30 September 2014

Haiku 2014/273

he lay there, begging
I passed, unseeing his sores
which of us is lost

fun stuff I may or may not get to: October 2014

Baroque & Early Music
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra opens its season with guest cellist Steven Isserlis in a program of Haydn, Boccherini, and CPE Bach; that's 8, 9, 11, and 12 October, in their usual various locations; details here.

Magnificat performs the Opus Ultimum of Heinrich Schütz 3 - 5 October, in a different town each time; check here for details.

See also Handel's Partenope under Operatic.

Chamber Music
At Old First Concerts, the Jarring Sounds play both early and modern music, including Respighi, Revueltas, Britten, and others; that's 17 October; more information here.

Cal Performances presents the Takács Quartet playing Haydn and Debussy and then, joined by pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the Franck Piano Quintet. That's 12 October; more information here.

Choral Music
Cappella SF is a relatively recent addition to the local arts scene, headed by Ragnar Bohlin, whose skills as a choral director are in evidence every time the magnificent San Francisco Symphony Chorus sings. Their program is called Autumn Light, the idea of which is to move from "a mood of summer brightness to the more pensive state of mind that typifies the change to the fall season." The music includes works by Bach, Rheinberger, Lidholm, Pärt, and Schnittke. That's 4 October in Palo Alto and 5 October at St Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. More information here. Palo Alto is out of the running for this non-driver, so I'm looking at the San Francisco concert, which possibly overlaps with Magnificat's 5 October performance at St Mark's Lutheran (see under Baroque & Early Music). But the Magnificat concert begins at 4:00, Cappella SF is at 6:00, and the church is right across the street from the Cathedral – maybe I could make both? I could always try for Magnificat in Berkeley on Saturday, but that's when the SF Conservatory of Music's BluePrint concert is happening . . . life is very complicated. . . .

Cinematic
The San Francisco Symphony celebrates Halloween with John Barrymore's 1920 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, accompanied by Todd Wilson on the organ. More information on that here.

Dance
Cal Performances presents the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake, staged by Graeme Murphy "with reference to the royal love triangle of Princess Diana, Prince Charles, and Camilla" – either that is going to be an inducement for you, or the opposite. Personally I am grateful that we fought a revolution in this country so that we wouldn't have to pay any attention to those people, but I'm not sure how far the production actually goes in "referencing" the Beloved Trio of the Tabloids. Fortunately, judging from the publicity photos (which you may see here, along with further information on the show), the dancers are all much more attractive than the inbred royals, which is an enticement for those as shallow as I am.

Cal Performances presents Sasha Waltz and Guests, dancing to Schubert, with music performed live by pianist Cristina Marton and mezzo-soprano Ruth Sandhoff; that's 24 - 25 October; more info here.

New & Modern Music
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's new music series, BluePrint, starts its season with Nicole Paiement leading the ensemble in works by faculty member Elinor Armer and composers who have studied with her (and also Herzgewächse by that presiding genius of the Modern, Arnold Schoenberg). That's 4 October; more information here.

At the SF Jazz Center, the Calder Quartet continues its exploration of Bartok quartets; they will play quartets 2 and 3, and then violinist Iva Bittová will join them for further musical explorations; that's 5 October; details here.

Operatic
San Francisco Opera continues its fall season with Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (4, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19, and 22 October) and Handel's Partenope (15, 18, 21, 24, and 30 October and 2 November). Both have promising-looking casts; check them out and get further information here for the Verdi and here for the Handel.

Piano
San Francisco Performances presents Rafal Blechacz playing Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin (the latter composer is apparently his specialty). That's 14 October; more information here.

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, pianist Sarah Cahill plays Gubaidulina, Wolpe, Ravel, Bach, and Couperin; that's on 15 October; more info here.

Cal Performances presents Richard Goode playing Schubert's last three piano sonatas; that's on 26 October; more information here. (For more Schubert, see under Dance for Sasha Waltz and Guests, also at Cal Performances, with dances set to lieder and Impromptus, performed live by pianist Cristina Marton and mezzo-soprano Ruth Sandhoff).

See also the Cal Performances presentation of Marc-André Hamelin with the Takács Quartet, under Chamber Music.

Symphonic
The Berkeley Symphony opens its season with a program that includes the world premiere of Sea Shaped, commissioned by the Symphony from Oscar Bettison, the return of marvelous violinist Jennifer Koh as soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and Elgar's Enigma Variations. Joana Carneiro conducts. That's 2 October in Zellerbach Hall, and please note that the performance starts at 7:00 – I hope this is a permanent switch on their part to more sensible start times, but I fear it's only because this is the season opener. More information here.

The San Francisco Symphony, and the visiting London Philharmonic Orchestra, are both playing scads of Rachmaninoff. I like him, but he didn't even write that many pieces, and they've seemed so ever-present the last few seasons that he apparently has become for Davies Hall what Puccini is for the War Memorial Opera House – familiarity seems to be killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Both composers deserve better. On 15 - 18 October you can hear violinist Isabelle Faust as soloist in the Britten Violin Concerto along with your Rachmaninoff. Mahler is also ever-present at the Symphony, but that seems different to me, at least for now: there's still excitement in hearing Tilson Thomas take another journey through these epics. The Mahler 7 is scheduled for 29 - 30 October and 1 November. You can check out the Symphony's whole month here.

Theatrical
Shotgun Players present Harry Thaw Hates Everybody, a musical by Laural Meade, directed by M. Graham Smith. It's another take on the ragtime-era story of Evelyn Nesbit. That's 15 October to 16 November at the Ashby Stage. More information here.

Visual Arts
The Berkeley Art Museum presents American Wonder: Folk Art from the Collection, open 1 October to 21 December; details here.

29 September 2014

Haiku 2014/272

stop and look upward
fanned out like a peacock's tail
nights burn with bright stars

Poem of the Week 2014/40

Adam Cast Forth

The Garden – was it real or was it dream?
Slow in the hazy light, I have been asking,
Almost as a comfort, if the past
Belonging to this now unhappy Adam
Was nothing but a magic fantasy
Of that God I dreamed. Now it is imprecise
In memory, that lucid paradise,
But I know it exists and will persist
Though not for me. The unforgiving earth
Is my affliction, and the incestuous wars
Of Cains and Abels and their progeny.
Nevertheless, it means much to have loved,
To have been happy, to have laid my hand on
The living Garden, even for one day.

Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Alastair Reid

Here is the original Spanish:

¿Hubo un Jardín o fue el Jardín un sueño?
Lento en la vaga luz, me he preguntado,
Casi como un consuelo, si el pasado
De que este Adán, hoy mísero, era dueño,
No fue sino una mágica impostura
De aquel Dios que soñé. Ya es impreciso
En la memoria el claro Paraíso,
Pero yo sé que existe y que perdura.
Aunque no para mí. La terca tierra
Es mi castigo y la incestuosa guerra
De Caines y Abeles y su cría.
Y, sin embargo, es mucho haber amado.
Haber sido feliz, haber tocado
El viviente Jardín, siquiera un día.

In this sonnet Borges gives us a monologue by a man with an experience he shares with only one other person: this is Adam, erstwhile inhabitant of the Garden of Eden, after he and Eve transgressed and were expelled into the world that we know. These thoughts must be occurring some time after the expulsion, since the "now unhappy" Adam has begun to have a clear sense of what his exile means: the unforgiving earth rather than the lush Garden, affliction rather than joy, and endless battles among his sons and their offspring (battles with the added perversity of being "incestuous," since the warring factions are all close kin). He is adjusting to his new reality: he asks, "almost as a comfort," if the Garden and even God really existed at all, or were only dreams and magical fantasies of his own. The "hazy light" (la vaga luz) in which he ponders these questions is contrasted with the "lucid paradise" (el claro Paraíso) he once lived in (Borges, like Milton, ended his life in blindness, and both poets convey Paradise and the Fall in terms of light, shade, and darkness). Yet Adam is hard-headed enough to admit that Paradise exists, though not for him. He finds happiness in having once been happy, and in the memories of the lost.

I took this poem from the Selected Poems of Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Alexander Coleman. The book contains both Spanish originals and English translations, which is handy, especially for people like me who can stumble through the Spanish if we have an English key.

28 September 2014

Modernism from the Meyerhoff Collection at the DeYoung

I guess the National Gallery of Art is undergoing some renovations, because there have been two local exhibits featuring parts of their vast collection: an Impressionist show that closed this summer at the Legion of Honor, and then over at the de Young museum modernist works from the Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection. Contrary to the usual practice in special exhibitions, photography was allowed in both; I assume this is because they come from a government-run museum. All of the photos of paintings below are only details and sections of the works; if you want to see the whole thing, the National Gallery allows you to search their catalogue on-line. The show is at the de Young until 12 October.


The entry way. All of the other photos are of paintings.


This is from Ad Reinhardt's Untitled (Yellow and White) of 1950. It's very forthrightly yellow, though I think it's meant as sort of a zebra painting, as in: is it black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? There are two shades of yellow there, though perhaps that's more a matter of how thickly textured the paint is.

The four below are all from Hans Hofmann's Autumn Gold of 1957. You can see the whole thing here. The paint textures are really rich in this one; it's good to see it in person.








Here's a whole painting: Frank Stella's Flin Flon IV of 1969. The exhibit is nicely arranged, with lots of space around the paintings, many of which are quite large.


Across from the Stella is an enclosed room which holds Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, a suite of fifteen paintings that correspond to the fourteen traditional stations of the cross (I don't remember what the fifteenth painting in this series represents). Lema Sabachthani is a shortened version of one of the sayings of Jesus on the cross: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? which means, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? The phrase is found in Matthew 27:46 and also in Mark 15:34 (which gives Eloi, Eloi instead of Eli, Eli). The omission of the reference to God may explain why this Jewish artist chose a traditionally Catholic subject: the paintings are meditations on spiritual struggle in an abandoned world. They benefit from being seen together and in isolation, creating an atmosphere similar to that of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Below is a detail of the first station:


The one below gives you some sense (I hope) of the atmosphere the paintings create. Each canvas is well over six feet tall and about five feet wide.


Below is a detail from British artist Howard Hodgkin's Souvenirs of 1980-1984:


Below is a close-up section of Agnes Martin's Untitled #2 of 1981. I really loved this one so I had to include it here but none of the photos I took do justice to the subtlety of the colors or the textures. There are horizontal stripes of very pale red, kind of a beige-white, and very pale blue. I find her work very meditative; it rewards close contemplation. (That's another Martin painting I'm looking at in my avatar above.)


Eric Fischl's Saigon Minnesota of 1985 is a very large, unsettling work. It seems at first like some sort of family gathering in a suburb. But it's on four panels of different sizes, which look oddly cobbled together, so that there is no smooth surface. It's obviously summer, given the bathing suits and popsicles, but the very bright colors have an acrid edge.


Then you notice details like the man at the top and center of the work, who is missing an arm. Is Saigon a reference to the Vietnam War? Is the man a wounded veteran, who has brought the war home to Minnesota? In a note posted near the painting, Fischl says that the title came to him as he was working on the painting and noticed that some of the people were "[taking] on an Asian appearance while he painted. At the same time, the national press was reporting on an alleged child-abuse scandal in a small Minnesota town."


You wouldn't necessarily think "child-abuse scandal!" when you saw the painting, but there is something at least potentially disquieting going on in many of the poses. Even the characters who look like young people enjoying their summer take on an oddity in these surroundings.




The longer you look, the more fraught and ambiguous seem the relations among these people.




Across from the Fischl is Agualine of 1980 by Nancy Graves. I really loved this strong, vibrant, joyous work. Click here to see the whole thing and read some more information about the painting.




Philip Guston's Courtroom was in his controversial exhibit of 1970, when he puzzled and alarmed his public by returning to figurative painting.

Haiku 2014/271

cutting back branches
one bough snapped back and slapped me
that tree threw some shade

27 September 2014

Haiku 2014/270

cleaning the lint trap
my garments shred, thread by thread
and so my life goes

25 September 2014

24 September 2014

Haiku 2014/267

overnight rain came
silver streaks on slick black roads
rinsing off summer

23 September 2014

22 September 2014

Haiku 2014/265

as we approach the baseball postseason

during a night game
glowing over the green field
that eerie white light

Poem of the Week 2014/39

Is there for honest poverty
     That hings his head, an' a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by –
     We dare be poor for a' that!
             For a' that, an a' that,
                    Our toils obscure, an' a' that,
             The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
                    The man's the gowd for a' that.

What tho' on hamely fare we dine,
     Wear hodden grey, an' a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine –
     A man's a man for a' that!
             For a' that, an' a' that,
                    Their tinsel show, an' a that,
             The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
                    Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,
     Wha struts, and stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
     He's but a coof for a' that.
             For a' that, an' a' that,
                    His ribband, star, an' a' that,
             The man o' independent mind,
                    He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
     A marquis, duke, an' a' that,
But an honest man's aboon his might –
     Gude faith, he mauna fa' that!
             For a' that, an' a' that,
                    Their dignities, an a' that,
             The pith o' sense an' pride o' worth
                    Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may –
     As come it will, for a' that –
That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth
     Shall bear the gree, an' a' that;
             For a' that, an' a that,
                    It's comin yet for a' that,
             That man to man the world o'er,
                    Shall brothers be for a' that.

