Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Dry and the Wet: LeWitt, Dove, O'Keefe

In museums I've heard people say about contemporary art, "My grandchild could paint that."  If the grandchild were an adult, had a steady hand and patience, she could join a worker-bee team and paint a Sol LeWitt.  More than sixty people executed LeWitt's plans for paintings for the retrospective of his work at Mass MOCA in North Adams.  The exhibit will be up for 25 years.   There are three floors of wall drawings.  LeWitt wrote: "To work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity.  It also obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn. The plan would design the work."  He also wrote: "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."  LeWitt made art in order to "engage the mind."  

I was interested in LeWitt's drive to eliminate chance by the calculated repetition of patterns. The assistants who painted the walls succeeded in making his work "the results of his premise." But I did not warm up to his work.  LeWitt would have been pleased.  He aimed to remove emotion from the artistic experience.  Seeing his paintings, I experienced dry admiration for dry work.  

In contrast, the paintings at the Clark museum in Williamstown delighted me.   The oil swam across the canvas, whether or not the subject was water.  The abstractions of Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keefe--Dove was a major influence on O'Keefe-- glistened with feeling, shaded with surprising tints and curved in unexpected shapes.  Dove's is "Sunrise"; O'Keefe's is "Canna."    


I Dreamt of Larry Summers . . .

Dreams do what they want.  Last night I dreamt of Larry Summers, Director of the President's National Economic Council.  Summers was choosing a bride and I was in the running, though I hadn't entered the contest. He chose another poet, who will remain nameless.

Larry--I may call him by his first name now that he's entered my dreams--drew me aside.  "I would have chosen you," he said, "if you weren't wearing that army jacket."  "But I've had it since 1957," I said, meaning I wasn't going to give up my ideals.  Those of us who wore army surplus were against the establishment.    

I wore that jacket all through the sixties.  It was the warmest jacket I ever owned, light weight, dark khaki.  I'd never betray it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"The Dud Avocado"

I couldn't sleep the other night, so I turned on the light and began reading Elaine Dundy's novel, "The Dud Avocado." At three in the morning, usually a glum hour, I found myself laughing.

Dundy, who lived in Paris after the second world war, reverses the usual dismal portrayal of the betrayed innocent adrift in France.  When her young heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, tries to ditch her first lover, he pleads with her to stay.  She's astonished: "It was all too ludicrous.  For God's sake, I should have been the abandoned one.  I mean I was the one seduced, I was the virgin wasn't I?  Surely it was up to Teddy to do the discarding after he'd taken my 'all.'  I'd read enough books and listened to enough college girls moaning in the spring to know that."  So refreshing after reading Jean Rhys's novels about lost betrayed waifs in Paris!

About the discarded Teddy: he purrs with "fur all over his smile."

Dundy is peppery about class.  Sally Jay describes the "International Set": "they kept inviting you to places; they invited me to a different place on the average of one every five minutes, but I discovered there were two rules governing this: first it had to be a place you'd never been to, like 'What, you've never seen the Blue Grotto?  I must take you there on the yacht this summer'; and second, it was understood that each invitation canceled the previous one."

Dundy writes with graceful glee, this about the man Sally Jay will marry: "Finally, catching sight of me through the dresser mirror, he slowly drew out--one from each pocket--my earrings, and smiling at me through the glass, arranged them like fallen angels, one on each side, to encompass a space the exact width of my face.  Then he took off his trousers."

Dundy wrote fiction, biography, and memoir.  It's delightful to find her.  Soon I'll have a pile of her books on my night table.  If I wake up in the middle of the night, I'll read her and hear her bright funny voice.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Lunching Out at Dave's

John poured our water and we touched glasses as if we were drinking wine. The difficult times we had been through intensified my pleasure.  A little rain splashed onto the table, but never mind: we kept dry under the awning; we shared a large sandwich, a "capreze": mozzarella, pesto, tomatoes, plenty of olive oil dripping onto our fingers.   The sandwiches are a wonder: tasty, large, fresh!  The bread superb--we always get rustico--and have our sandwich grilled--rain coming down, a hot crusty sandwich, tender cheese, basil with a little sting.   

I've bought their fresh pasta to cook and eat at home.  Now they've opened a grocery as well, where you can buy such things as quince paste; there's wine, too, with a bin of staff favorites, many of them under twenty dollars.

Friends are coming for brunch on Sunday.  Tomorrow I'll go back to Dave's for quince paste and one of those volcano-shaped cakes of goat cheese.  Those and some sweet pastry and savory farmer's tarts from Sofra.  No cooking!  Sunday will be a scorcher.  Temperature in the nineties.  Cold white wine--that's what I'll pour.  

