25 July 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/30

My computer has been dead in the water (metaphorically) since last Thursday. I am not sure when my regular contact with civilization (in the shape of the Internet) will be restored. As I wander the wastelands without e-mail, without Amazon, without Netflix, without you-get-the-picture, I still want to give you a poem for Monday morning, so here is a beautiful fragment from Sappho (in Mary Barnard's translation):

Day in, day out

I hunger and
I struggle.

Sappho

18 July 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/29

A Jelly-fish

Visible, invisible,
     a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
     inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
     and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
     you abandon your intent.

Marianne Moore

Moore presents a jelly-fish, in a poem as light and fluctuating as the creature it describes. It appears and disappears (visible, invisible) and that quality calls to mind the otherwise unmentioned water where the jelly-fish is found. The strange creature is a charm – which can mean something that gives delight, a small ornament, something created or containing magic – all apt meanings that undulate through the reader's comprehension. Some solidity is suggested by the comparisons to semi-precious stones (even if the primary meaning is the color of those stones): amber and amethyst. The initial am sounds in amber and amethyst and the t sounds in tinctured and amethyst are very musical, leaping lightly through the words. Tinctured seems paler and less present than tinted would be, something tinged or dissolved in another substance. This delicate jewel is made of the nerves and what passes for the brains of the jelly-fish, inhabiting the "jelly" as if it were a crustacean in its shell (as if the actual animal is the nerves and the brains, not the whole physical element). Your arm approaches – your, because the poet is universalizing her irresistible urge to make contact with something so beautiful and evanescent. This living, separate being quivers at the attempt, which "we" then considerately abandon: intense curiosity is here accompanied by reticence; both the curiosity and the reticence are forms of respect.

This is from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore; though described on the cover as the Definitive Edition, with the Author's Final Revisions, any aficionado of this poet knows that there is no final, definitive edition of her works, only the fluctuating charms of the revisions she made over the decades; some poems have several versions, each of which has its own claim to some sort of authority. I've recently read Linda Leavell's very fine biography of Moore, Holding On Upside Down, which I recommend; it provides some fascinating new light on Moore's complex family relationships as well as on her work.


Jellyfish from the Monterey Aquarium, though sadly lacking in amber- or amethyst tinctures.

11 July 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/28

Rebirth

Spring goes, and the hundred flowers.
Spring comes, and the hundred flowers.
My eyes watch things passing,
my head fills with years.
But when spring has gone, not all the flowers follow.
Last night a plum branch blossomed by my door.

Man Giac, translated from the Vietnamese by W S Merwin with Nguyen Ngoc Bich

Poems about spring usually begin with its arrival, but this one begins with its departure – its departure, along with its hundred flowers, hundred being one of those numbers that is a specific amount but also suggests a general abundance. It is in the second line that spring arrives; just two lines, and two years have already swept by. This suggests that spring is not really the main topic of the poem. The title has given us rebirth as a guiding concept, and spring of course is a traditional and obvious symbol of rebirth, as the earth comes back to life after winter. But the third and fourth lines give us a different perspective. We now have a speaker, telling us of his eyes and his head. He is probably an older man, or at least one of a meditative bent, given his years of experience and his interest in time passing. The seemingly objective statements in the first lines reappear to our memories in a new, subjective light: a person (rather than a general omniscient narrator) is telling us about the spring and the flowers going and coming; they are among the things this man has watched and the memories that fill his head. We now have a poem meditating on the passage of time and perhaps the recurrence of memory. There has been a slightly generic feel to all this so far: the generalities of spring and the unspecified flowers, the universal experience (among those still living) of watching the years pass. We move on to an observation the speaker has made after many springs: not all the flowers go. Then, in the last line, and for the first time in this poem, we suddenly have a line filled with specific details: last nightplum branch blossomsmy door. Perhaps night is also an indication of the speaker's age and even his approaching death. The plum blossom is a powerfully significant symbol in Asian cultures: noted for its beauty, it is one of the first trees to bloom, even when snow is still falling, so it is considered a harbinger of spring, and as such a symbol of hope and perseverance; like all such blossoms, its peak time is brief, making it a symbol of the transitory nature of life. This union of opposite significances – the on-coming renewal of spring, the swift passing of life – does not exhaust its symbolism, but it does suggest why this flower of all others is one named in this poem about time, memory, and renewal. Among the hundred flowers coming and going, we have this one specific flower blossoming forth in the final image, something both real and to be remembered for the rest of the speaker's (or even the reader's) life.

This eleventh century poem was translated by a twentieth- / twenty-first century American, and can be found in East Window: The Asian Translations by W S Merwin.