Robert Burns

Given the recent debate and referendum over Scottish independence, I thought we'd have a poem from radical, raffish Robert Burns. Some of his poems are in standard English, but the ones he is best known for are in Scottish dialect. During the late eighteenth century, when Burns was alive, there was a growing reaction to the more universal and classical standards of the earlier part of the century – a growing interest in the gnarled, the Gothic, the ancient. and the lost, in regional dialects and medieval or pre-Christian poetry and folklore. Perhaps the growing industrialization of Europe, with its concomitant disruption of the natural environment as well as the traditional social structure, was part of this reaction; perhaps another part was the rise of nationalism and an interest in rediscovering, re-claiming, and, to some extent, inventing a glorious tribal past; perhaps also it was simply the newest thing, the latest and shiniest cultural interest.

These forces helped create interest in regional and national culture, but at the same time they also oddly helped foster a sense of universal political possibility and idealism; this was the time of the American and French Revolutions, which proclaimed the Universal Rights of Man, which radical thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft extended to explicitly include women. I think in this particular poem Burns uses man to mean men, not humanity in general; he's relying on that emphatic use of man that connotes free-standing independence and self-reliance – I referred to this usage also in last week's excerpt from Aurora Leigh. So, uniting the two strands of a local culture and a universal politics, in this poem we see Burns using language that would have been inexplicable in London without a glossary (which no doubt added to its appealing sense that here was an authentic voice from "the people"), and he uses this language to reject class and economic distinctions and to proclaim the universal Brotherhood of Man.

In addition to writing poems in the Scottish dialect, Burns collected and revised traditional Scottish songs, and in this poem you can see their influence on his work, particularly in the refrain-like use of "an' a' that" (the apostrophe indicates omitted letters; a' means all – I like the changing significance of the phrase throughout this poem). Most of the language here is pretty clear, as is the basic thought, but:

In the first stanza, in lines 7 - 8, the guinea is a gold coin minted by Britain and gowd means gold, so the sense is that social rank is due to wealth, while true value is in a man's character (Burns says the rank is stamped, like the coin itself, clearly identifying money, rather than virtue or "nobility" and so forth, as the origin of social rank).

In the second stanza, hamely means homely (in the sense of humble, home-style), hodden grey refers to a coarse homespun cloth, and gie is give.

In the third stanza, we have birkie: The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse annotates this as twit, but the glossary in the back of the Oxford World's Classics Selected Songs and Poems of Robert Burns defines it as a clever fellow. I'm assuming that the Penguin annotation is giving its sense in this particular poem, while the OWC glossary is giving its more general sense, and its use here is ironic, as in see that strutting fellow who thinks he's so very clever. As for coof, both editions agree that it means fool or blockhead. The ribband (ribbon) and star referred to, as well as the belt of the belted knight in the first line of the next stanza, are  insignia of various noble orders (such as the Order of the Garter).

Also in the fourth stanza, "But an honest man's aboon his might – Gude faith, he mauna fa' that!" means "Creating an honest man is beyond his [the prince's] ability – good faith, he must not try to do that!"

In the fifth stanza, gree means degree (as in social rank).

There are two versions of this poem; the main difference is that one omits the first stanza. Both versions have some authority; poems were frequently passed around in manuscript and the manuscript versions and some early print editions include the first stanza, while some earlier publications omit it. The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, edited by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah, gives the five-stanza version which I give here. I have also referred to the Oxford World's Classics Selected Songs and Poems, edited by Robert P. Irvine, which gives the four-stanza version, with the omitted first stanza included in an endnote.

21 September 2014

Captain Ahab Does Not Need Your God-damned GPS

Previously, William Wordsworth shared his thoughts on those who cannot tear their eyes away from their "smart" phones. And now Captain Ahab discusses the pros and cons of using a GPS, or Global Positioning System:

Then gazing at his quadrant, and handling, one after the other, its numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered: "Foolish toy! babies' plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man's eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this earth's horizon are the glances of man's eyes; not shot from the crown of his head, as if God had meant him to gaze on his firmament. Curse thee, thou quadrant!" dashing it to the deck, "no longer will I guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship's compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye," lighting from the boat to the deck, "thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!"

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter CXVIII, The Quadrant

Though personally, speaking as a passenger, I have found such systems to be quite useful.

Haiku 2014/264

floating clouds, flowers,
but also sweat, shit, sadness,
wasted time, regrets

20 September 2014

Haiku 2014/263

passing beams of light
alone glimpsed among a crowd
the heart's hidden joys

19 September 2014

Haiku 2014/262

fog covers the sun
shorn of beams, silver-shining,
sun turns into moon

Friday photo 2014/38


detail from the sculpture of Laocoon and his sons outside the Legion of Honor in San Francisco: this is a copy of the classical original now in the Vatican

18 September 2014

17 September 2014

16 September 2014

Haiku 2014/259

leaves tremble and shake
clouds rush restlessly towards dark
uneasy evening

15 September 2014

Haiku 2014/258

pearly pre-dawn skies
no rains will bring us relief
from the cheerful sun

Poem of the Week 2014/38

(The "Carrington" referred to below is an invented painter, one of the characters in the novel-in-verse from which this excerpt is taken. Other explanations follow.)

. . . Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural's impossible; – no form,
No motion! Without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable; – no beauty or power!
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(And still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it, – fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antitype
Some call the ideal, – better called the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names. Look long enough
On any peasant's face here, coarse and lined,
You'll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay,
As perfect-featured as he yearns at Rome
From marble pale with beauty; then persist,
And, if your apprehension's competent,
You'll find some fairer angel at his back,
As much exceeding him, as he the boor,
And pushing him with empyreal disdain
For ever out of sight. Ay, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed! an artist must,
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone,
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous with his soul.
Why else do these things move him, leaf or stone?
The bird's not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot;
Nor yet the horse before a quarry, a-graze:
But man, the two-fold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself, – cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. "There's nothing great
Nor small," has said a poet of our day,
(Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin's bell)
And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing's small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And, – glancing at my own thin, veinèd wrist, –
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth's crammed with Heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Aurora Leigh, Book VII, ll 773 - 826