Entrances to Houses

If as Sainte-Beuve writes, "Style is the man," what does the style of an entrance to a house tell us about the owner?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Madness of Art

In her essay, "Ghost Writers," Cynthia Ozick states that "art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction.  The fraudulent writer is the visible one, the crowd-seeker, the crowd-speaker, the one who will go out to dinner with you with a motive in mind, or will stand and talk at you, or will discuss mutual writing habits with you, or will gossip with you about other novelists and their enviable good luck or their gratifying bad luck."

The true writer, she says, should "maintain a coveted clandestine authentic invisibility."  True writers must be ghosts at their writing tables.  They must "sit alone, and write, and write, and write, as if the necessary transparency of their souls depended upon it."

When I read these passionate words, I felt the old allure of the belief in the religion of art. Maybe I should get off Facebook, maybe I should stop blogging, I thought.  (I was never much of a glad-hander.)  Then I thought of Aschenbach in "Death in Venice."  When Mann's character takes his one and only vacation from writing, he falls in love with a beautiful boy in Venice, and dies because he can't leave the city for fear of not seeing the boy.  If Aschenbach had taken more vacations, he would have immunized himself: leisure would not have been fatal.  So far, blogging and going to the Sofra cafe have not made me feverish. Surely we writers can have some pleasure.  Ghosts never do.  Yet I too find the "crowd-seeker" and "crowd-speaker" distasteful. 

Look at these two photos of Ozick.  In one, she's thoughtful, serious, closed mouth; she looks away from the camera and seems slightly bored.  In the other, she is smiling, showing her white teeth.  Her public teeth.  She's trying to please us.  Which do you like better?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Above Hills Pond

This afternoon I climbed up to the granite-bottomed high ground above Hills Pond.  The rocky ledges dumped in the Ice Age are covered with a thick layer of pine needles; the trees drop their own protection.

The Jack-in the-pulpit flowers had passed but Solomon seal was up, and the plantain was thick and green; the Indians called it "white man's footprints," because it sprouted up wherever the English settlers walked. Apparently they brought it with them on the soles of their shoes.

Birds flittered among the branches, too quick for me to identify.  I passed a fallen tree, the stumpy end spurred with what was left of the roots.

As I reached the highest point a dog came running toward me, though the owner tried to direct it away from me.  It was honey colored, part Pekinese, I think, with that alert pointed face.  I put out my hand; the dog nosed me out.  There's been plenty of ill feeling in town about dogs off the leash. The owner was nervous, then relieved when I spoke affectionately to the dog, which was so clean despite the muddy woods and deep wet leaf mold--the trees were dripping, the rocks covered with slippery mist.  I was charmed to meet the smart, elegant, pretty dog.     

Monday, June 22, 2009

"The Rape of Europa"

On rainy Sunday I went to the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum on the Fenway in Boston. Fueled by lunch in the museum cafe--buzz-making red wine, polenta with mushrooms, and chocolate tort--I climbed up the stairs to the red room on the third floor to look at Titian's "The Rape of Europa."

I saw what I usually saw: a bull as sweet as a cow, the horns harmless as croissants, dulled by a wreath of flowers, Europa terrified--those eyes rolling back, showing white--carried off, tricked by the seemingly mild bull that is Zeus in disguise, the rape about to occur.  As always I was charmed by the cherubs, particularly the one that floats face down on air as if on water. 

I looked again.  O!  The rape seems to have already occurred.  Europa is done in, helpless, limb-loosened.  Those figures on the distant shore are mourning.  No wonder the bull is pacified, his eyes reasonable and mild.  

Did Mrs. Gardner look at her great paintings with fresh eyes or did she stop seeing them?  I like to think that from time to time she saw them as if for the first time.   

Bar Mitzvah in Tombs

My favorite recent news story concerns the bar mitzvah celebration for sixty guests held in the Tombs, otherwise known as The Manhattan Detention Complex, for the son of Tuvia Stern, who had been arrested for larceny. Allegedly, the event was arranged by orthodox Rabbi Leib Glanz, through political connections.  The party, which went on for six hours, included live music and catered food.  I would love to see the menu.  One media source reported that Imam Umar Abdul-Jalil, a Muslim chaplain, assisted Rabbi Glanz in the bar mitzvah arrangements.  I wonder what the young man said for his bar mitzvah speech.   

Now that I think of it, let's have more parties inside of prisons!  