08 July 2016

Friday photo 2016/28


urban birds at breakfast, San Francisco, June 2016

(I'm not really sure what that item they're gathered around is – possibly a Hostess product a bit the worse for both wear and weather)

05 July 2016

fun stuff I may or may not get to: July 2016

A dyspeptic entry this month, which is possibly a coincidence and possibly related to a number of annoying trends, most of them involving bad websites, inconvenient locations, odd times, the idea that art exists as an excuse for noisy parties, and various other nuisances that I complain about regularly.

Operatic
The last few performances of the San Francisco Opera's season go into the early days of July, but the Opera's new website is such a mess I'll leave you to figure out what's going on, if you're interested. Dear SF Opera: for the love of God, would you please put a regular calendar, with an obvious link, back on your awful site? And maybe restore the front-page list of the season's operas, with a link to each, the way you used to have them, before you decided it was much more important to have huge slow-loading garish photos of wankers drinking from champagne flutes than it was to provide easy access to basic information about the season?

The Merola program starts up this month as well. Don't even waste your time trying to find any information on the Opera's perplexing website; I'll make things easy for you and give you the link right here. The annual Schwabacher summer concert, featuring opera excerpts, takes place 7 and 9 July at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the first of the two summer operas, Conrad Susa's Transformations, to a libretto by Anne Sexton, will take place 21 and 23 July, also at the Conservatory of Music.

West Edge Opera continues its streak of presenting wonderful repertory at inconvenient times and locations; we're back to the abandoned train station in Oakland and 8:00 start times (there are also some matinees). Their website gives directions to the train station, but all of them assume that you have a car, as well as some interest in wandering around the abandoned train station district of Oakland late at night. Last year I think there was a shuttle from a BART station but it looks as if there isn't even that this year, so unless you can hitch a ride – well, good luck. (I should perhaps mention that a kind friend has offered to drive me to the performances she's going to, so I'm complaining here on general principle: thought should be given to non-drivers.) At least this year some of the seats are reserved so you might be spared the added irritation of open seating. This year's program is Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face (matinees on 31 July and 6 August and an evening performance on 13 August), Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen (30 July, matinees on 7 and 13 August), and Handel's Agrippina (6 and 12 August and a matinee on 14 August). And I'd have subscribed to a season like that in a snap if it were offered at a time and place that were more easily manageable for a non-driver who has to work for a living.

Visual Arts
There's an enticing exhibit at the Asian Art Museum: Emperors' Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, featuring more than 150 objects from the former imperial collection. The show runs from 17 June to 18 September. I used to love to go to the museum on Thursday nights, when it was open late. Then, unfortunately, the Museum decided that Thursday nights should not only be cut back drastically (no more late Thursdays during what passes for winter around here), but they should be trashed with obnoxious parties. After fleeing a few of these thumpingly noisy annoyances (there was no escape, even in the farthest reaches of the building) I let my membership lapse and the Asian Art Museum pretty much dropped off my radar. So choose your visiting time carefully if you make the effort. Their website does have a Thursday warning page, complete with cringe-inducing prose with a tech-sector slant ("mingle with innovators" – ugh, no thanks, I really just wanted to look at art), so you can avoid the more egregiously offensive evenings. I also let my membership in the DeYoung / Legion of Honor lapse because the DeYoung's Friday night late hours were similarly trashed. I have no idea why becoming a third-rate nightclub has suddenly become the beau ideal of local arts groups. Perhaps there simply aren't enough people who are actually interested in, you know, experiencing art.

Modern / Contemporary Music
The sfSoundFestival has a wonderful series of concerts from 8 to 10 July, all at inconvenient times in a possibly inconvenient location (the Gray Area Grand Theater at 2665 Mission – no idea if this is near a BART station; the website doesn't seem to have a section on "how to get here" though they do have an "Incubator" section, which sent me screaming into the night, because techtalk seems to have infected everything around here). The only place I've seen this series mentioned is on Iron Tongue of Midnight, so check it out there and I tip my hat (once again) to Lisa Hirsch for posting the information.

Theatrical
San Francisco Playhouse presents the satirical noir musical City of Angels (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by David Zippel, book by Larry Gelbart, directed by Bill English) from 6 July to 17 September. The Playhouse does really good work, but . . . they amplify their musicals. Not sure why that's necessary in a fairly small theater. I find it alienating, and it reduces the intimacy of the space. In last season's otherwise generally excellent production of Company, I found all those little mikes taped to the actors' faces really distracting. The Playhouse loves to call itself the Empathy Gym – you go there for your empathy workout – so why are they using steroids for their musicals?

Shotgun Players continues its season with Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck, directed by Joanie McBrien. That plays from 13 July to 14 August. And I've complained enough for this month – I have nothing but love for the Shotgun players. Go see their Hamlet!