I think this excerpt lies near the heart of Barrett Browning's novel in verse, though it captures only one aspect of this strange and fluid epic-length combination of Gothic romance, industrial novel, feminist manifesto, defense of poetry, political paper, travelogue, psychological study, and more. I first read it several years ago, in an edition that combined it with other works by Barrett Browning (I will talk about the specific edition below). It did not really benefit from being read in conjunction with some of her other works. For one thing, she's very passionate, and can be very political, with the inevitable result that she can be at times a bit of a gasbag (I'm referring to some of her other poems, not Aurora Leigh). She was resident in Florence for many years and had a deep love for Italy (she makes Aurora Leigh, her semi-stand-in, half-Italian), and I grew irritated in particular with some verses denouncing Italian men for not making war against the people she thought they ought to make war against. She was an invalid, suffering most of her life from debilitating illnesses, which led also to an addiction to opiates, and as an invalid, as a foreigner, and as a woman she was exempt from taking active part in these battles, so it left a very sour taste in my mouth to read this wealthy woman berating the peasants (that's not a metaphor, they were actual peasants) for not risking their lives and health (and consequently the continued well-being of their families) in battle. Imperialism takes many forms. Oppressive though Italy's foreign rulers may have been, can we admit that there's something at the very least distasteful about requiring foreign men to die for your beliefs in a war you're not fighting? In consequence I ended up feeling a bit put off by her. (In defense of her politically motivated poetry, however, I should point out that her poems also helped promote restrictions on child labor; she also wrote in favor of the abolition of slavery – a principled and altruistic position for her, since much of her family's fortune was linked to slavery and Jamaican plantations. In other words, her political poetry accomplished actual good in the world, as opposed to most "political" poetry, which mostly amounts to sanctimonious posturing in a deserted auditorium.)

With this lingering sourness in mind, I picked up Aurora Leigh several weeks ago (no particular reason, except that it had been a while, and something in the back of my mind kept returning to the book and I wanted to refresh my impressions, and this seems to be my year for re-reading things). I found it compelling, rich, and fascinating.

Like her slightly later compatriot George Eliot, Barrett Browning was exceptionally intellectual and well-educated (by private tutors and on her own, since at the time women were not allowed into the universities). She was able to read the major classical and Biblical languages. It's interesting that both women were raised in very religious households, either Evangelical or Dissenting; even as they moved away from specific doctrines, both remained imbued with a sense of radical Christian egalitarianism and compassion, and with a sense that life is serious and potentially meaningful, and that that is a source of its beauty. These impulses (both intellectual and religious) take very different forms in them, though; with Eliot, you feel a deep and far-seeing wisdom, an abiding sense of empathy that, despite or through the turmoils and struggles of life, leads to the peace that passeth understanding; with Barrett Browning, you feel that she is hurling herself, repeatedly and forcefully, against the impermeable wall of reality, desperate to break through to the vision she is certain must be on the other side.

Barrett Browning was an infant prodigy of poetry, writing a Homeric epic on the subject of the battle of Marathon before she was a teenager. But as she grew older, and as she argues in Aurora Leigh, she felt that it was a mistake for poetry to stick with, or retreat to, classical and medieval subjects (she published Aurora Leigh around the time Tennyson was writing Idylls of the King): poetry needed to go into the drawing-rooms of the present day, and not only the drawing rooms; part of her novel (and as the novel was gaining in prestige, she did not hesitate to confront and expand it poetically) deals with the impoverished: there is a Dickensian saintly single mother, Miriam, who rebukes Victorian moral hypocrisy by saying, "We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong, / Without offense to decent happy folk. / I know that we must scrupulously hint / With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing / Which no one scruples we should feel in full" (Aurora Leigh, Book VI, ll 1219 - 1223).

In the passage above, Barrett Browning discusses the role of the thoughtful, the observant, and above all the artist, in awakening humanity to the spiritual possibilities inherent in existence. Mankind hovers between the physical and an awareness of the spiritual: this is the "twofold sphere" in which we dwell. Although she feels we are moving ultimately towards the spiritual, she does not deny the physical; it is through the physical that we become aware of the spiritual. But the twofold sphere leads to the "twofold man": the awareness of the divine vision beyond can lead to restlessness and dissatisfaction. There is a running motif of Aurora Leigh feeling discontented with her latest book of poems, no matter how acclaimed it is, or how deeply it has moved others: she is always striving for more. In this context, and in the context of this verse-novel's argument for the value of women's writing, is is curious to read the parenthetical remark "(And still the artist is intensely a man)" – why "a man" instead of "human"? Parentheses contain necessary clarification and amplification, so we can't just ignore it, though perhaps we are simply meant to read man in the sense, less commonly used these days, of human – that is, women as well as men. But this seems a bit too easy. Perhaps she wants to bring in – for the artist is of his or her nature a visionary, and therefore an outsider – that implication of independence and self-reliance and thinking for oneself associated with certain emphatic uses of man (the way we might try to convey some of the same qualities in a woman by saying, "She's a pioneer gal" or "she's a farm-woman-type"). Perhaps there is some exasperation in her phrasing: still, despite humanity's slow movement forward, there is the assumption (one made by some of the characters in this verse-novel, and argued against by Aurora) that the artist must be male.

She calls on the artist, the proxy for humanity, to see intensely and intently, with "eyes immortal" (and therefore godlike, since nothing human is immortal) to pierce through outward appearances towards the vast and expansive spiritual. I think it was Conrad who said that it was the artist's task above all to make you see. But as in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, we must understand that what we see is not reality, but a reflection of the real reality: "to the antitype / Some call the ideal, – better called the real." Antitype is an interesting word here, since it means both the opposite of someone or something else and a symbol for something else. The antitype is both the opposite and the true fulfillment of what we see: "and certain to be called so presently / When things shall have their names." The apocalyptic phrasing hints towards the vision of the New Jerusalem that ends both the Bible and Aurora Leigh; Adam began the world by naming God's creations, and giving things their true names is the sign of a world re-born.

Antinous was the youthful male favorite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. When the young man died under mysterious circumstances, the disconsolate Emperor deified him, with the result that the "perfect-featured" youth was still a familiar sculptural presence in Barrett Browning's time (and in our own). Look long enough, and intently enough, in the coarse and lined human clay of the Italian peasant's face, and beyond the clay you'll see marble, "pale with beauty"; keep looking, and the marble dissolves to spirit, "some fairer angel," whose glory pushes Antinous as well as peasant out of sight (note the pun here, frequent in Paradise Lost, on empyreal / imperial: Antinous the imperial favorite is pushed aside by the empyreal). Just as Antinous is an example of a beautiful man turned into a god, so the homely peasant (clay) reveals an Antinous (marble) who in turn reveals a glorious angel (spirit).