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Nolde's "The Mulatto"

I've always admired Emil Nolde's "The Mulatto, " which he painted in 1913, and went to see it again on Friday at the Sackler Museum at Harvard.  I like the cheeky quality of the subject, her vitality, the cocked head, arched eyebrows, and bright red lips, the pinkish browns, the blacks within a halo of orange-yellow.  Circular shapes: face, headband, hair, halo.

Nolde joined the Nazi party, I've learned, and believed in racial purity. Did he hold these ideas in 1913 when he painted "The Mulatto"?  I don't know. Do you think his portrayal of the woman is ambivalent?  The colors are discordant--but they are in most of his work.

The Nazis branded him a degenerate artist and tried to stop him from painting.  He worked in secret.  Did he change his mind about racial purity?  I don't know.  I'll have to find out more about him.  After the war, he was awarded the German Order of Merit, the country's highest civilian honor.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Poet Craig Arnold

Like many of us I hadn't read Craig Arnold's poems until after the news of his disappearance in April on a remote Japanese island, where he was hiking alone to the Shintake volcano.  It is believed he fell near a steep ravine as he came down the mountain. His body has not yet been found.  (With him in the photo is his partner, Rebecca Lindenberg.)  

His voice is alive in his work, especially in the remarkable title poem of his last book, "Made Flesh," which spurs me to write better.  It is a poem of ecstasy, reminiscent of the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 

Made Flesh

THAT day drew a broken tower
out of the tarot pack     a plume of flame
and over the wreck a vast flower
with ragged petals of soft white ash
that was once flesh and useless paper
blooming over the postcard-perfect blue

Of all the tiny figures falling
end over end     there were two
who had stepped up holding hands
to give themselves together to the air
A love that       sudden and certainly    I knew
I didn't share and didn't want to share
with anyone but you
                                      your sunlit demons
your cigarettes and fire escapes
your petals and grenades      your laugh
like the chime of wind in icicles
the chuckle of fire in ecstasy
of its own burning
                                  and at my fingertips
were ten digits  you had asked me
never to dial again

And then it seemed my whole head
the dot on this little i     would blow
like the puff of a dandelion
And then the seedpods of my eyes
split into tears      and I felt a swift
clutch at my throat      that was the root
of cruelty and tenderness worming its way in

YOU are the hummingbird that comes
a pure vibration    wings a blur
propeller-burring a million beats
to keep still     the world's littlest pivot
spinning the heaven's hemisphere
as a wineglass with a wet finger
laid on the rim to make it ring

Feathers a rainbow    how you reel
hovering over blossom     cheeks
tucked into the honeysuckle
to lap a single drop of nectar
onto your tongue       messenger-goddess
kicking a gold-dust of pollen
out of your winged heel

The slow promise of your approach
makes my throat thick     the joy gathers
deep in my spine       as if it were a snake
making a smooth wave of muscle
toward the taste of water 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sofra Cafe

Steve and I shared a plate of mezze at Sofra bakery and cafe in Cambridge.  The colors of the food were brilliant, no dye added!  From left to right: parsnip, fava beans, walnut pate with pomegranate, beet with yogurt, Moroccan carrot. We chose these from others.   I couldn't identify the green spice on the flatbread.  In fact, I couldn't identify any of the spices.  No, I believe there was rose water in the coconut macaroons we had for desert. 

The food was rich, intensely seasoned.  I never could have eaten the whole plate of mezze by myself, though I am a greedy stuffer.  According to the menu, the word "sofa" is Arabic for "a picnic on a rug; a low communal table; a small square kilim rug to eat on; a large coffee table; a special table preparation."  

Food has improved up here, and the attitude toward food.  When I first came to Boston and tried to eat an apple in the Christian Science park on Huntington Avenue, a policeman ordered me to put away the apple or leave the park.  Eating in public was not tolerated in the Christian Science Park.  He said I would draw rats.  Sofra, by the way, has outdoor tables, and no one will ask you to leave.  No rats in sight.     

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

At the Pond

Anxious, after a difficult day, I went out before dinner last night and took the uphill walk to the pond, just a few blocks from my house.  The sky was overcast, the streets wet from rain, the air cool and damp.  Few people were on the street, and few cars.  Rush hour was over.

My heart beat fast as I climbed, slowed as I strolled.  When I got to the pond, I listened for the red wing blackbirds, which nest there, but they had settled in for the night.  

The pond picked up what light there was.    

