I. What Do People Do?
I’d caught glimpses of them before. Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains. Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega. Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.
They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands. Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon. Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.
Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock. Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs. Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.
II. When Will It End?
My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep. On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine. I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps. I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase. The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”
My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided. How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.
In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell. The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.
“When will it end?” I heard. The businessman was looking at me.
He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established. This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines. When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?
I looked at him. “Which thing?” I said.
The businessman laughed. I made the businessman laugh. He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”
Then I laughed.
There was a pause. The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling. He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”
III. Is it really that simple?
I get coffee. I go to work. In the afternoon, I go for a walk.
IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?
“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,–what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”
V. Why Write?
MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else. You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about. This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?” This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living: If I have a job, I won’t be able to write. If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then). Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.
“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes. It is ugly. The people are sad. How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?
Before I post my regularly scheduled post, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you an excerpt from James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and the salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
Life consists of propositions about life.
A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.
Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.
At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep. The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.
That is, believe me, the easy part.
Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate. He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor. A corresponding buzz would sound. But nothing happened. The gate, unwavering, would not open.
The student would have, then, three options:
1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.
2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.
Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’ Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.
(Let me interrupt for a moment. This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry. The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)
Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’
(Ok, sure. This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker. But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)
These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….
(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)
I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.
This is how we’d work it:
1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.
2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.
3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.
4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.
5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.
6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.
7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.
by Marie Howe
VI. Sentimental Ending
Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings. This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself. That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong. That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.
With the creation of one of the high achievements of mankind, Twin Peaks, David Lynch made a world so ecstatic it demanded its own reality. I’ve been really thinking about Julee Cruise and Twin Peaks SO MUCH lately. What makes it so good? Where did this music come from? Who is Julee Cruise *really*!? Why is this music so appropriate after dark?
Lynch obviously takes a lot of cues from Kenneth Anger, particularly Anger’s bike films Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos. With these, Kenneth Anger added simple bubble gum pop songs over ritual cruelty and raw sexuality, (not only inventing music videos,) but also exposing basic desires as a violent, cold thing.
David Lynch uses Julee Cruise in his work the same way, but also in a new way. Lynch and Badalamenti wrote the songs that she recorded for the soundtrack, which are pretty much 60′s pop songs with a lot of 80′s dream-synth-wash. They use this heavy dream-style kitsch to provide emotional information outside of the acting and dialogue. Isn’t that what every soundtrack does? Ok, yes.
BUT It’s no secret that Twin Peaks is a world that is not our own. Most TV shows succeed by mirroring reality enough that we look for our own lives in them. Twin Peaks is the opposite. From the music, to James Hurley’s face, the black and white zig zag floor, the Twin Peaks feeling is so deep and uncanny, that when something happens in our day-to-day world that resonates with David Lynch’s world, well…I guess you make of it what you have to. Here’s all of this really densely in Blue Velvet:
So what happens in a world, our world, when we’ve gone through the looking glass, and come out and still wanted to say something true to our human concerns, but, like, to actually get up a do something serious as an “artist” is kind of a joke, (this is, after all, 50 years after Scorpio Rising, 30 yearrs since Ian Curtis died, and 20 Nirvana got signed to a major) ?
Maybe the people who are getting it right are the ones who don’t seem timeless at all is what I’ve come to understand. Maybe to deliver the absolute truth (don’t quibble) you have to go around a million galaxies (or so it appears) to get at the “real talk” of it. Ryan Trecartin comes to mind. His work is poetry-times-a-million.
I recently saw on TV that one of the farthest flung objects in outer space is a satellite containing almost a hundred languages detailing the instructions of our world to extraterrestrials. It gave me a good visual image of what I was kind of feeling. I guess sometimes you have to go that incomprehensibly out of this world to get an explanation for what the hell is going on, and how the hell we are actually feeling in 2010:
I’m planning on doing another entry today about Grossman, but I’m at work and I forgot my copy of Singer. In the meantime, I wanted to share a BBC series that is available on YouTube. A professor I know shared this with me, after I shared a link to Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Rembrandt.