Then Aurora, our narrator, reverts to the society she's been describing to us: the artist Carrington is mentioned. Why is he so strangely moved at times, finding his soul in his drawing of a leaf or stone (remember that certain decorated manuscripts are said to be illuminated, which can also mean filled with light), when birds or horses, who are more dependent for survival on leaves or stones than we are, are not moved? It is because of the twofold awareness: inner and outer, physical and spiritual. The most mundane physical objects ("cup, column, or candlestick") are "All patterns of what shall be in the Mount." As in the Sermon Jesus delivered on the Mount or the revelations Moses received at Mount Sinai, the Mount is the source of divine presence and revelation; everything finds significance in the final and ever-lasting (eterne is an archaic word for eternal) embrace of God.

Barrett Browning is a religious poet in the visionary mode of Blake (though the poet she quotes, "There's nothing great nor small," is her husband Robert Browning; hence her loving tribute). In a vivid, ecstatic passage, she explicates the glory behind the mundane and minuscule: the buzzing bee and the spinning star, the pebble and the globe, the small common bird that implies the cherubim. And she achieves her spiritual effect through an appeal to our sensuous awareness of language and sound, particularly alliteration: not just buzzing or humming, but "the lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee" (the mu of muffled is picked up playfully in hum and summer), linked to the spinning stars (whose sibilant s is picked up in sphere in the next line, just as proves picks up the p of pebble earlier in its line); chaffinch leads to cherubim. She ends with her own thin wrist, and the strong clamor of a vehement soul implicit in her sickly circulation. She ends with an evocation of the burning bush in which God was made manifest to Moses, only here it's not just one, but every common bush that is "afire with God," burning without being destroyed by the flames. But only the one who sees (remember, the job of the artist is to make you see, and remember the Biblical warning "None are so blind as those who have eyes and do not see") has the awareness to follow the example of Moses and take off his shoes since he is standing on sacred ground. The rest sit around, eating blackberries, getting the juices smeared on their faces, content with the world of similitude, of resemblances – the husks that surround them. (There is a hint here of the implicit snobbery of the visionary and artist, the contempt for those who do not share their vision – a hint of the quality in some of her political poetry that soured me. Perhaps it's inevitable that idealists end up with some contempt for lumpen, unmoved humanity.)

For many years (in the primitive pre-Internet days) Aurora Leigh was one of the books I was unable to find a copy of. Now you have a choice! There are the usual suspects among literary texts: Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics, and Norton Critical Editions. These editions are all annotated, which might be for the best, since this verse-novel is dense with references to the Bible, myth, history, art, and literature: I mean, it will make sense if you just read it as a story, but it enriches the experience the more awareness you have of what else the poet is pulling in. I should point out now that the only one of these editions I have looked at is the Penguin Classics version, edited by John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway, which has the advantage of including a generous selection of her other poems (so if you're looking to get a general sense of her as a poet, this would be the edition to get). The annotations, possibly for reasons of space, tend to be a bit elliptical (for instance, giving just the "chapter and verse" rather than the entire quotation for references to the Bible, Dante, Milton, etc.). I'm OK with this but you can judge your own comfort level. The editors do make some interesting connections that I might have missed just reading through: for instance, though I was aware of the many classical references, it was helpful when they pointed out that many of them involve gender reversals (so that if there is a reference to Achilles, it will be to the story at the very beginning of the Trojan War when his mother Thetis tried to hide him from the Greeks by dressing him as a girl and hiding him in the court of the King of Skyros).

My major complaint about this edition is one I frequently have with annotated editions: maybe we're supposed to be too sophisticated to care about plot, but they give away key information before we are supposed to know it. I'm not just talking about the preface; the annotations to each of the nine books (nine: like the number of months of a human pregnancy) open with a summary of what we are about to read. Why not let us read it first? You can always skip these or return to them at the end, but you don't know to do this unless someone warns you first (which is what I'm doing here). This is particularly problematic in the last few books of the work. There is a crucial piece of information which Aurora, our narrator, does not realize until almost the very end, which means we're not supposed to realize it either. Yet the editors blithely make sure we know. There's supposed to be a shock, and even a bit of humbling, when Aurora realizes this thing, a thing which involves the humbling of one of the male protagonists: this mutual humbling is what allows them both to move past some of their earlier attitudes towards each other and towards a vision (with explicit reference to the end of the Book of Revelations) of worldly and spiritual fulfillment. The mutual humbling – the fact that it's not just the man, but Aurora as well, who needs to realize and learn from his and her limitations – is a very important point, and one that was smudged my first time around, owing to the intrusive synopsis delivering information too early. (I hope this is clear without being too specific; I'm deliberately avoiding recounting the plot).

Another problem frequent to these editions of women writers is that the editors claim that the work is about a woman operating in "a man's world"; in fact, though there are men, occasionally powerful ones, in Aurora Leigh, they are not the principal players, and they too are often thwarted by the world around them (a world which, of course, includes many women). (My favorite example of this reductive sort of reading was an edition of Gaskell's Wives and Daughters that said the book was about women coping with male power; as the title might tell you, and as reading the novel will definitely tell you, that book is very much about power between and among women.) In this story, to a very thorough extent, most of the heroes, victims, and villains, in their varying degrees and kinds, are women. To give an example (again, without giving away too much of the plot) there is a rape that results in an illegitimate child, but though the rapist is vehemently condemned, he is an anonymous, undifferentiated, and passing character; there is much more emphasis on, and much more characterization and discussion of, the women who tried to trick the victim into a life of prostitution and on the flirtatious young housewife who hypocritically fires the young woman when she finds out that her new maid has a child but no husband. This simplification of gender/power issues was another element that helped smudge the ending for me: it's mentioned  that the man is humbled into a new life, but it's equally important (yet unmentioned) that Aurora is as well.

If anyone has read the Oxford World's Classics edition or the Norton Critical Edition, I'd be interested in hearing any thoughts on their presentation.

14 September 2014

Haiku 2014/257

owners idling by,
dogs yap and yowl through the night
then shit on my lawn

13 September 2014

12 September 2014

11 September 2014

Haiku 2014/254

words are tiny fish
darting silver flashes through
vast dark muddied depths

10 September 2014

Haiku 2014/253

fatigue is faithful
like the moon ever-changing
ever returning

butterfly on the lantana

Sometimes wonderful things happen in gardens – like when I stand there with the hose, watering something, and a hummingbird comes by and sticks his beak into the stream, and I don't move until he flies off – and sometimes I manage to grab my camera. Here are some shots of the butterfly that was fluttering over the lantana last week.