Monday, June 15, 2009

Celia Gilbert's "Something to Exchange"

Celia Gilbert has a new book of poems.  They are super-sensitive, elegiac, beautifully phrased. Here are two:


I lifted the flowers from their green tissue.
Mimosa pudica:
tiny balls like ancient granulated gold,
balls that over time will grow fluffy;
when stroked its feathery leaves curl up shyly.
How could I thank him for
this acknowledgment?

He bought them for me,
thinking of me, I thought,
wanting to say things he couldn't say,
to give pleasure he couldn't give.
So, I existed.

In the somber kitchen, standing at the low sink,
I filled a vase, trimming the stems
before plunging them into the water
imagining the moment
when the stem goes faint, then quickly revives,
more open than before,
water wicking through its veins.

Father in His Summer Suit

Home from work, Father, in his summer suit,
comes down the country lane.
Honeysuckle spills over the hedges.
He takes a blossom and nips the foot
of its open-mouthed trumpet,
letting me taste one translucent drop.

"This is what we did when were were children,"
he says.
I scuff the soft dirt with bare feet
doubting he had been like me,
but try out the new skill.
In the shadows stood our summer house,
with its screened porch and squeaky glider.

All summer I tippled, drunk
on the connection to people long ago
who foraged in the wild--
and to my wild father--
so newly discovered.

Gilbert, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the author of three other collections of poetry: "An Ark of Sorts," "Bonfire," and "Queen of Darkness."  She is also a printmaker and painter.  That's one of her monotypes on the cover of her new book.  

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Responses to Places

Our reading group met yesterday to talk about Mary Beard's "The Fires of Vesuvius."  Opinion was divided between those who thought the people of ancient Pompeii were like us and those who thought they were notably different.  I think they were essentially different and agreed with A. who said, 'This is a world before Christianity.' There was no shame for the body.  What were they ashamed of? I wondered.  Lack of civic virtue and loyalty to Rome, the failure to present a bella figura?

Beard writes that there were more statues in Pompeii than people.  'Did they ignore these statues, the way we ignore ours?' A. asked.  How could they?  They sacrificed to gods represented by these statues.  Certainly it would be difficult to ignore larger than life-size statues like this one of Apollon in front of a temple.  L. compared the great quality of statues to our great number of cars.  But we don't sacrifice to cars.  We don't have bare-chested slaves slit the throat of a magnificent bull, put the animal's flesh and bones on the fire, and watch the smoke rise to the heavens in tribute.  

P. thought Beard was very good about the paintings of Pompeii but wanted her to react more passionately to the ruined city.  An unfair comparison, but I thought of Ruskin's response to Venice:

"The long range of columned palaces . . . each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tesselation . . . It was no marvel that the mind should be so deeply entranced by the visionary charm of a scene so beautiful and so strange, as to forget the darker truths of its history . . . . Well might it seem that such a city had owed her existence rather to the the rod of the enchanter, than the fear of the fugitive . . . and that all which in nature was wild or merciless--Time and Decay, as well as the waves and tempests--had been won to adorn her instead of to destroy, and might still spare, for ages to come, that beauty which seemed to have fixed for its throne the sands of the hour-glass as well as of the sea (quoted in Mark Doty's "Seeing Venice").

Here's more Ruskin on Venice: "The beginning of everything was in seeing the gondola-beak come actually inside the door at Danieli's, when the tide was up, and the water two feet deep at the foot of the stairs; and then, all along the canal sides, actual marble walls rising out of the salt sea, with hosts of little brown crabs on them, and Titians inside" (Praeterita, Works, 35.295).  In one sentence he gets the strange improbable character of the place: gondola-beak! Art so close to the natural sea as to seem a part of it, but not quite.

The long passage Doty quotes is remarkably rich, the sentences taking us out to a horizon, as if they were a fleet of boats.

I'm thinking now of another response to place, in which the eye travels out, the one Dickens gives to Pip in "Great Expectations":

"Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.  My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening.  At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried . . . and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip."

Do you know of other writing about place similar to these flights?  Please let us know.

Friday, June 12, 2009


The statue was discovered in 1979 on Motya, a small island off the coast of Sicily. Although the Greek fifth century work has been called a representation of the god Apollo, most agree it is a sculpture of a victorious charioteer, once crowned with a marble wreath.  One scholar says that the face and genitals were damaged on purpose.  I am glad the rest survived mutilation to astonish us with virile beauty.  Agon is the Greek name for an athletic contest or struggle.  The charioteer has survived the agony of the games.

I have a picture of him tacked up above my desk.  My serene pin-up.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Poetry During the Recession

This morning I walked to Massachusetts Avenue, to my local bagel place to buy bagels and cream cheese for my poetry group and found these signs in the window.  Next door, there was a for-rent sign stuck on the window of the bakery and restaurant, Sweet Sue's, now out of business.  