04 July 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/27

Picture of a Nativity

Sea-preserved, heaped with sea-spoils,
Ribs, keels, coral sores,
Detached faces, ephemeral oils,
Discharged on the world's outer shores,

A dumb child-king
Arrives at his right place; rests,
Undisturbed, among slack serpents; beasts
With claws flesh-buttered. In the gathering

Of bestial and common hardship
Artistic men appear to worship
And fall down; to recognize
Familiar tokens; believe their own eyes.

Above the marvel, each rigid head,
Angels, their unnatural wings displayed,
Freeze into an attitude
Recalling the dead.

Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill died just a few days ago, on 30 June, at age 84, so this in in tribute to him, though I have to admit I have not yet read much of his work (I've had Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 - 2012 on my wishlist for so long I should just buy it for myself). A couple of years ago I printed out this poem from the Poetry Foundation site and after I heard about Hill's death I dug it out from the mess on my desk for another look. It displays many of the qualities generally attributed to Hill: lines that are dense, muscular, musical, with a gorgeous surface over shifting elusive depths. Take a phrase like Artistic men appear to worship / And fall down: appear could mean that they show up to worship and fall down could mean they fall to their knees or even prone before the worshiped one, or appear to worship could suggest that they seem to be worshiping, but are not really, and that is the sense in which they fall down (fail).

The title (as well as much of the imagery in the poem) suggests one of those image- and therefore symbol-crammed paintings of the birth of Jesus. Yet we begin not in a stable in Bethlehem but in an unidentified seaside, or possibly in the sea itself, but a sea that seems filled not by nature but by humanity's leavings, often in broken form: in the very first line, we have sea-preserved balanced by sea-spoils: spoils can mean plunder or loot but can also suggest something damaged or ruined – spoiled. So we start off with a suggestion that the same source, the sea, preserves but also destroys, but those destroyed objects might turn into treasures for us. Is the sea just the great elemental mother here? Or a place not quite hospitable to ordinary human lives? The listed sea-spoils include smashed-up ships (their keels, their ribs – though perhaps the ribs are those of drowned sailors?); even a natural element like coral is described as a coral sore – presumably this refers to the twisting, gash-like shapes coral can take, though it might also refer to the dangerous ulcerating cuts that coral can inflict – so along with ribs, this could be read as a submerged reference to drowned bodies; detached faces is a less submerged reference, but might also suggest the sort of crowds or groupings that form sort of a bouquet of faces in some paintings of particular sacred scenes (like the nativity or the crucifixion). Ephemeral oils might suggest the fragility of a painting, as well as the shimmering oil slicks that shipwrecks would leave in the water.

This conglomeration of strange and broken elements resumes at the end of the second stanza, with the odd slack serpents and destructive-sounding beasts whose claws are flesh-buttered (a wonderful phrase, suggesting the reduction of flesh to something edible and spreadable, caught on the deadly claws). Centered between these two jammed elements is the calm figure of the dumb child-king (I assume that dumb here means only mute, though it's not made clear if the silence is because the child-king is a new born, or because he will never speak to us). He occupies his own line. The next line tells us that he has arrived at his right place. He rests, with the word rests set on its own at the end of the line, isolated by the preceding semicolon that ends the stanza's first clause. Then with undisturbed on the next line we begin to see the child-king amid this writhing world (how can you be undisturbed unless there is something there that potentially could disturb you?). Slack serpents is musically appealing, with its alliteration, but unexpected: the serpents are not coiled or tense, but slack: are they made so by the presence of the child-king? The serpent of course is a traditional Christian symbol of the devil, particularly in reference to the fall of humanity, so their lack of energy here might be related to the presence of the child-king, if you read him as the infant Jesus. Perhaps the serpents are merely resting.

Into this world of broken, threatening, but strangely beautiful elements (this world of bestial and common hardship) appear the artistic men whose ambiguous actions we looked at earlier. Artistic men of course suggests artists, or at least the aesthetically inclined, but the phrase also puts me in mind of the elaborate robes and dazzling ornaments of the magi traditionally shown worshiping the infant Jesus. There are further hints that their worship here is not quite succeeding: in the presence of the new, the mute child-king, they recognize familiar signs and symbols and believe their own eyes (a suggestion of what is called confirmation bias, that is, the tendency to see new evidence as confirmation of your old beliefs). Perhaps this is not quite a failure on the part of the artistic men; perhaps they are doing the best they can, pursuing the paths they have been following. The human damage that has filled the ocean, the strange beasts, the possibly misled worshipers, and in the midst of all this, the still silent center of the child-king: each of these exists next to and responds to the others, suspended in a mysterious communion, as ultimately unknowable as the depths of the sea. Perhaps the only common element is the sense of human failure (which can only come after human trials and efforts, of course) and human persistence.