                         ****************************************************


                         ****************************************************


                         ****************************************************


                         ****************************************************


                         ****************************************************


                         ****************************************************


                         ****************************************************

09 September 2014

08 September 2014

As a Fowl: Music by Kyle Hovatter at the Center for New Music

Last Friday I finally made it out to the Center for New Music. I had wanted to visit the venue for quite a while, though I’ll admit I was shocked when I was told it had been open for two years – tempus does indeed keep fugit-ing. Speaking of which, I had to kill time before the concert  started at 7:30, which is kind of difficult to do now that there are no more book stores and no more CD stores. Even though for me going into those places is like (fill in this space with your favorite addiction/substance abuser comparison), still, it’s a pleasant way to while away some time, as opposed to what I actually ended up doing, which was first going through Macy’s, where I felt strange horrors and unnameable sorrows, without even the consolation of ending up in Holiday Lane, which frankly is nowhere near ready. At this rate I don’t see how they’re going to manage to start selling Christmas decorations by mid-September. Disgraceful. Having had my fill there, I then went to the Westfield Mall, where they were filming the latest YA dystopian novel – or it was just business as usual; it’s hard to tell there.

Once you're buzzed inside the Center for New Music, it's almost surprising to walk in from one of the Tenderloin's less distinguished blocks to a well-proportioned and comfortable space. There was a sort of lounge off to the front, and a long concert space with clean white walls, backed with an irregular wall of bricks worn by time into beauty. During the intermission I noticed at least one woman walk back there just to put her hands on the brick. She told me she wanted to see if they were real.

The concert was an evening of new music by local composer Kyle Hovatter. I had never heard his elegant and inventive music before, but I had heard some of the performers: the Jarring Sounds duo (mezzo-soprano – oddly listed as a soprano in Friday's program – Danielle Reutter-Harrah and lutenist/guitarist/theorboist Adam Cockerham) and I was glad to hear some performers new to me, soprano Amy Foote, pianist Ian Scarfe, and bassoonist Alexis Luque. Hovatter worked the computer for pieces that used pre-recorded tracks, like the first piece, En Los Bosques, for bassoon and pre-recorded audio, inspired by a poem by Neruda ("Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig. . . "). The track was more interesting than such things often are, combining spoken word, natural sounds, and musical instruments, accompanied by Luque on bassoon, bringing out intimations of that instrument's Pieter Bruegel quality. That was followed by Plum Green, for bassoon and piano (Luque on bassoon and Ian Scarfe on piano). The idea here was to move from one color to the next; plum was more percussive and green more lyrical. Though the reference is to colors I couldn't help also thinking of green plums ripening, and natural scenes, particularly bird song, as well as poetry seem to inspire a lot of Hovatter's music, though that may make it sound more ethereal than it is; the earth and earthiness are also part of Nature.

Hovatter introduced the next selection, a setting of four poems by T E Hulme, a young critic turned poet and then killed in the trenches of World War I. The poems and the settings are brief, elliptical, and compelling. (The program's title, As a Fowl, is taken from one of these poems.) The Jarring Sounds duo performed these; I had heard them in baroque music so it was interesting to hear their other specialty, contemporary works; it's also interesting to hear modern works for the theorbo. While they were arranging stands and stools Cockerham gave a brief yet thorough explanation of what the theorbo was (a member of the lute family: see the rounded back) and why its neck is so long (it has extra strings for added bass, and string technology at the time required the length). I am not a big fan of concert-time chat but I actually found this sort of technical explanation really fascinating and helpful. There was an intermission after this piece, which was unnecessary, I thought, but the composer's wife had thoughtfully baked cookies and brownies for us, which I ate too many of, so I can't really complain.

After the break the first piece was There Will Come Soft Rains for soprano Amy Foote and pre-recorded track. It's a setting of the poem of that name by Sara Teasdale. In his intro Hovatter put the poem in a Cold War/post-atomic bomb setting, which was an interesting view, but it also relates to the Hulme poems we heard earlier, since she wrote it in response to the slaughter on the battlefields of World War I. He also mentioned working on this piece with Foote, and explained that it arose from their mutual love of birds, so instead of a linear setting of the text the words are broken and patterned like bird-song. Foote appropriately wore peacock-feather earrings. (I have to agree: bird-song is one of the wonders of the world, even the cawing of crows; conversely, is there a stupider, more annoying sound in Nature than a dog barking? Dogs are the car alarms of the animal world. This bit is prompted by the horrifying sight of several people actually walking their dogs in the Westfield Mall. What a nightmare that place can be.)

That was followed by the Jarring Sounds performing Azulao, a mournful Brazilian love song, with Cockerham on lute this time. It involves sending a bluebird as messenger to the speaker's "ungrateful love," so the bird theme continues. The finale brought all the performers (except the pianist, who only played the one piece) back on stage for Three Poems by Elinor Wylie. Hovatter opened the piece by saying he sort of identified with Wylie, in that she was also out of step with her time (which was 1885 to 1928) and maybe took herself a bit too seriously. It was kind of a funny and slightly alarming personal revelation. The three poems were the epigrammatic and anti-social The Eagle and the Mole (Hovatter's setting really brought out the poem, which can seem a bit too heavily end-stopped when read on its own), Atavism, another view of Nature, and a brief, caustic excerpt from Village Mystery. In these pieces I felt that Foote was a bit too loud for the space, and her voice sometimes pressed into glassiness, but on the whole it was another excellent performance. Really enjoyable evening. After the applause we ate more cookies.

Haiku 2014/251

daily I pass by
a house that is never lit
and is never left

Poem of the Week 2014/37

The Country of the Dead

The country of the dead
I speak
no answer
I weep
no pity
I watch
no colour
I listen
no sound
the country of the dead

I shout, the echo strikes
the dead rock
I kick, my toe mutilates
on dry stump
I weep, no pity
the country of the dead

I've searched the exit
but heard no owls
no parrots, the waves beat afar
on wrecks of ships
the sand stares with me
the country of the dead.

