and friendships, the places he traveled and how they expanded his vision, his drive, his talent, his limits and his secrets. He revisits the trampled ground of James’ “sources,” rejecting the literal-minded source hunting that made people like Barthes and Blanchot want to kill off author studies in the first place.
Here’s one of a thousand sentences I love in Portrait of a Novel; it’s about the way James channels his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Venice suicide into a rush of short stories-- “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Jolly Corner, and “The Friends of the Friends.” :
A solitary man, a sympathetic woman: it’s as though James were shaking the dice of character, and rolling them again and again; different combinations of the same two pieces, chronicles of could-haves and should-haves and even second chances.
Gorra has found a tantalizing structure that allows him to go back and forth between James’ life, the scenes of his writing, and the development of his characters-- especially Isabel, the centerpiece--who all emerge here as they should: more real than their sources. There are places in Portrait of a Novel where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel—a masterpiece of critical imagination.
Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. 384 pages. W.W. Norton. August 2012.
Greetings from Sifnos, Greece, an island in the Western Cyclades, quiet sibling to the flashier and better known Santorini and Mykonos. Before I arrived this summer for my tenth return trip, like everyone else I was worried about the economy. How were my friends and acquaintances here handling the Draconian austerity measures Germany insists on imposing? Would Greece quit the Eurozone, default on its loans, return to the drachma? Part of me certainly hoped so: to this outside observer, the currency switch in 2002 had always seemed much better for the rich, worse for the middle and working class, another way for the wealthy to loot the country—as their American fellows do. (Don’t tell me about Greeks evading taxes until Mitt Romney, who may be our next president, releases his tax records.) In 2002, prices of everyday goods and services soared to fit the Euro, but wages for workers stayed low, still tied to drachma rates.
The tourism industry took a hit then, too, as fewer middle class Europeans could afford the hotel rates and meal costs, the hikes in airfares and airport security fees. Athens and the islands were quieter. Even the backpackers from the Antipodes and North America stopped coming in their high-spirited droves, seeking out cheaper beach spots in Turkey and Vietnam.
While international tourism had begun to pick up again in the last ten years, Sifnos is close enough to Piraeus—three hours by high speed ferry—to be popular with Greeks, especially wealthy Athenians. Last summer you noticed their absence, despite the many French (more posey swan-dives from the rocks, less bouzouki-driven pop music, no p.d.a.) who seem to be trying to take their place. Clearly it wasn’t this clan of French who coined the phrase joie de vivre. Although I felt positive about sticking to my plan to return to Greece, no matter what happened in the election on June 17th and its aftermath, part of me worried I’d fill with self-reproach: What kind of opportunist takes a vacation in a country on the brink of fiscal collapse?
But I find instead that as you move away from Athens, particularly Syntagma Square, ground zero for the protests against the austerity measures, people are reluctant to talk to visitors about the suffering. Even my good friend Helena, who is sorting out her mother’s finances, came home from a meeting with the tax officer mostly keeping mum. She did say that she’ll try to sell some property, that the real-estate tax hikes are ridiculous, impossible to meet. But what’s really killing everyone right now is the fee schedule for electric service, which takes a page from the loan shark’s book: every six months everyone—no matter how little electricity one consumes—has to pay a “connection fee”; collecting revenues through utilities is yet another way to make the working and middle class pay, another way to avoid the graduated income tax—which puts the burden on the rich. Helena mostly hinted at this with a series of small jokes and ironic nods, and I filled in the gaps. Hardly what we’d call in New Jersey, where I grew up, complaint.
Greece will survive. Chin up. The sense I get in the Cyclades is that after more than four thousand years of negotiation, of colonizing and being colonized, withstanding attacks from within and without by Ionians, Samians, Minoans, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, Nazis, bankers and every other form of pirate, they must be right to be if not optimistic then stoic. That hasn’t stopped me from asking questions, of course.
From all of the news articles I’ve read lately, three documents have helped me understand the political/economic situation in Greece these days, and here they are:
Arianna Huffington’s New York Times editorial from May 13, 2012, “Greek Tragedy”:
(Huffington makes clear that the Greeks refuse to mortgage the future of their children, so the austerity measures will never be acceptable to most of them. Read this article and then consider our willingness, in the United States, to allow our children, our young people, our college students, to go fifty, one hundred, even two hundred thousand dollars into debt before they receive their degrees.)
