Thursday, September 29, 2005

Atomize My Heart

Last night, I was privileged to see the brand-new, never yet performed Dr. Atomic opera at the Final Dress. I was pretty psyched. John has been a super in the San Francisco Opera for maybe nine years now (for those who don't know, super=spear carrier/soldier/servant--whatever--and he isn't paid and he doesn't sing), but never before has he been so involved and inspired. Mostly, supers are treated like furniture with legs, but in this opera, Peter Sellars, the director, sat down with them and said that they were actors, not supers, and an integral part of the opera. John, like everyone else, watched DVDs on Oppenheimer and read all about it. We have been keyed up and ready.

Well, I liked Dr. Atomic, but did not love it. It may be because of my ignorance of opera conventions and my own biases. It was very interesting (and John has a huge part, so it was fun to track him). I liked the drama of it best--the set, the lighting, the dance/movement. People raved about the music, but all I can say about the music is that it worked, was very dramatic. I am not qualified to say what is good music in terms of opera.

I loved the parts of the opera where the drama and poetry were working together--as in the scene where Oppenheimer sings John Donne's Holy Sonnet Number 14, "Batter my heart, three-personed God." My problem is/was that these sequences did not altogether fit with the rest. It created a peculiar texture. In other words, the diction conflicted. Right before this scene, for instance, the general is talking to Oppenheimer about his diet and calorie counting. Then there's this anguished scene--and not only is the emotion 180 degrees from what came a minute before, but we go from 20th century banality to 17th century poetry ("Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine..."). That was not the only time this sort of problem occurred. We were constantly jumped back and forth. In other places, I just found the writing stilted and inverted as if to make it more musical, but as I love the natural syntax of the English language circa 2005, I found it less musical.

After the opera we went out with John's super friends to Jardinere for a drink. I don't know what they put in their drinks (hey, I had one vodka-and-grapefruit-juice)--or maybe it was because we'd had nothing to eat until we were home, around midnight, but I was awfully hung over this morning. And now we just got a ticket on our old Volvo--two weeks in a row--for streetcleaning.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Busy weekend by the Bay

It was one of those marvelous San Francisco weekends where there were about two dozens things to do at every moment--baseball games, football games, a leather street fair, peace marches, a Green Day concert, blues festivals, film festivals and, as they say, much much more. I spent most of the weekend inside (sigh) completing my InDesign class. I now am InDesigned and outdesigned--no, well, I know how to do stuff, if ever called upon to do it.

It's quiet here, John and poochie off to San Rafael, and I'm enjoying the peace. But of course I'd give anything to hear anything about my manuscript. You would think, considering how busy I've been that I would forget about it, but I never do.

The sun is definitely making an effort. I was going to say that we were having decent weather, but it's not considered weather in the local parlance when it's sunny--weather means something nasty like rain or wind is happening.

And I should, I suppose, get away from the computer now. Lotsa things to do today, and it will be a busy week with four interviews. Plus I am attending the Dr. Atomic final dress rehearsal on Wednesday.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Interesting discussion on Bemsha Swing about poetics. I was struck by a comment criticizing poets “who have no other ambition than to replicate effects they’ve already experienced.” I know this is the standard criticism of “mainstream” poetry, but doesn’t every artist in some sense want to “replicate effects they’ve already experienced”? If they don’t, then they put down their pen and become a pastry chef or a gun runner. Isn’t it a question of what level (or meta-level) of experience one wants to replicate?

Sure, at one extreme you’ve got someone who wants to replicate the cozy feeling they got when they first heard “The Night Before Christmas,” while someone else wants to replicate the disorienting effect they got when they first read Pound’s Cantos. But every poet has taken some core “poetic” or “aesthetic” or “perspective-altering” or just plain life-changing experience from poems they love, and wants to recreate that core experience. Every good poem expands the definition of poetry, but every good poem also abides by some traditional definition of poetry.

Or . . . to put it much more entertainingly, here’s one of my favorite passages from Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. Henry Carr, the civil servant with oh-so-bourgeois tastes, quarrels with Dadaist Tristan Tzara about the definition of art. Stoppard gives both of them some awfully convincing lines. If you’re wondering who wins the argument, well, Stoppard never quite resolves it. To the extent it’s resolved, it’s when James Joyce (that artist both utterly revolutionary and utterly traditional) puts them both in their place.
CARR: . . . I couldn’t be an artist anywhere—I can do none of the things by which is meant Art.

TZARA: Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat. In fact some of my best poems have been drawn out of my hat which I afterwards exhibited to general acclaim at the Dada Gallery in Bahnhofstrasse.

CARR: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.

TZARA: I see I have made myself clear.

CARR: Then you are not actually an artist at all?

TZARA: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.

CARR: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly . . . Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer never leaves the ground and wouldn’t know how. I see, says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say you can fly you are using the word in a purely private sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all? On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don’t you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.

TZARA: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom . . . .

Well, folks, I’m leaving for Paris tomorrow, so Tom Stoppard is going to have to be my final word for a while, but I trust a lot of activity will continue here in my absence. Au revoir!

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Best? Poems of 2005

I have the new Best American Poetry and am somewhat amazed at the choices. There's a few I really, really admire, a few I simply hate, at least one (I won't name names) that's plain prose broken (badly) into lines, but mostly a number of okay-well-maybe-I-don't-know poems. This happens every year. I feel like Charlie Brown looking at that football. I don't understand it. Each year a different editor. I KNOW these are not the best poems published last year. Or am I wrong? (Could it just be envy?) What happens with these anthologies?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Of Sundials and Sunshades

I began reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time before reading Jane Smiley’s recent article in Salon, but Smiley encouraged me. I recommend the new translation linked to above, even though I am even less qualified to judge a French translation than Michael Brown is to run FEMA.

In fact I’m not qualified to comment on Proust at all, as I’m only 800 pages through the 4,000+ pages of these books, but I think you should read them before you die. Here are the concluding lines of “At Mme Swann’s”:

So it is that the average life expectancy, the relative longevity, of memories being much greater for those that commemorate poetic sensation than for those left by the pains of love, the heartbreak I suffered at that time because of Gilberte has faded forever, and has been outlived by the pleasure I derive, whenever I want to read off from a sundial of remembrance the minutes between a quarter past twelve and one o’clock on a fine day in May, from a glimpse of myself chatting with Mme Swann, sharing her sunshade as though standing with her in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.
As I see it at the moment, the book is a storehouse of memories (e.g., the famous madeleine) combined with a series of relentlessly disastrous love stories. The tension between these two aspects of the book is its central conflict. In the passage above, the narrator is struggling to get over the pain of his unrequited love for Gilberte, Mme Swann’s daughter, and he does this through his friendship with the still beautiful Mme Swann, who herself was the source of untold pain—actually, told at tremendous length—in the previous volume, Swann in Love.

The point is that the vivid memory of a simple walk in Paris with Gilberte’s mother (the “poetic sensation”) ultimately trumps all the jealousy and heartbreak of the love affair with Gilberte, if (and it’s a big if) the memory can be re-created vividly enough. It’s as if the entire 4,000-page novel comes down to a few haikuesque moments of imagistic intensity (the madeleine, the wisteria).

What seems so Proustian about the passage above is that it’s not an arbor of wisteria; it’s “as though in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.” It’s “just” a metaphor, like the earlier metaphor of the sundial. I mean, Proust could have made it real. There’s no reason they couldn’t have been strolling through a park in Paris with an arbor of wisteria, but he chose to make it unreal. And yet . . . what is more real, reality or the metaphor? These two unrelated metaphors (time = sundial, sunshade = wisteria) seem to have sketched, with two light touches, an imagined “memory”—a spring walk through a arbor with a sundial—so vivid that it eclipses forever the narrator’s very real memory of his first seeing Gilberte walk down the street with another man.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Texas Hold 'em

I'm not going to even try to put this in a poetic context, but I wanted to blog about the three days I just spent in Texas. No, this had nothing to do with the mess in Louisiana, but then it did, too, as nothing any of us ever says or does happens in isolation (see Robert Thomas and John Donne, below). We were in Texas (Austin vicinity...stayed in San Marcos, the wedding was on a ranch near a town called Buda), but everywhere we went, in airports and most especially in the lobbies of the motels we stayed in where the televisions were on autopilot, you could not forget the news. Some people had found haven in one of the motels we were in, even as far away from Louisiana as this part of Texas is.

Tragedy haunted the happy occasion in another way. The Irish cousins did not make it, could not come. The tourist who was killed in a freak fall in Yosemite last week was the son of a sister--related not by blood to my husband's family, but close, close enough. My God, how do you deal...

Still, it was a gorgeous wedding--outside and steamroom hot, but beautiful. Just as the minister invoked the names of the bride's mother and maternal grandmother who had died when the young woman (who was the bride) was a child, the cicadas did their loud cicada thing. It was so very spiritual, even for those of us who are not believers in any way.

The bride was the first of the younger generation to marry, but all of them--all except the youngest, anyway--were there with their significant others. Even my recently widowed mother-in-law (87) had an escort. It just seemed like people were finding some place. It was like a Shakespearian comedy, with all the ends tied up neatly (temporarily, at least), and the multiple story lines resolved.

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I cry, um, very easily. It doesn't take a wedding. I could cry at much dumber stuff. But on Sunday, I started as the wedding party walked out. Cosmo, the Border Collie was ring bearer! The tears would not stop. Okay, the bride cried, the groom cried, the bride's father cried. Cosmo looked at Lauren (the bride) like she was the Virgin Mary. Unfathomable devotion.

Enough mush. There was a lot of drinking, good music, barbecue for the meat eaters, and so forth. There were those of us who came to Texas from the West Coast and those who came from the East Coast (Boston and New York). There were Red Sox haters and Red Sox lovers. Later that night/next morning there was a big game of Tesas Hold' em and both John (my husband) and our son lost their shirts. Ah, but at least John did not lose his hat! Then there was more drinking. Did I mention there was drinking?

Yesterday, my brother-in-law and s.o. toured us through San Antonio. The Alamo, of course. My brain does not understand wars; I just don't get people shooting at one another for noble causes. I don't get glory. But! It was so nice and cool inside those thick stone walls. And then we did the Riverwalk and sat people-watching and drinking margaritas. My brain had no problem with that.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Like many people, I am at a loss for words after the hurricane. I almost said “in the aftermath,” but this is only the beginning. I am full of sadness—and anger. I can’t imagine a more abysmal failure of the “Department of Homeland Security.” Whatever the plan was for dealing with a disaster like this, it clearly did not include poor people, people without cars, people without relatives in other states who could afford to take them in, and people who were unwilling to leave behind loved ones who were too sick or poor or weak to leave.

It’s frightening to think it could have been worse. If a terrorist instead of a hurricane had blown a couple holes in the levees, there would not have been the days of warning that allowed 80% of the population to evacuate. In that case, however—if more white middle-class people had been standing on their roofs begging for help—perhaps the government would have responded with a sense of urgency.

This morning Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said “I’m asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.” As far as I can tell, “the same idiot” is George W. Bush. The hypocrisy of the Bush Administration in clothing their lack of compassion in a covering of religion is appalling. I think at a time like this one could do worse than remember John Donne’s original words:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

On a purely selfish note, I am incredibly saddened that all my life I allowed one thing after another to postpone my visiting New Orleans, and I’ve never been there. I swear to God I’m going to Mardi Gras next year and dance down the street even if it’s under water.