Jared Angira

This is an evocative, chant-like poem, summoning up a state that I think we can all recognize, even if we can't quite place or limit its uneasiness. Right after the title tells us we are in the country of the dead, the speaker emphasizes that statement with repetition at the very beginning of the poem, and then again at the end of each stanza, like the tolling of a bell. In the unpunctuated first stanza, in between the repetition of the country of the dead, we have a series of two-word lines, divided into couplets the second line of which is a response balanced against the first. You could almost see this as an example of stichomythia, the technique (dating back to ancient Greek tragedy) in which single lines (or half-lines) are rapidly exchanged between two different characters, usually ones who are disputing something. There is a call-and-response here; each couplet starts with the speaker making a statement about himself: I speak, I weep, I watch, I listen. And then the speaker perceives a response, or more precisely a lack of response, from the country of the dead: no answer, no pity, no color, no sound. Each two-word statement begins with I and is balanced by one beginning with no: a negation of the self. In between the first and last lines of the stanza, which are the repetition of the country of the dead, the speaker has established what this country is: each action of the speaker, each emotional or sense-based assertion, is immediately nullified by an oppositional blankness.

In the second stanza, the speaker moves from I speak to I shout, but his increased volume and intensity are met only with echo against dead rock. He lashes out physically, kicking, and his toe mutilates / on dry stump: mutilates on is an odd usage. Usually it would be is mutilated by [or on] a dry stump or mutilates a dry stump. Perhaps the phrasing here is an attempt to suggest both ideas: he hurts himself on the dry stump, and while doing so he damages the dry stump. In either case, the only result is damage. In another example of repetition, the first stanza's I weep / no pity recurs, this time as one line: I weep, no pity. There is an added immediacy and intensity by pulling no pity up from the second line, as if the reaction is even faster than after his first tears (the longer line also fits the longer lines used in the second stanza).

In the third stanza the speaker looks for a way out (I've searched the exit) but he hears no owls (meditative birds of night) or parrots (noisy and colorful birds of day) – nothing is going to escape by taking flight, by night or by day. Though this third stanza opens out, we are still very much in the country of the dead: he looks for other living creatures, but they aren't there. There is an ocean, but its waves beat against wrecked ships (the ships are the only evidence of the existence of other people, and they are wrecked). There is sand, but it is so blank and harsh it seems to be staring (nonetheless, the vast blank sand, by staring with instead of at him, becomes the only element not in opposition to him). The poem ends with another repetition of the country of the dead, followed by the finality of the only period, the only end-stop that appears in the poem.

I wonder if some of The Waste Land, particularly the section titled What the Thunder Said, lurks behind some of this poem, with its dry stump, its blankness and silence except for an ominous natural noise (here, the far-off waves beating on wrecked ships), its sand, its dead rock (rock of course is by its nature dead; the use of dead here is emphatic, as in the usage dead silence – this rock is the essence of the not-living). There is also in both poems the deep awareness of the dead – a feeling that we live in a world that is really theirs. So what is the country of the dead? The answer is open, and as in The Waste Land, the possible interpretations include both the personal and the social and the historical. The speaker could be describing a state of spiritual despair, of hopelessness; or it might be a sense of personal isolation and alienation in a world that mystifies him.  He might himself be dead, and the poem a description of a bleak afterlife, from which he finds no exit. He might be describing his awareness of mortality, and of those who have gone before into what we see as blankness and silence, into Hamlet's "undiscover'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns."

Jared Angira is a contemporary Kenyan poet. I took this poem from The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier.

07 September 2014

Haiku 2014/250

I had other plans
but the soft breeze caressed me
and the sun was warm. . .

06 September 2014

05 September 2014

04 September 2014

Haiku 2014/247

is it wrong to find
relief when shadows grow long
and the cold winds rise

03 September 2014

02 September 2014

fun stuff I may or may not get to: September 2014

Dance
Cal Performances presents the Mark Morris Dance Group in two different programs (the second of which includes a return engagement for Spring, Spring, Spring, Morris's version of The Rite of Spring, set to the arrangement by The Bad Plus). That's 25 - 28 September in Zellerbach Hall; more information here.

Theatrical
Shotgun Players present The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh, directed by Barbara Damashek, 3 September to 5 October; more information here.

Vocalists
Baritone Christian Gerhaher makes his San Francisco debut on 30 September in St Mark's Lutheran, presented by San Francisco Performances. Accompanied by pianist Gerold Huber, he will perform works by Beethoven, Schoenberg, Haydn, and Berg. More information may be found here.

Countertenor Brian Asawa sings Schubert and Strauss, accompanied by pianist Kevin Korth, in the opening concert of Lieder Alive's Liederabend Series. That's 7 September at Salle Pianos at 1632C Market Street (between Franklin and Gough) in San Francisco: more information here.

At the SF Jazz Center Paula West performs a tribute to Ethel Waters, 11 - 14 September; more information here.

Gabriel Kahane is touring with Irish band Bell X1. Their Bay Area stop will be 18 September at The Chapel (777 Valencia Street in San Francisco; you can find the other cities and dates of the tour by clicking through his name to his website). More information on the SF performance here. You should also check out his new CD, The Ambassador, which is available in the usual places as well as on his website. I ordered a different CD from his website a while ago, and it came with a handwritten thank you note from Kahane – let me tell you, that young man was raised right.

New/Modern Music
At Old First Concerts, Wild Rumpus performs music by Per Bloland, Ruby Fulton, Gyorgy Kurtag, Philip Glass, Lee Hyla, and Caroline Miller in a concert called Kafkaesque on 5 September; more information here.

At the SF Jazz Center, the Calder Quartet begins a three-concert survey of Bartok's string quartets, followed by jazz variations. On the first concert, 24 September, the Quartet will perform the Bartok quartets #1 and #4 in the first half; for the second half, they will be joined by jazz bass player Christian McBride for what is described as "a sublime intersection of musical disciplines." OK! More information here. (The second and third concerts take place in October and November.)

The Center for New Music presents "As a Fowl," a concert that includes the Jarring Sounds, Amy Foote, and Alexis Luque in music by local composer Kyle Hovatter; that's on 5 September; more information here.

San Francisco Symphony is reviving Henry Brant's Ice Field, a site-specific, spatially arranged work composed for Davies Hall in 2001 (it also won the Pulitzer Prize in Music). Site-specific and spatially aware means that (1) Davies is really the place to hear it, and (2) recordings (if there are any) just aren't the same (I know, they never are, but recordings really can't capture the arrangement of music in space). Cameron Carpenter will be improvising on the organ as part of the piece. Sounds fun! It's performed with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3 and the Tchaikovsky 5, and I'm not the only person to notice that the combo seems a bit random. I have mixed feelings about this. I can imagine three different audiences, sitting disgruntled through the other two-thirds of the concert. On the other hand, maybe someone who went for one piece will enjoy the others too – I know I'd enjoy any of the three (though it's doubtful whether I'd rouse myself at this point in my concert-going life to go hear the Brandenburg Concerto or the Tchaikovsky – so maybe reminding people like me of the virtues of the familiar is an added benefit of the randomness). I'd like to hear more contemporary music at the symphony, but on the other hand I think it's good to mix it in with the rest of the repertory instead of segregating it. You can check it all out for yourself 18 - 21 September; more information here.