John Lanchester’s New Yorker Comment from June 18, 2012, “Greece vs. the Rest”
The third document is an email I received from an old friend who, among other things, is a Hellenic Studies professor:
“The situation in Greece is unbelievable and I avoid Athens at all costs. I just moved back to the US after living in France for four years, during which time I went to Greece often -- but for most trips I flew direct from Paris to Crete and didn't stop in Athens at all; I gave a lecture at the U of Athens a year ago and the only people on the streets after 10pm were junkies and homeless immigrants (many whole families). Nothing really good is being written on "the crisis" in English, partly since it's breaking news and partly since the English press is just reporting from afar (and mainly just replicating the AP wire version of events). One of the grimmest aspects for me is the rise of the Golden Dawn, the fascist right wing party that used to exist mainly in the Diaspora (it was really strong among Greek Americans in Astoria) but now is popular in Greece, too. There is a strong xenophobic thread in all Greek society and it isn't at its best right now. In my view (which is the minority one) they should get out of the Euro, exit the EU, and figure out how to be less dependent on tourism. But I don't think any of that is going to happen.”
François Hollande was calm and presidential on French television yesterday. Speaking of his function rather than his person, he suggested that the President of the Republic must soothe, conciliate, and compromise. In a world where denial is the common currency, the way he explained the French economic disaster was reassuring: “There are three figures that everyone needs to keep in mind: national debt at 90% of the GDP; unemployment at 10%; a deficit of 70 billion euros.”
What it will take to balance the budget? Not austerity, but rather “l'effort juste.” Words still mean a lot in this country, words and symbols. "L'effort juste", “effort with justice”, means that cutbacks will aim to be fair. No sales tax increase for example. There’s an echo too, that my inner French student wants to hear, of “le juste milieu”: just the right balance. Hollande has taken a 30% salary cut and so will the heads of the state owned enterprises.
And indiscreet tweets from his entourage? “It will not happen again”-- cela ne se reproduira plus. His most demanding listeners bristled when he referred to his partner by her first name --“Valérie.” Wasn’t this too personal for a president who wants to keep the private private? True, a note of tenderness slipped into his voice, personal tenderness. But I can’t imagine him having said “Madame Treirweiller.” This is territory deeply foreign to Americans, we who are used to our politicians with spouses attached to their coattails. Deeply foreign and instructive. There’s a lot of talk about a “normal” presidency: no hyped up schemes, no bling bling, no constant changes of course. FDR in 1933.
And so around midnight, French men and women, and a few assorted beasts, gathered on the widest streets in viewing distance of the Eiffel Tower to watch a fireworks display that was effortful, not austere. I made my way to the avenue de Breteuil with other wanderers; it’s never as jammed with people as the Trocadéro or the rue saint Dominique. Still, I always remember how Henry Miller described it in Tropic of Cancer: “that open tomb of an Avenue de Breteuil which at ten o’clock in the evening is so silent, so dead, that it makes one think of murder or suicide, anything that might create a vestige of human drama.” Last night, from 11:30 to 12, the streets were packed and the people were silent, hypnotized by the shimmering iron lady and her multi-color crackle and pop.
Finally, is it my imagination, or are Jack Russell Terriers everywhere in Paris since The Artist won an Oscar? Pictured here is a Jack Russell with his companion, a wire haired fox terrier. Uggie from The Artist and Milou from Tintin watching the fireworks on the Avenue de Breteuil, Paris, July 14, 2012.
After my lecture at the Glycines, a university professor talked about what Camus means to Algerians today. What she said may have been familiar to everyone in the room, but it was completely new to me:
“It’s true that Camus was banished for a long time, by critics, readers, etc. I don’t think it’s The First Man that brought him back. It was the situation, the terrorism we experienced in the period we call our civil war (1990s). A lot of Algerians realized then that there might be a parallel, that they were in fact a little like those French Algerians from before, from the 1950s and 60s—Algerians whose stature as Algerians wasn’t being recognized. And so they started to reread Camus from that perspective. Those Algerians in the 1990s recognized themselves in Camus—whose Algerian dimension was denied, whether it was in his novels, in his refusal to take a position or in the positions he did take— the constant vacillation, the hesitation, the not being able to figure out what is going on or take a clear position. Since we were experiencing those same hesitations, we read him again in a new way. There were a lot of bridges. I remember how we felt threatened in our Algerian identity [by Islam fundamentalists]: what, we were supposed to leave Algeria now? We’re as much Algerians as they are! It was a scandal! Also there was the question of exile: people were leaving the country and they were criticized. Had they done the right thing? Did they have a choice? That new identification still doesn’t mean that Camus has finally been accepted as an Algerian writer. Last year there was a kind of triumphant cancellation of a caravan that was supposed to tour the country with readings of Camus. But that project was almost immediately cancelled, for reasons no one understood. There was a lot of opposition. And that was shocking.”
She reminded the audience that Feraoun, the father of Algerian literature, quoted Camus’ The Plague in the epigraph of his first novel, Le Fils du pauvre.
It’s going to be impossible to convey in this blog what it felt like listening to N* .speak about literature. I learned later that her husband had been murdered during the dirty wars, one of 100,000—and that she had never left Algeria. Afterwards I thought, if it had been an American event, she might have stood up and told her whole life story and not said much about Camus. And instead, here, Camus was a way of thinking about real life.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.