I’m sharing this video (and my e-mail response to that professor) in an attempt to balance my Grossman post from last week, lest you think I’m only a cranky traditionalist.
First, the video…
And my email response to this professor…
an interesting set of videos.
though i’m not sure i’d start where scruton starts: art being buffeted on two sides by the cult of ugliness and the cult of utility. i think that’s putting the cart before the horse, in a sense, because it implies a sort of propriety about what art should contain and what it should not. i’m not the only poet who is grateful for the high modernist poets like eliot and pound and for the postmodern cornucopia of styles. on the other hand, i recognize the crisis that this freedom has unleashed.
for me, it seems the proper place to start with art is with the person, with a love of persons. in a sense, i would begin where scruton ends. and move backwards through the videos. i think it’s interesting when scruton finally talks about the value of persons (around video 5), he begins to acknowledge the way that messiness, filth, even ugliness can be great art. i’m thinking of a piece like guernica, which is just awful to stare at and ponder. it’s incredibly ugly, in a sense, yet what makes it great and vital, in part, is the fact that it contains the tragedy of persons.
when i look at emmins bed, i see an egoism that is ugly because it the artist has no care for the opinion of the those who see the art: “it’s art because i say it’s art and i don’t give a damn what you have to say about it.” there is no reaching out, no interest in the community that art could serve. the painting of the bed does not demonstrate this hatred for neighbor.
i’m really interested in the idea of the person, and have been reading a lot of jp2 recently. i want it to be less about finding a place where the “real and ideal meet.” i can appreciate that statement but i’m not sure how helpful it is. i feel like the “personalistic norm” is important somehow, but i’m still trying to figure out how.
What did you think of the video? Is Scruton just a cranky traditionalist or does he have valid criticisms about “the cult of ugliness”? Does this cult even exist?
‘Crusoe in England’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, then later collected in ‘Geography III,’ perhaps Bishop’s finest single volume of poems. (Only recently I discovered the title of which was suggested to her by John Ashbery. He had found a little geography textbook of the eponymous name, and sent it to her, thinking she’d rather enjoy it. Turns out, she did.)
I can’t help thinking ‘Crusoe in England’ is Bishop’s greatest poem, though Bishop is the type of figure who inspires worshippers, and therefore, nearly all of her poems are considered The Greatest, The Most Favorite, The Defining Classic: ‘The Fish,’ ‘At the Fishhouses,’ ‘One Art’ (which wears on me), ‘The Man-Moth,’ etc. Ashbery’s favorite is characteristically ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.’ After reading it, he wrote Bishop his first and only fan letter and attached the poem he wrote in tribute ‘Soonest Mended.’ Ashbery also adores ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ for the charm of a strict form like the sestina depicting a daily meal (one thinks of a Fairfield Porter interior in the Bonnard style, teacups and silverware placed around a family dinner table next to a copy of Wallace Stevens’ poems). Helen Vendler’s favorite is ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’—or maybe it’s simply the poem of Bishop’s she has written most beautifully about. Harold Bloom’s favorite is a small gem from her first book, ‘The Unbeliever,’ which he finds to be a pure Romantic lyric in the Shelleyian vein. Christopher Ricks once told me how much he cherished ‘The Filling Station,’ though he has reservations about EB, and prefers her prose. Scott Cairns—like Mark Strand—thinks ‘The Monument’ a perfect poem because it is enacts what it describes, full of those tromp l’oeil effects where poems step off the page: “Look!” (Similar grand examples of this: Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ Ashbery’s ‘The Instruction Manual.’) And while I know Merrill considered her the greatest poet of his time (like many others: Randal Jarrell, Robert Lowell), I’m not sure which was his favorite poem. ‘Pink Dog’ is surely the most Merrillesque—for its astute powers of observation mixed with the reticence of its sophistication. It’s a mellow poem that reminds me how much both poets really learned from Auden.