Symphonic
In addition to the Bach/Brant/Tchaikovsky concert mentioned above, there are some other interesting programs at the San Francisco Symphony: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Romeo-and-Juliet-themed music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, and Stravinsky's Scherzo à la Russe, along with Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major, with the much-praised young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as the soloist, 5 -6 September; more information here. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Rossini's Overture to La gazza ladra, along with Alternative Energy by Mason Bates (more new music!) and the Beethoven Piano Concerto 1 with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes, 10 -13 September; more information here.

Baroque Music
At Old First Concerts, the Vinaccesi Ensemble performs music by Salamone Rossi and Benedetto Marcello, on 7 September; more information here.

Operatic
San Francisco Opera begins its new season with two interesting-looking offerings: Sondra Radvanovsky, who made a big hit here a few years ago as the Trovatore Leonora, returns in the title role of Norma, with Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducting. That's on 10, 14, 19, 23, 27, and 30 September. (There is also a performance on 5 September, but that is the season opening night, so proceed at your own risk. I wash my hands of it.) And then Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich return in the company premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, directed by Michael Cavanaugh, who did an outstanding job here a few years ago with Nixon in China. And that's on 6, 9, 12, 16, and 21 September. Info on Norma is here and on Susannah here. And please note that the Opera, unlike some other local arts organizations, is finally recognizing the reality of most of our lives by moving to a standard curtain time of 7:30 rather than 8:00, for which I salute them.

Cinematic
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival expands into the fall with Silent Autumn, a one-day festival at the glam and period-appropriate Castro Theater that offers a varied sampler of silent films, from comedians like Keaton and Laurel & Hardy and romantic Hollywood idols like Valentino to the extravagant expressionist reaches of German cinema. That's on Saturday 20 September; check out the full schedule here (and click through for tickets).

Visual Arts
Let me just say that I really miss the SF Museum of Modern Art. On the first Tuesday of every month, I receive a poignant reminder of the good old modern days in the form of my calendared reminder not to go to SF MoMA that day, since first Tuesdays were free days and consequently a total nightmare. Anyway, we're roughly at the halfway point of their three-year closure for expansion, and on 10 September from noon to 2:00 they are holding a free public "Topping Out" Celebration, as "the final beam is hoisted into place and our steel structure reaches its highest point." More information here.

Haiku 2014/245

watching the sidewalk
I can also see the sky:
shadows chasing sun

01 September 2014

Haiku 2014/244

light falling like leaves
through dark forest colonnades:
white path, narrowing

Poem of the Week 2014/36

Here's one for Labor Day:

Busboy and Waitress: Cashing Out

I sip my free drink with Karen,
my uniform stained with slop
from scraped plates, a rancid buffet.
I close my eyes and try to sigh
deep enough. I hear her splash
change onto the counter,
rustle her bills.

My face is tired, she says.
Her own stains: a businessman's
crude remark, the visual undressing,
some old ladies who stayed forever
then stiffed her. I wait
for her to shove a little money my way,
nodding, listening – part
of what I'm paid for.

Jim Daniels

Often when I see dramas set in offices, I feel as if I'm seeing not an actual office but some strange fairy-tale land, in which the monsters are real and so is the camaraderie and the sense of importance and adventure. I cannot take those works seriously as depictions of actuality. Perhaps the working world is of its nature inimical to dramatic representation: how can an art form limited to a few hours and dependent on concentrated and significant action and dialogue and on human connection truly capture an experience which is fully revealed only after many grinding humdrum years of day-in, day-outness in an inhuman corporate machine, many years of emotional explosions and crises and emergencies that all end up meaning nothing, in which even friendly relations tend to evaporate when cubicles are moved apart. . . . it's not totally impossible, but rarely do I find the combination of Kafka and Beckett who can capture what it's like in Office-Land.

This poem is, of course, not about an office, but Daniels gives us a vivid, revealing, and truthful vignette of the working life. You feel that if you walked past this restaurant after closing time you might spot these two inside, bent over the counter under a single stark light, an Edward Hopper painting come to life. They are the sort of workers who generally get taken for granted: a waitress and the even more anonymous busboy (her name is given; his is not). There are the treasured little perks that really don't cost the bosses that much, like the free drink (it sounds as if they are allowed only one). There is also the literally dirty reality: even in offices, in which the stale air is usually overheated, you sweat, but the speaker here, a busboy, is doing physical labor, which stains the uniform he has to wear. (There's always a scene in a certain type of high school or college rom-com in which our hero, who is forced to wear some ridiculous get-up for his restaurant job, is shamed when he is spotted wearing same by the girl he adores and his rival, who is usually the school's top jock; these scenes go back to Buster Keaton in College. Aside from military personnel and athletes, we don't really prize jobs that require uniforms; back when suit-and-tie was required wear for men in offices, the wannabe rebels – the cubicle cowboys – would refer to these clothes contemptuously as their uniform.)

The restaurant isn't even particularly good: the buffet is "rancid," the food scraped off the plates is "slop." It's not expensive; it's frequented by generic office-workers (the sort of businessman who insults waitresses) and by old ladies who take up a table for hours and then don't even tip the waitress. When Karen empties her pockets, there is the rustle of bills, but also the clang as she digs out all the coins and drops them on the counter – clearly if there is enough small change for it to "splash" out like this, she's not making a whole lot of money off of tips (which are, of course, considered a major portion of a restaurant worker's wages, to make up for their low salaries). Even her face is tired. He cannot sigh deeply enough to plumb the depths of sighing needed by their day.

I love the concise depiction and the truth of the relationship between these two: we have a woman and a man alone together, day after day, and they have a sympathetic, perhaps even friendly, bond, but there's no teasing sense of romance, or even the possibility of romance, as there usually is in workplace dramas – you feel that the busboy, at least, will eventually move on, and maybe she will too (though who knows whether either one will end up in a place that's in any way better), and they'll mostly forget each other. She's letting out her frustrations to him, and he's listening and commiserating with her, but this isn't pure kindness: there's hierarchy even here, and he's aware that providing this outlet is part of his job; if she gets little money, he probably gets less – while listening and nodding, he's also "waiting for her to shove a little money" his way.

Jim Daniels is a contemporary American poet. I took this poem from the anthology For a Living: The Poetry of Work, edited by Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick.