Blogging is joining in a many-sided conversation with dear invisible friends, each in our own private echo chamber ... and sometimes blogging is a lot like talking to ourselves …
Click on the play icon below to hear Garrison Keillor recite the poem Talking to Ourselves by Philip Schultz:
Talking to Ourselves
by Philip Schultz
A woman in my doctor's office last week
couldn't stop talking about Niagara Falls,
the difference between dog and deer ticks,
how her oldest boy, killed in Iraq, would lie
with her at night in the summer grass, singing
Puccini. Her eyes looked at me but saw only
the saffron swirls of the quivering heavens.
Yesterday, Mr. Miller, our tidy neighbor,
stopped under our lopsided maple to explain
how his wife of sixty years died last month
of Alzheimer's. I stood there, listening to
his longing reach across the darkness with
each bruised breath of his eloquent singing.
This morning my five-year-old asked himself
why he'd come into the kitchen. I understood
he was thinking out loud, personifying himself,
but the intimacy of his small voice was surprising.
When my father's vending business was failing,
he'd talk to himself while driving, his lips
silently moving, his black eyes deliquescent.
He didn't care that I was there, listening,
what he was saying was too important.
"Too important," I hear myself saying
in the kitchen, putting the dishes away,
and my wife looks up from her reading
and asks, "What's that you said?"
Patrick Sylvain is a Haitian-American poet and writer who teaches at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at Brown University. The latest Weekly Poem segment on the PBS News Hour Art Beat blog features the poem "Ports of Sorrow". In the accompanying embedded audio, Patrick Sylvain prefaces his recital of the poem with an explanation of how the earthquake in his native land came at the same time as he and his wife were losing their unborn baby. From this atrocious coincidence comes this poem:
Ports of Sorrow
Early January afternoon, I stand in my own port of pain Intertwined with my wife as we moan death-like an incision To the core. Barbed notes in a soprano's throat.
Port-au-Prince has become an archipelago of open tombs Consumed slowly by the sun and forming an ever lasting covenant. This unrelenting port is a cup of their blood. May the sins Of the prince be forgiven and forgive those who have trespassed Against "the wretched of this earth."
The port of prince is a mausoleum of dirt-embroidered bodies, A quarry of dried tongues begging for holy water and bread. No bread was ever broken and the disciples feared the masses.
Port-au-Prince has neither port nor prince, But satellites beam our misery as we line up, Wounded, broken, seeking shelter anywhere but home. There is no anchor for anger, and no anchor for despair. The prince departed centuries ago with our coffer, leaving Broken chariots and cobwebbed treasuries.
The port of prince is a mausoleum of dirt-embroidered bodies, I wake at night shuddering and intertwined with my wife In our own port of pain. The clock does not stop at our will, And how I wish to turn the hand of time, changing the prince's Morbid cloak, but our ill-constructed port mimicked our timid steps And breath. The departed last gulp of air is its breath, the relay of life.
Port-au-Prince has neither port nor prince, As tempests incessantly sweep through, 1804's bright filament becomes faint and sad, Dimming like a dying firefly. Life mocks us With sadistic laughter. I feel burdened by death, Losses and corpses swarming in my chest. I need a stronger port to anchor their souls.
I find his "mausoleum of dirt-embroidered bodies", "barbed notes in a soprano's throat", "broken chariots and cobwebbed treasuries", "a quarry of dried tongues begging for holy water and bread" all to be extremely powerful images of the dire suffering to which he bears witness.
I do not know if it is possible for artists to hew a stone of hope out of this mountain of despair (to use Dr. Martin Luther King's stirring words), but if it can be done, I imagine it will be with tools such as those wielded by Patrick Sylvain.
On January 25th 1882, one hundred twenty-eight years ago today, Adeline Virginia Stephen, known to all as Virginia Woolf, was born. Here she is pictured with her mother Julia.
— So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.
— The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.
— Language is wine upon the lips.
— Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. It is our business to puncture gas bags and discover the seeds of truth.