Clearly, she was and is a well-loved poet. I’ve been using ‘the greatest’ and ‘favorite’ almost interchangeably, which is not quite right. ‘Crusoe in England’ might be both for me, though I admit to always having had a soft spot for ‘North Haven.’ Was a more intimate and moving elegy ever written by one poet for another? As Bishop said to Lowell in a letter: “I want to be heartbreaking.” ‘North Haven’ is compactest proof.
So what’s so amazing and appealing about ‘Crusoe in England’? For starters, it’s one of Bishop’s longest poems, if not the longest; it was written towards the end of her life, and in it, one finds an entire life—Crusoe’s (i.e. Bishop’s)—compressed soberly, hauntingly. Bishop was a wordsmith but in her poetry she is no less a painter: the array of detail is uncannily fresh, mostly for its accuracy, but no less for its originality. Steam rises in the distance from the volcanoed island like flies; the volcanoes themselves stand like mountains with their heads blown off. Every sense has been answered to, from the smell of guano to the touch and texture of the hissing lava, the rolling gulls and quaking turtles, the horrifying baby goats.
Still, previous poems of hers have shown the same brilliance and grace of description. In ‘Crusoe,’ that painterly hand is matched with a cadence of melancholy and surrender that comes from staring back at the unexpected—or was it expected?—course of a single life. “None of the books has ever got it right.” “Beautiful, yes, but not much company.” “I often gave way to self-pity.” These asides, seemingly dropped down in the poem carelessly, are the signs of her mastery. The voice of this poem, like its tone, betrays her inimitable dramatic understatement. It reminds me of the quietness of Auden’s love lyrics, or the intimacy of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems. And speaking of Coleridge, of whom Bishop was a lifelong devotee, ‘Crusoe’ is also a poem suffused with allusions to Romanticism—there’s the title character, of course, written in the vein of 19th century adventure travelogues; there’s also the Wordsworth quote from ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’ I also hear in her hallucinated sunsets that mysterious ballad ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And then in her play of Mont d’Espoir for Mount Despair—a telling trickery, that is so reserved, and sad—you also see a wink at Shelley and Wordsworth who found in the Alps something like a confrontation with existential reality—a sublime affirmation for one, a sublime negation for the other.
Bishop spent most of her adult life in Brazil, away from academia and the limelight she had received ever since Marianne Moore brought her to the attention of the general reading public. An orphan, an exile, a lesbian—all of these personal histories are entwined in ‘Crusoe in England’ that underscores how her life ended. Bishop would return to America, die in Cambridge, having survived the love of her life’s suicide. Her last days were as a professor at Harvard. As the title belies, the adventures have ended. Crusoe is back in England, Bishop in the States. Just as Crusoe’s imaginative paraphernalia have been incased in museum glass, so have Bishop’s manuscripts and poems been handed over to other people. What ultimately remains of any artist’s life but an attempt to make some lasting object? That’s the Ovidian monument against time, yes, but it’s also another momentum mori. Art may go on, we certainly don’t. Like Don Quixote waking from his reveries to find himself the published character in his mad odyssey, we—like Crusoe, like even the great poet Elizabeth Bishop—are defeated by reality.
You can read and hear her reciting “Crusoe in England” at Poetryarchive.org. Below, a recording of Bishop reading “In the Waiting Room.”
|Elizabeth Bishop – In the Waiting Room .mp3|
In honor of the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome is hosting the most major exhibition of his work in, well,—ever.
Caravaggio settled in Rome at the age of 21. There he soon earned a notorious reputation, constantly brawling and womanizing. In 1606 he stabbed and killed his opponent in a game of royal tennis and fled Rome a wanted man. He escaped to Malta then back to Italy—to Sicily and Naples—where his troubles continued. In July of 1610, still in exile, he died in Porto Ercole, a peninsula on the Tuscan coast.