The Starbuck's in Arlington Center, a few blocks away, is advertising special deals on coffee; a shoe shop, and the Rio, the Brazillian restaurant, have both closed.  Shops put out racks of clothing on the sidewalk to attract customers.  The library is full of people reading newspapers. The cost of the daily New York Times is $2.00.  

I may be cutting my own hair and shopping at thrift shops but I'm not giving up buying bagels for my poet friends. We ate as we read each other's poems and offered suggestions.  These sessions are always helpful.  I have three new poems: "Teens," "Sea Urchins," and "Lychee Nuts."  They need a little tinkering, which I'll get to soon.  One of JD's poems begins, "The boy plays the piano/ as if he's learning to masturbate."  A poem by AF begins, "The first poem I sold/ I bought a pair of shoes."  So poets lavishly spend their time.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pleasures of Travel

I've been reading "Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples" by Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller.   In limpid, weightless prose, Hazzard writes an ode to Italy, where she has learned "that the ability to rise to the moment, to the human occasion, is linked to a sense of mortality intrinsic, in Italy, to all that pleases us."

In Naples, we are "initiated" into a mystery: "this sense of life profoundly informed by awareness of death that values the smallest pleasure as god-given, fatalistically attributing misfortune to the gods' sterner associate, Il Destino."

No one writes better about traveling alone:

"Never to have made the lonely walk along the Seine or Lungarno, or passed those austere evenings on which all the world but oneself has destination and companion, is perhaps never to have felt the full presence of the unfamiliar.  It is thus one achieves a slow, indelible intimacy with place, learning to match its moods with one's own.  At such times it is as if a destination had awaited us with nearly human expectation and with an exquisite blend of receptivity and detachment."

"The moment comes: we intersect a history, a long existence, offering it our fresh discovery as regeneration."

Steegmuller writes about his being mugged and seriously injured in Naples.  The Italian doctors are skillful, personal, warm.  He misses them when he returns to New York, where, "If there was a question to be asked, one learned to have it ready and to speak quickly . . . . One doctor in particular was like an indifferent priest opening and closing the slide of his confessional on a busy Saturday night."  The hospital attendants speak to him "across an artificial barrier of polysyllabic indirection."  Steegmuller's experience is not unique.  There are now specialists in "doctor-patient communication."  One such specialist "urges doctors to build rapport with their patients by greeting them warmly by name, asking briefly about important events in their lives, maintaining eye contact, focusing on the patient without interruption, and displaying empathy through words and body language" (New York Times, June 9, 2009). Directions for programming robots to act human.

Must we leave America to find what Steegmuller calls "the immediacy of care and human fellowship," and Hazzard, "a slow, indelible intimacy with place"?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech, Jews, Egypt, Gaza

In today's "New York Times," (June 9, 2009, page 23), Andre Aciman writes: "for all the president's talk of  'a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world' and shared 'principles of justice and progress,' neither he nor anyone around him" spoke about "the other 800,000 or so Jews born in the Middle East who fled the Arab and Muslim world or who were summarily expelled for being Jewish in the 20th century.

With all his references to the history of Islam and to its (questionable) 'proud tradition of tolerance' of other faiths, Mr. Obama never said anything about those Jews whose ancestors had been living in Arab lands long before the advent of Islam but were its first victims once rampant nationalism swept over the Arab world."

"Nor did he bother to mention that with this flight and expulsion, Jewish assets were--let's call it by its proper namer--looted.  Mr. Obama never mentioned the belongings I still own in Egypt and will never recover."  Aciman goes on: "We are, each one of us, not just defined by the arrangement of protein molecules in our cells, but also by the things we call our own."

Andre Aciman, the author of the memoir, "Out of Egypt," left Egypt with his family when he was fourteen.

Just before reading Aciman's op-ed piece, I watched a clip from today's "Guardian," which showed refugees whose homes were destroyed in the Israeli attack on Gaza.  Their situation is dreadful.

It's usual to ask at this point, Will the conflict ever end?  I'd like to conclude this post on a different note. Perhaps the effects of global warming will literally submerge these problems.  No, of course not; some will say, it will make things worse.  In a recent New Yorker article, Elizabeth Colbert is certain of the next mass extinction.  Humans may disappear, as apparently frogs are now disappearing.  Safe for now in my study, having had a cup of green tea, a pleasant rain falling, I can entertain the prospect with philosophic calm.