— My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery — always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What's this passion for?
— That great Cathedral space which was childhood.
— This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.
I could go on but will instead heed her warning:
One has to secrete a jelly in which to slip quotations down people's throats - and one always secretes too much jelly.
The top portrait is by Roger Fry, the other two are by her sister Vanessa Bell, pictured below with Virginia:
Good morrow, gallants! Want ye corn for bread? We come not to add sorrow to your tears, But to relieve them of their heavy load; And these our ships, you happily may think Are like the Trojan horse was stuff'd within With bloody veins, expecting overthrow, Are stored with corn to make your needy bread, And give them life whom hunger starved half dead. For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king? Eating the bitter bread of banishment.
That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand; O monstrous! but one half-penny-worth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack! And his kissing is as full of sanctity as the touch of holy bread; his appetite is more to bread than stone: sleep so soundly as the wretched slave, Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread;
He took my father grossly, full of bread; With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May; Let us revenge this with our pikes, ere we become rakes: for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.
And if this makes no sense, then please know that:
My reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search. I love not the humour of bread and cheese, and there's the humour of it. Adieu.
The above overyeasted and underbaked concoction was put together with bits and pieces pilfered from a secret recipe book found in the basement of a bakery in Stratford-upon-Avon.
This week's Theme Thursday is "Surface". See the link further below for more participants.
When is a surface not a surface? ... When Renaissance inspiration converts it into a spectral interface between painting and architecture, dissolves a ceiling into thin air, balloons a flat fresco into a celestial nave.
Bruce McAdam. For a very high resolution reproduction of the ceiling fresco click here.
I should explain ...
There is a church in Rome, the Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio (Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius), which tends to be overlooked by most visitors and sightseers. This is understandable enough, given the many marvels offered by the Eternal City. I happened to stroll into Sant'Ignazio late one afternoon, on my way from the Fontana di Trevi to the nearby Pantheon, both of which are certainly on everyone's must-see sites.
And there, quite unexpectedly, I beheld a wondrous illusion created by the painter Andrea Pozzo in the late 1600s applying the perspectival insights, techniques and discoveries pioneered years earlier by Brunelleschi and other Renaissance giants. Pozzo painted a huge fresco (diameter of 17 meters) on the nave ceiling depicting the apotheosis of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. As a painting it will not rival the Sistine Chapel as a masterwork, but the effect it creates is outstanding.
There is a red circle on the floor marking the ideal vantage point for experiencing the full illusion. When you first enter the church and see the enormous fresco, the images are flat and somewhat distorted, but as you approach the red disk everything rises and rounds into place, the columns stand up, the angels and other figures float upward and the sky seems to soar endlessly away, the surface magically dissolved.
The embedded video below explains and captures some of the illusion, better than the photos do:
Along with everyone else in the church at that time, I spent a good while shuffling back and forth, trying not to bump into the others as we gazed upward, converging on and then stepping back from the spot from where the last vanishing point of all vanishing points vanished, spellbound by the eerie rise and fall of the columns, the angels alternately ballooning and deflating and the sky opening and closing to the heavens. Another even more curious video might well have been a view from the ceiling of the gawking tourist, all eyes fixed upwards, as we moved to and fro in fascinated rings around the visual magnet on the floor.
So if you have never been there, I recommend a visit to Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio next time you are in Rome. It won't take long and it is easy to sandwich in between the weightier wonders of that magnificent city. And no matter how compelling the illusion may seem, remember ... you'll only be scratching the surface.
This post has twice been disrupted and upended by seismic events. One frightening but not lethal, and the other on a much greater scale with a horrendous toll in death and suffering we do not yet know but which surely “will be more than any of us can ever bear” as one celebrity mayor once so emotively warned in the steaming aftermath of a cataclysm closer to home.
I had wanted to follow up my previous astronomy post with another one about my penchant for a different type of celestial gazing: satellite spotting. This was prompted by a comment made by Jeffscape — he of the much appreciated Irrelevant Irreverence blog — asking whether I have ever observed the International Space Station (ISS) through a telescope. Jeff’s question quickly started the tiny spacecraft of my mind racing and wanting to share with all of you the joys of catching a view of the ISS as it majestically sweeps across the night sky or a glimpse of an Iridium satellite flash flaring its light out of the late evening or even daytime sky.
But while scanning the trembling stars for some inspiration for the post, that plan was preempted by the earth shaking below, not exactly beneath me here in south-central Spain, but way over in northern California, with epicenter in Eureka.
You see, I have family in Eureka, namely my aunt Joan Gold, whom I mentioned in one of my earliest posts on this blog. Joan is a painter and collage maker, born and raised in Brooklyn (‘God’s country’ as my also Brooklyn-born father will always quip). She studied art at The Cooper Union and the Brooklyn Museum, and then, in 1955, at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Caracas, Venezuela, under a US State Department fellowship to paint and study.
In Venezuela she met, fell in love with and married Fernando, my mother’s oldest brother, with whom she had four children. The demands of childrearing and teaching as associate professor at Universidad Metropolitana in the Venezuelan capital, and an environment in and out of the home that was cruelly unwelcoming to the idea of a woman with a paintbrush and not just a broom, all combined to largely put her art work on hold for much of the 24 years she remained in Venezuela. In 1979 she returned to the US, along with her by then adult children and minus one soon-to-be-ex-husband, and settled in northern California, where she would take up her brushes once again. And she has immersed herself in her painting ever since.
Except for my earliest pre-memory years (the five I spent in Caracas, where I was born, before moving to the US), Joan and I have seen each other but a handful of times and perhaps only once in the last 25 years or so. Years and decades slid by with no contact. Blogging has brought this connection back to life.
But I was very much in touch with her husband, my tío Fernando, with whom I had always enjoyed a warm rapport in my childhood and teen years, a ‘quiet understanding’ we would come to call it. This later blossomed into one of the most important friendships in my life, one of those relationships that gently, almost imperceptibly but firmly, changes the course of one’s little rowboat. I will not go into the loving details but just say that Fernando had much to do with my coming to Spain back in 1985, and even more with why I have stayed here for these past 25 years. But this influence was also ‘quiet’ and it is only now, over two decades later, and more than 10 years after Fernando passed away, that I have come to realize just how strong it was.
However resolutely I push and pull the oars and eye the compass, the years have taught me that there are always unseen currents at work, there is a silent hand at the helm and secret rudders steer our craft.
I savor the irony in discovering that now, as my appreciation for the warmth and care and direction Fernando gave me ripens to gold, even while my memories of him are going sepia, my connection with Joan has reawakened and bursts out in full living color.
For Joan Gold is anything but sepia. She is all color and all colors. A student, master, connoisseur, visual poet of the rainbow, an impressionist in a kaleidoscope. Her art work is non-representational and focused, as she explains on her web page, on “luminous color”, striving to create in her studio “a place of refuge, filled with color and light”, furthering art’s mission to “communicate joy, balance, harmony, beauty and serenity” — something I feel she achieves to marvelous effect. But judge for yourself in the accompanying slideshow of photos of some of her work that I have downloaded from her website.
And, like me, she is also a fledgling blogger. This cyberworld has allowed us to get back in touch. Throughout the day on Sunday, after learning of the California earthquake, with the epicenter apparently very close to her home in Eureka, we were in touch by email. Fortunately, we soon learned that there was no loss of life, just property damage and a lot of rattled nerves. This brought back scary memories of a truly horrific earthquake in Caracas that Joan, Fernando and my four cousins lived through back in 1967, a tremor that did cause major damage and several hundred deaths. I recall my cousin Fernando recounting how, 10 years old at the time, he hid under his bed spellbound with fear throughout the shaking.
On Monday, Joan emailed me, saying: “yesterday was spent cleaning up the broken pottery and telling each other how fortunate we were because it could have been so much worse … when we had that earthquake in Caracas in 1967 I kept counting my four chicks for days afterwards, always afraid one might get out of sight. It is an awful experience and an extraordinary one to feel the earth jolt and shudder under you and to see the walls around you lean and buckle.”
So there you have my aunt Joan. Thanks to blogging we now keep in touch and I can take pleasure in seeing her from afar, now well into her eighth decade, survivor of two earthquakes and the shipwreck of a beautiful love and impossible marriage, busy in her studio everyday, diligently keeping up her end of the artist’s stern compact with the daemons and genies of inspiration and creativity (see post on Elizabeth Gilbert's wonderful talk), weaving and unweaving the rainbow day in and night out, a chromatic Penelope painting her own merry-go-round Odyssey.
Below I am placing images of her artwork in the alchemist’s kaleidoscope. As a soundtrack for Joan’s art I offer one of my favorite tunes, Warm Canto, from Mal Waldron’s 1961 album The Quest, which I am embedding for the audio just under the slideshow. In another post I would like to discuss this musical performance further. But for now, let me just invite you to listen to the piece as you watch Joan's art work gliding by; listen to Eric Dolphy’s stirring clarinet solo, most especially to the squawk at 1 minute 14 seconds into the video …
… and ponder the following question: is that dark squeal a 'mistake' or is it the soulful signature bleat of this great reedman? For me, much more than a defect, it is the crowning touch, the most memorable bit in a very memorable piece. The moment where the emotion of the song breaks through, where the reed seems to shudder and crack and the artist yelps with emotion, like the telltale hitch in the voice of a storyteller ruing a sour personal fate.
What do you think? Defect or virtue? Or is there a difference?
And when you’re finished, if you find the time and inclination, visit Joan Gold at her blog, take in and enjoy her art work, wish her the best, help quell the aftershocks with your kind words, celebrate her courageous colors as she gratefully counts her chicks …
* * *
Forgive me if it seems callous on my part for putting up this post, concentrated as it is on the Eureka earthquake, which, however frightening it must have been, was a mere tectonic hiccup compared to what has happened in Port-au-Prince. Haiti, a beautiful and once lush land, the first nation to win its independence in Latin America, but long ago withered to the woeful status of most impoverished nation in the western hemisphere, with one of the world’s highest indices of pain&suffering per square inch and capita. And now the capital city writhes further buried under untold tons of rubble and a thickening avalanche of misery.
I am sure Joan’s prayerful tally of her four chicks and assorted blessings will echo all the louder and darker as one dreadful dispatch after another comes limping in about the devastation in Haiti. And here I sit talking, writing about rainbows and Penelopes, bass clarinets and errant squeals. I hope it does not sound flippant. But when I turn my thoughts to the dire situation unfolding in the land of the great Toussaint L’ouverture … words, images, metaphors, prayers all seem to fail me. May those suffering souls be with all of us, in our thoughts and prayers … ¿and actions?
I know that I am mortal and the creature of a day; but when I search out the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the Earth, but, side by side with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food of the gods. — Claudius Ptolemy
Attention all stargazers, for your daily nightly fill of celestial ambrosia, I recommend the NASA sponsored Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). The site runs a different image every day, with a paragraph of illuminating commentary by a professional astronomer, featuring loads of links to fuller more detailed explanations of everything from the science of stardust, supernovas and pulsars to how events in the night sky have shaped human history and impact mythology and art, although it is far heavier on the science than on the art. The images and photographs are usually of striking quality, and you can download very high definition copies.
A good example from some months ago was the following image taken by the Hubble space telescope of the Crab Nebula and its mysterious filaments (APOD October 25, 2009):
NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU); Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin (Skyfactory)
It was accompanied by the following explanation:
This is the mess that is left when a star explodes. The Crab Nebula, the result of a supernova seen in 1054 AD, is filled with mysterious filaments. The filaments are not only tremendously complex, but appear to have less mass than expelled in the original supernova and a higher speed than expected from a free explosion. The above image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is presented in three colors chosen for scientific interest. The Crab Nebula spans about 10 light-years. In the nebula's very center lies a pulsar: a neutron star as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town. The Crab Pulsar rotates about 30 times each second.
On the APOD site the above paragraph contained 15 links or so, which I am too lazy to reproduce here. For example, clicking on mysterious in “mysterious filaments” brings up the following film-animation version released by NASA and the European Space Agency of the supernova explosion that left this beautiful “mess”.
And clicking on "1054 AD", takes you to a discussion of why the accompanying image (as photographed by Ron Lussier) is thought to be a petroglyph made by Anasazi Indian artists (in present-day Arizona and New Mexico) depicting the supernova which produced the great Crab Nebula, which shone four times as intensely as Venus at its brightest and could be seen in daylight for 23 straight days.
And if you click on … no, I won’t go on and on, you get the picture …
Russian poet Vera Pavlova spends her time between New York and Moscow, where she was born in 1963. She has published 14 collections of verse in Russian and is now scheduled to have her first book of poems translated into English released by Knopf on January 19th.
One of the perhaps few good things about being ignorant is that it prepares me for many happy discoveries every day. I was completely unacquainted with Vera Pavlova and her work until a few days ago when I came across an article by Mike Melia on the always-worth-a-look-and-a-listen PBS Art Beat blog. There you can find links to her website (can find one here, too) and to some of her poems that have appeared in Tin House and The New Yorker, a few accompanied by audio of the poet herself reciting the pieces. I particularly liked the video interview with Pavlova and recommend it. Follow the link, I cannot embed it here.
In the interview she recounts how she began her artistic life studying music and originally planned to become a composer. These designs were swept away by a new and better one ushered in with the birth of her first child. For, as she explains in the video, she first began writing poetry in the maternity ward and was born into her new life, in which “I turned out to be a poet”, at the same time as she was bringing her daughter into this world.
I find her (true not metaphorical) story of being born as a poet at the same time as she gave birth to her daughter to be truly captivating. Labor pains and lyrical pangs.
And for personal reasons I am also quite charmed by the idea that her translator (and interpreter in the interview) is her husband, Steven Seymour. You see, I make my living as a translator, but certainly of nothing as enthralling, enriching or exhilarating as poetry (nor as maddening or baffling either). I translate legal and financial documents from Spanish to English (now working on an analysis of the tax law implications of transfer pricing rules as they apply to the Spanish operations of a major international insurance group — has a poetic ring to it, don’t you think?). It is boring, but I am not complaining; it pays the bills and I am all too well aware that dedicating oneself to translating poetry requires two indispensable conditions: talent and another source of income.
Vera Pavlova and Steven Seymour (I assume ATA cap is from the American Translators Association). Photo from her website.
Anyway, back to the interview… Pavlova recalls that there are numerous instances of poets married to poets, but none, as far as she knows, of a female poet and husband translator. Through interpreter-husband Seymour, she explains that “this gives many advantages to the translator”, because “he gets to translate poems that we’ve lived through together”. Indeed, she explains that the upcoming collection of verse (If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems) is “our first child together”.
In another post I will try to explore my feelings and thoughts about the utter impossibility and pressing need to translate poetry, but for now I will leave you with some of Pavlova’s poems, accompanied by photos I have downloaded from the almost too good to be true Onexposure photography website.
First, the title poem to the upcoming book …
If there is something to desire, there will be something to regret. If there is something to regret, there will be something to recall. If there is something to recall, there was nothing to regret. If there was nothing to regret, there was nothing to desire
A beast in winter A beast in winter, a plant in spring, an insect in summer, a bird in autumn. The rest of the time I am a woman.
Against the current of blood Against the current of blood passion struggles to spawn; against the current of speech the world breaks the oar; against the current of thought the sails of dreams glide; dog-paddling like a child, I swim against the current of tears.
I am in love, hence free to live I am in love, hence free to live by heart, to ad-lib as I caress. A soul is light when full, heavy when vacuous. My soul is light. She is not afraid to dance the agony alone, for I was born wearing your shirt, will come from the dead with that shirt on
Untitled (as far as I know) We are rich: we have nothing to lose. We are old: we have nowhere to rush. We shall fluff the pillows of the past, poke the embers of the days to come, talk about what means the most, as the indolent daylight fades. We shall lay to rest our undying dead: I shall bury you, you will bury me.
A few posts ago, I recalled how Proust likened aging to walking on living stilts that keep on growing — the view improves, but everything begins to wobble. I find this notion of the heightened vantage point and perception that comes with our mature years, disquietingly accompanied by awareness of our own mortality, to be strikingly expressed in the following poem.
It was written in 1968 by Jaime Gil de Biedma, the Spanish writer born and died in Barcelona (1929-1990). You can find a brief bio at this link: Gil de Biedma.
I WILL NEVER BE YOUNG AGAIN
That life was a serious affair only later one becomes aware – like all youth, I came onstage to take life by storm
I would leave my mark And strut away amid applause – aging, dying, were but the dimensions of the theater
But time has shrunk behind me now and the unpleasant truth emerges: ageing, dying is the lone plot in this show
For those of you who can read Spanish, you will certainly prefer the original over the translation (mine). I include them both side by side:
For more of his work (in Spanish only), I recommend the A media voz site, where you can read and hear many of his poems.
But I certainly do not want to end this post on a down note, lamenting the merciless passage of time. The way we carry this growing knowledge and intimacy with our final destiny need not be a call to morbid self-pity. There is a triumph of sorts to be wrested from this demise.
Take the graceful example of Lena Horne. I will not go into her biography, there are better sources out there for the details of youthful beauty and deep talent, of how she had to overcome the stupidest of obstacles placed in her path by petty and bigoted minds. The best would be to see the recording of her 1981 Broadway show "Lena: The Lady and her Music".
Originally scheduled to run four weeks, the show was a huge success and ran for more than a year, closing on her 65th birthday on June 30, 1982. Thankfully, a few days later, the entire show was performed again and recorded. Below you can see and hear her stirring version of "Yesterday, When I was Young".
Take in how her voice lingers with the breeze on the candle flame and see if you can dodge the sparks that fly from the flint in her throat when she hits the words "arrogance and pride". I'm posting the full lyrics below the video.
Yesterday, when I was young,
The taste of life was sweet, as rain upon my tongue,
I teased at life, as if it were a foolish game,
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame
The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned,
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand,
I lived by night, and shunned the naked light of day,
And only now, I see, how the years ran away
Yesterday, when I was young,
So many happy songs were waiting to be sung,
So many wild pleasures lay in store for me,
And so much pain, my dazzled eyes refused to see
I ran so fast that time, and youth at last ran out,
I never stopped to think, what life, was all about,
And every conversation, I can now recall,
Concerned itself with me, and nothing else at all
Yesterday, the moon was blue,
And every crazy day, brought something new to do,
I used my magic age, as if it were a wand,
And never saw the worst, and the emptiness beyond
The game of love I played, with arrogance and pride,
And every flame I lit, too quickly, quickly died,
The friends I made, all seemed somehow to drift away,
And only I am left, on stage to end the play
Photos: The photo of the young Lena Horne is a classic by John Rawlings, which appeared in the April 1, 1994 of Vogue magazine, and the painting is by Merryl Jaye, who has a wonderful collection of jazz portraits at her website.
Well, I know at least one person who has started the new year off with the proverbial bang — Bob Duggan, known in the art blog community as author of Art Blog by Bob, has kicked off his new blog-gig 'Picture This' at Big Think with some thoughts on an artist who uses gunpowder in his art and often ignites the works.
In his very first post (sonorously titled Art Boom) on the new blog, Bob discusses Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's 'Fallen Blossoms' show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the pyrotechnics that kicked it off. That's right, the artist's exhibition openings often feature catering and fire marshals. Worth a look. Photo: 'Transient Rainbow" on the East River in New York City, 2002 (from Cai Guo-Quiang's website)