The exhibition (open until June 13th) has brought Caravaggio’s most important works that have been scattered about the world back to Rome, including Bacchus from the Uffizi, the Musicians from the MET, the Lute Player from the Hermitage, Amor Vincit Omnia from the Staatliche Museum, Supper at Emmaus from the National Gallery in London, and The Taking of Christ (“The Lost Painting”) from The National Gallery of Ireland.
Some of Caravaggio’s paintings cannot be exhibited, as they are permanently placed in various churches, but if you’re in Rome you can visit them easily. The Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo (in Piazza del Popolo) houses The Crucifixion of Saint Peter. And The Calling of Saint Matthew is tucked away in the Contarelli Chapel at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (also there: The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew).
In short, if you can make it to Rome before June 13th, do it. (I just found cheap tickets on bing.com). And in preparation for the trip The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr is recommended.
by Elizabeth Bishop
The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper.
By the Universe deserted,
she’d tell it to go to hell,
and she’d find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well
into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.
Forgot to post yesterday. To compensate, I am typing a poem “by heart”—you may know it already, by Ms Jorie Graham…
THE WAY THINGS WORK
is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current: Blue
moving through blue;
blue through purple;
the objects of desire
opening upon themselves
the objects of faith.
The way things work
is by solution,
resistence lessened or
increased and taken
The way things work
is that we finally believe
they are there,
common and able
to illustrate themselves.
Wheel, kinetic flow,
rising and falling water,
ingots, levers and keys,
I believe in you,
cylinder lock, pully,
lifting tackle and
crane lift your small head—
I believe in you—
your head is the horizon to
my hand. I believe
forever in the hooks.
The way things work
is that eventually
On our way back from the Sand Paper Press reading at Adobe Books in San Francisco, Arlo Haskell and I drove through Big Sur on our way back to Los Angeles. Arlo had never been before; this was my fourth visit, my third in six months. I never stay longer than twenty-four hours. I don’t know why. As someone who doesn’t normally feel a primal connection to a place, I ought to take advantage of the stirrings when they occur. Certainly I wouldn’t have been the first to feel them in this place. Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller,
Jack Kerouac, California pioneers, assorted Hollywood moguls, and migratory whales have all experienced Big Sur’s poweful pull.
The other day the ambience at Big Sur was particularly dramatic. There was mist in the air from everywhere – from the mountains to the west, where fog was stuck; from the ocean, which was pounding the rocks with particular force. And the sun stuck the mist similarly everywhere, so that the air glowed yellow, the fabled gold of California.
When you drive south through Big Sur, you must stop and see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. There were huge males on the beach on Tuesday, maybe 15 feet long, with doe-like black eyes and crumpled snouts that look like a baby bird has perched on their faces.
This reminds me of a poem by the wonderful Argentinian poet Hector Viel Temperley, whose work I have been translating for some years. It’s from Legión extranjera (1978), a breakthrough volume in which Viel’s surrealist and visionary Christian impulses begin to catapult one another, and the reader, into vertiginous orbit. The poem is ‘El verde claro’ (The Luminous Green), and in it the poet listens to a woman (perhaps a naturalist?) as he stands on the shore: ‘Between the lighthouse and the spray and the green crags / one of the women explained it all: / She explained how old elephant seals / are forced to stop pursuing the females and so / They rub their penises on the baby / elephant seals / and with their flippers keep them still // I told her a different story : / Not so long ago I met a young monk fresh from the cloister / who writes hymns for the services / And not only does he write music and lyrics / But he signs his name and sings them / He’s got a good voice / and can play the guitar / But this isn’t getting us anywhere! / I dreamed about closer, more likely things / My other and I are two bags of luminous green / connected by an umbilical cord / And sharks flee from our luminous / green shadows / while we tread water in a luminous green sea / in the luminous / Green breath of an African sea.’
Viel deserves to be better known even in his native country, and certainly in this one as well, a situation I am hoping to soon improve.