The marvel referred to in the first line of the final stanza – is it the child-king, or the whole scene? Are the rigid heads those of the artistic men, or a reference back to the detached faces of the first stanza, or those of the beasts, or of the hovering angels, with their unnatural wings? (Wings occur in nature, but not attached to angel heads; I picture here those cherubs that are only heads with wings that appear in some early modern paintings of sacred scenes – the wings are unnatural in that they are a human construction, an artistic attempt to symbolize celestial beings (ones which are possibly also human, artistic inventions).) The ambiguity of reference behind the rigid heads lends richness to the final two lines, in which they Freeze into an attitude / Recalling the dead. As the heads (the artistic men? the detached faces? the beasts? the angels?) freeze into place (held in place, preserved, as in a painting), a sense of finality settles over the ambiguous, restless scene. Something has clearly happened – a revelation has occurred – even if we can't quite tie it up in words. It is a sense, perhaps, more than an articulated thought. The final line continues the ambiguity of the poem: the heads freeze into an attitude / Recalling the dead: recalling can mean bringing back to memory, so that the frozen attitude of the heads reminds us of the stiff unmoving dead; but recalling can also mean to call someone back, to order someone to return, to bring someone out of a state of inattention or reverie, which suggests that at the end of this mystery the dead are actually being recalled back into life: a suggestion of resurrection behind the tumult and death.

01 July 2016

27 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/26

Upon the Loss of His Little Finger

Arithmetic nine digits, and no more,
Admits of, then I still have all my store.
For what mischance hath ta'en from my left hand,
It seems did only for a cipher stand.
But this I'll say for thee, departed joint,
Thou wert not given to steal, nor pick, nor point
At any in disgrace; but thou didst go
Untimely to thy death only to show
The other members what they once must do:
Hand, arm, leg, thigh, and all must follow too.
Oft didst thou scan my verse, where, if I miss
Henceforth, I will impute the cause to this.
A finger's loss (I speak it not in sport)
Will make a verse a foot too short.
Farewell, dear finger: much I grieve to see
How soon mischance hath made a hand of thee.

Thomas Randolph

This witty, macabre poem is from the early sixteenth century, when the clever playing-out of conceits, often with spiritual connotations, was much prized. I assume the mischance Randolph mentions actually happened, causing him to lose a finger and then turn life's lead into poetic gold by writing this epitaph. He begins by punning on digits, meaning numerals but also fingers (digit for numbers comes from the Latin digitus for finger, because people would count on them). He is considering 1 to 9 as the digits allowed by arithmetical rules, and consoling himself that he still has all required digits, despite the loss of one finger, which now must represent zero (the cipher of line 4, and perhaps that word, which can also mean writing in a secret code, suggests why he is teasing out various meanings from his finger's loss, trying to figure out what this strange personal mutilation might mean). Zero, a late joiner to the arithmetical game (reaching Europe in the tenth century, via the Islamic scholars resident in the Iberian peninsula), is not considered quite a regular number here; it is the presence that indicates an absence.

Randolph then eulogizes the moral worth of his lost finger: it did not steal, nor pick (pilfer), nor add to the shame of others by pointing out their shame; instead, it demonstrates a useful lesson in impending mortality, reminding the rest of Randolph's body parts of the way of all flesh. In listing the admonished parts, the poet starts with those closest to the finger: the hand, then the arm, and then the parts most like the arm: the leg and thigh, as if each is unconscious of the inevitability of death until reminded by the loss of a part close to or resembling it.

Having considered the arithmetical and moral implications of losing his finger, Randolph moves on to a practical consideration: he used his fingers to count out his five-beat lines (a reminder of the elemental physical nature, the link to the body and dance and especially song, underlying even an elaborate and sophisticated jeu d'esprit like this). Randolph puns on foot meaning a group of syllables making up a metrical unit in poetry as well as the thing you put shoes on: losing his finger might lead to the loss of a (poetic) foot, and indeed the line in which he announced this consequence (Will make a verse a foot too short) is indeed short a foot (that is, it's a four-beat line, contrasted with the five-beat lines in the rest of the poem). This loss is really hitting home for a poet! Despite his playful wit, there is a mournful undercurrent to all his comparisons: the digit that was his finger now stands for zero, the finger's loss is a memento mori incorporated in his body, his poetry will now halt in with missing feet. He concludes with a final farewell to his dear finger, adding one last pun, the effect of which is unfortunately blunted for us because the idiom to make a hand of [something], meaning to make away with or to make an end of [something], fell out of usage a few centuries ago. As with the earlier pun on foot, we now have the lost finger turned into a hand: a synecdochal reminder that the loss of the one finger prefigures the eventual loss of his entire body (and indeed Randolph died young – thirty years old).

This poem is from The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, edited by Alastair Fowler.