31 October 2014

29 October 2014

Haiku 2014/302

stars & bars, wind-whipped
cracking right over our heads
in the harsh bright light

28 October 2014

27 October 2014

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

As usual November is (potentially, at least) a very busy month for performances. But this month in particular Cal Performances is really a star, with a wide range of great stuff (and I didn't even list it all – check out the whole month here).

Theatrical
Cal Performances presents the Théâtre de la Ville in Pirandello's modernist classic, Six Characters in Search of an Author. As with their production of Rhinoceros two years ago, the play will be performed in French, with English surtitles. That's 7 - 8 November in Zellerbach Hall. More information here.

Cal Performances also presents the return of Robert Wilson, and this time he has Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe with him in The Old Woman, by Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinckney. That's 21 - 23 November in Zellerbach; more info here.

The Aurora Theater presents the west coast premiere of Breakfast with Mugabe, written by Fraser Grace and directed by Jon Tracy, which was "inspired by newspaper reports that [former president of Zimbabwe] Robert Mugabe . . . sought treatment from a white psychiatrist." That's 7 November to 7 December; more information here.

The San Francisco Playhouse presents Promises, Promises, with music and lyrics by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and book by Neil Simon, directed by Bill English. It's a musical version of the film The Apartment. We are promised "swinging energy"; if you've seen the movie, you will also be expecting, or hoping for, a sour edge. You can find out 18 November to 10 January; more information here.

Cutting Ball Theater presents the world premiere of Superheroes, written and directed by Sean San José, produced in association with Campo Santo. It's about a journalist investigating the crack epidemic. That's 21 November to 21 December; more information here.

The annual Olympians Festival runs 5 - 22 November at the Exit Theater. The Festival consists of readings of new plays based on a theme from Greek mythology. This year's topic is Monsters. I have searched for a useful website for the festival and haven't really come up with one, which is a little too loosey-goosey for me, but there's this from the Exit Theater and this on Facebook. I haven't made it to the Festival yet, but at least one play I really liked (Pleiades by Marissa Skudlarek; my write-up is here) has come out of it, so there's that. I also saw somewhere that Andrew Saito, playwright-in-residence at Cutting Ball, is also involved, and I really liked the play I saw by him, so there's also that.

Talking
Novelist Marilynne Robinson appears at City Arts & Lectures in conversation with Isabel Duffy on 4 November; more information here.

New & Modern Music
At the SF Jazz Center, the Calder Quartet completes its survey of the Bartók string quartets by performing Nos. 5 and 6, along with Korrespondenz by Péter Eötvös; that's on 11 November; more information here.

Cal Performances in association with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presents the first concert of four this season in Project TenFourteen, which involves ten world premieres from ten different composers, each of whom was – and I hesitate to quote this part, because it sounds like the most ridiculous boilerplate, but then it's also broad enough to signal anything goes! while being filled with enough meaningless uplift to get funding from responsible sources – "challenged to reflect upon and address the human condition, common to us all." Well, at least we don't have to hear about the "community." In any case: new music! Exciting! The premieres are "interspersed with modern masterpieces," so, once again: Exciting! (In case anyone is misreading this: I am not being snide or ironic. New music really is exciting to me.) This first concert features Crumb, Aperghis, Ortíz, and Ruehr. That's 16 November; more information here.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the second BluePrint concert of the season; Nicole Paiement leads the ensemble in works by John Glover, Conrad Susa, Lou Harrison, and Kaija Saariaho. That's 15 November; more info here.

Chamber Music
San Francisco Performances presents the Hagen Quartet in works by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Brahms; that's 1 November at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco; more information here.

Vocalists
At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook sings Schumann's Frauenliebe und leben and Jake Heggie's The Deepest Desire; that's 17 November; details are here.

Piano
San Francisco Performances presents Dan Tepfer playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, with his own jazz variations inserted after each of Bach's; that's on 8 November; details here.

The Wagner Society of Northern California presents pianist Stephan Möller playing transcriptions of Wagner, as well as the occasional piano piece by Wagner himself. That's at the beautiful St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco on 16 November; more information here.

Baroque Music
Philharmonia Baroque presents marvelous countertenor Andreas Scholl singing arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare along with Bach's Cantata 170, Vergnugte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust. Conductor Julian Wachner will also lead the band in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and Telemann's Concerto in F major for Violin, Oboe, and Two Horns. That's 5 - 9 November, in their usual varied locations; check here for more information.

Cal Performances presents Apollo's Fire, led by Jeannette Sorrell, in Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers for the Blessed Virgin; that's 13 November; other information here.

Cal Performances also presents The Academy of Ancient Music, led by Richard Egarr, in Bach's Orchestral Suites, 15 November; details here.

Operatic
Cal Performances presents Britten's Curlew River, an amalgam of Japanese Noh theater and medieval mystery drama, featuring Ian Bostridge as the Mad Woman; there are only two performances, 14 - 15 November (note that the 15th is a matinee performance); more information here.

San Francisco Opera is running until early December, when The Nutcracker moves into the War Memorial. Of the three operas remaining in the fall season, I'm most likely to end up at La Cenerentola, having already seen Tosca and Bohème more often than I really needed to. I am hearing, though, that the Tosca is good, and there are some interesting singers in Bohème, particularly Michael Fabiano, so check here if you're interested.

Symphonic
Cal Performances presents the Czech Philharmonic in Dvorák's Stabat Mater, conducted by Jirí Belohlávek, in Zellerbach on 9 November; more information here.

The San Francisco Symphony is mostly touring in November, but there's an interesting-looking concert at the end of the month: conductor Susanna Mälkki leads the Brahms 2, The White Peacock by Griffes, and the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3, with Jeremy Denk as soloist. That's on 29 - 30 November; more information is available here.

The Oakland/East Bay Symphony opens its season with Music Director Michael Morgan leading the Tchaikovsky 5 and the west coast premiere of Brothers in Arts, a new work for jazz quintet and orchestra by Chris Brubeck and Guillaume Saint-James, commemorating D-Day (both their fathers were in France during World War II; Brubeck's father was in Patton's army and Saint-James's was a teenager). That's 7 November in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Oakland; more information here.

Haiku 2014/300

dreaming in the dark
still dreaming during daylight
dreaming dreamy dreams

Poem of the Week 2014/44

When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies,
And inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight skies –
When the footpads quail at the night-bird's wail, and black dogs bay at the moon,
Then is the spectres' holiday – then is the ghosts' high-noon!

Chorus: Ha! ha! Then is the ghosts' high-noon!

As the sob of the breeze sweeps over the trees, and the mists lie low on the fen,
From grey tomb-stones are gathered the bones that once were women and men,
And away they go, with a mop and a mow, to the revel that ends too soon,
For cockcrow limits our holiday – the dead of the night's high-noon!

Chorus: Ha! ha! The dead of the night's high-noon!

And then each ghost with his ladye-toast to their churchyard beds takes flight,
With a kiss, perhaps, on her lantern chaps, and a grisly grim "good-night";
Till the welcome knell of the midnight bell rings forth its jolliest tune,
And ushers in our next high holiday – the dead of the night's high-noon!

Chorus: Ha! ha! The dead of the night's high-noon! Ha! ha! ha! ha!

WS Gilbert, from Ruddigore

Here's another haunted poem for Halloween, though lighter in tone than last week's. It is sung by a ghost, accompanied by a chorus of lesser ghosts, in Act 2 of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, which has always been one of my top five favorites among the Savoy operas (the others, since you need to know, are The Mikado, Iolanthe, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers). Ruddigore is a satirical take on Victorian Gothic horror melodramas, a genre, or at least a style (as witness many of Tim Burton's movies) which has had a contemporary resurgence – I think the opera might find an appreciative audience today among fans of steampunk or vampire romances.

The lyrics manage to combine the classic signifiers of creepy haunting: howling winds, bats, black dogs, funeral shrouds, tombstones, and so forth – with a light-hearted air, skipping along on the internal rhymes: after all, this is a description of a party. (It reminds me of early cartoons like Walt Disney's The Skeleton Dance in the Silly Symphonies series.) There's a lot of movement here, much of it swift: things fly, sail, quail, sweep, take flight. This is not a still and solemn time: things howl, wail, bay, sob, and knell.

The nightly gathering occurs at midnight, and we tend to forget how dark and dangerous midnights used to be: in 1887, the year the opera premiered, electric street lights were still a fairly recent innovation in London, and it would be easy for audiences to transport themselves back to the night-time darkness of the earlier part of the century, when the action of the opera takes place.

Suitably for someone who is in but no longer of this world, this ghost uses vocabulary that is a bit archaic. A chimney cowl is "a hood-shaped covering used to increase the draft of a chimney and prevent backflow"; it also prevents birds and squirrels from nesting in the chimney. A cowl can also be the hood of a monk's robe, so perhaps the word is also meant to bring with it the aura of the mysterious monks prominent in the horror fictions of (Protestant) England. A footpad is a robber on foot (as opposed to on horseback); his victims would also be on foot. A night-bird is another term for an owl (another classic sign of spookiness). As for black dogs, I think the color just goes along with the inkiness of the clouds (like funeral shrouds), but it might be worth remembering that Mephistopheles first shows himself to Goethe's Faust in the form of a large black poodle. Except for that possible hint, the devil is excluded from this gathering; this seems like a fancy ball more than a Walpurgisnacht. To mop and mow is to grimace and make sad faces. The ladye-toast would be the woman (more precisely, ghost of a woman) that each man toasts; that is, his sweetheart. Lantern chaps would be the lower jaw or cheek, thin enough to be transparent like a lamp. Cock-crow is the traditional signal of dawn at which ghosts must return to their graves (remember Horatio, in the first scene of Hamlet: "I have heard, / The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn, / Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat / Awake the god of day, and at his warning, / Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air, / Th' extravagant and erring spirit hies / To his confine").

I took this from The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, edited by Ian Bradley, though the only annotation on this number is that it is similar to an early poem by Gilbert. Sullivan's music is appropriately haunting and sweeping; there are a number of recordings that are worth checking out, though of course when it comes to Gilbert and Sullivan you can't go too far wrong with D'Oyly Carte.

26 October 2014

25 October 2014

23 October 2014

O Don't You Cry for Me: Susannah at the San Francisco Opera


For the past five or so weeks I have been to an insane (for a working person) number of performances, along with various other events, so here I am once again trying to catch up, but as ever the horizon recedes before me, no matter how quickly I run or how far or how desperately I lunge forward, arms outstretched towards the vanishing blue distance. I couldn't (or more to the point, wouldn't) have attended this many performances unless a large number of them started at 7:00 or 7:30, so thanks to the presenters who acknowledge the way we live now by offering earlier curtains. Anyway, I was at the fourth of the five performances of the San Francisco Opera's first presentation of Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susannah, a loose re-telling, set in rural Tennessee in the 1930s, of the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Apocrypha. Despite many excellent points, for me it was less than the sum of its parts, mostly because of the libretto, which was written by the composer.

Patricia Racette sang – actually, totally inhabited – the title role. I had heard some complaints about her early in the run but she was in beautiful voice the night I was there. She is an excellent actress and is at her best portraying this sort of vulnerable but tough woman. In fact, the whole cast was strong; to name only some of the more prominent roles, there was Brandon Jovanovich as her brother Sam, Catherine Cook as the vindictive Mrs McLean, James Kryshak as her disabled son Little Bat McLean, and Raymond Aceto as the conflicted preacher Olin Blitch.

There are some very moving scenes, like the church supper at which the congregation ostracizes Susannah, refusing even to eat the dish of peas she's brought (things like the dish of peas no one will touch are devastating to me, for whatever subterranean reasons). The revival meeting is striking, with solemn slithering tones giving an eerie undercurrent to the music (it sounded to me as if maybe Aceto's voice was enhanced in this scene, which is not inappropriate; whatever the cause, his voice was particularly reverberant here). Susannah has a mournful, folk-song-like aria at the beginning of the second act ("The trees on the mountains are cold and bare") that is so beautiful I'm kind of shocked I haven't heard it repeatedly in recitals or on disc, the way I have heard her other big aria, "Ain't it a pretty night?," which is lovely but more about revealing her character and therefore less detachable from its context. The music throughout is consistently engaging and suitable to the actions and emotions and conductor Karen Kamensek kept it pouring on like a clear mountain stream, but even that could not sweep away the questions I kept having about what was going on there in New Hope Valley.

The three church elders spy Susannah bathing naked in the river. In the Apocrypha, they try to seduce her and when she resists they accuse her falsely of fornication. In this version, her initial sin is . . . bathing naked in the river. That seems like a pretty feeble offense for farm folks (though indeed it's never made quite clear that that's what they are). Later we find out that Mrs McLean, wife of one of the church elders, has forced her son Little Bat to lie and claim that Susannah has seduced him. But we are only told this (why would you not include such a powerful and revealing scene?), and only told it later on, so initially it all does seem to come down to a young woman taking a bath. And though Susannah lives a bit apart from the rest of the town, and is a bit of an outsider, she does attend the church and at nineteen is, by local standards, almost an old maid, as her brother points out – so why does she not realize that bathing naked in the river violates local standards? Why does she not lash out at the elders for their voyeuristic spying? During the intermission while waiting in the line to the men's room I overheard someone saying, "Well, I don't understand why she didn't just tell them off right away." Indeed. She and her brother are oddly passive until the very end.

I couldn't help feeling puzzled by the brother – why, instead of fighting back, does he immediately tell his sister that there's nothing to be done but to wait out the community shunning? Why does he desert her at the peak of the crisis with the feeble excuse that he has to go check his traps? (Yes, they live on the game he captures, but given the seriousness of his sister's situation – the whole town is listening to sermons denouncing her sinfulness – and the uncertainty of actually finding anything in the traps, why couldn't he wait a day?) The problem fell into place for me at the end when we are told (again, why are we not shown such a striking scene?) that he has hidden behind a bush and shot Preacher Blitch: my immediate reaction was, no, he wouldn't hide behind a bush, he'd stand right up and shoot the man who wronged his sister. It was then I realized that the role really only makes sense if the brother is more broken down, more defeated – if his much-discussed constant drunkenness is an escape rather than a rebellion. It's just one of the oddities that comes from opera casting: Jovanovich sings beautifully, and gives a committed and forceful performance, but it's inherent in him to exude a sort of sunny virility that renders Sam's actions puzzling.



Much was made in the program of Floyd's father the preacher and Floyd's childhood in the sort of rural and pious Southern town he put on stage in this, his first opera. This presumably is meant to assure us of the eyewitness accuracy of what we see, but I was instead getting the sense that there was perhaps a bit of axe-grinding going on. Basically, and much to the detriment of possible complexity and texture in the work, Floyd fails to take religion seriously as anything but an excuse for hypocrisy. When the amorous Blitch, realizing after he seduces her that Susannah was a virgin, informs the church elders and their wives of her innocence (though not of his guilt), he is peremptorily and immediately shut down, mostly by Mrs McLean. So much for the authority of the church. The reactions of the townsfolk are far too monolithic, and everyone is far too easily led by the vindictive Mrs McLean. There was another wife of an elder who extended a compassionate arm towards Susannah once or twice, only to be stopped by the death-glare of the inevitable Mrs McLean (Catherine Cook's awe-inspiring glare really should be harnessed and redirected towards socially positive purposes, like towards people who talk during performances, though I have to say the audience was really well behaved). But I suspect this attempt at the complexity of compassion was added by director Michael Cavanagh, since it is not indicated in the words or music.

No one in this group of pious Christians reaches out to save the lost lamb – no one even tells her at first what her great crime is. Rather oddly for a group of fundamentalist (or maybe they're evangelical?) Christians, no one quotes the Bible, which contains plenty of gospel advice to love the sinner (and no one seems to recognize that Susannah's situation echoes that of her namesake saved by the prophet Daniel). There is no dispute among these believers about the appropriate place of mercy versus strict justice, an argument which is central to Christianity. These things might have made the townspeople look less like ignorant bigots and more like people struggling to figure out right and wrong, given their time and place. I was surprised to read in the program that when the opera premiered comparisons were drawn between the stage action and the McCarthy blacklisting – the community, as portrayed here, seems self-contained in its small-mindedness to the point of caricature, and so disconnected from any life that any opera audience would live. It's all too easy for such an audience, particularly in San Francisco in 2014, to watch these people from rural Tennessee and think only "those people are like that" rather than "people are like that" or even "I am like that – at least, occasionally."

The program also mentions Floyd's concentration on the role of Susannah (which presumably explains why important scenes that involve her only indirectly, like the forced and false confession of Little Bat and the shooting of Blitch, take place offstage). This provides a big role for the soprano (and Racette took every advantage of it), but it also means we are given only one perspective and everything is consistently flattened. Nature is good! Christianity is bad! Susannah bathes in the river because she is pure! Those being baptized in the river pollute it! The drama is simplified to the point of implausibility: even in a Bible-belted community like this one, you'd think some of the women would oh so helpfully, and with only of course the very kindest of intentions, point out to Mrs McLean that her lack of Christian charity is all too obviously motivated by sexual jealousy of Susannah (who is apparently the only young and attractive woman who has ever appeared in New Hope Valley). If you compare the rich and varied portrayal of the town inhabitants in Peter Grimes, and think of how much depth they add to that opera, you can see what is lacking here. By the end of the opera, things start taking some interesting turns and we start seeing some intriguing changes in Blitch and Susannah, but I'm afraid by then it was too little too late for me as well as for them.

Haiku 2014/296

people eating lunch
outdoors in San Francisco
bundled in thick coats

22 October 2014

21 October 2014

20 October 2014

Haiku 2014/293

inside office walls
waxy light, slow hands ticking
I think bird-ish thoughts

Poem of the Week 2014/43

The Haunted Oak

Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
       Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
       Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
       And sap ran free in my veins;
But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
       A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
       I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
       And left him here alone.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
       And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
       And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
       And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
       And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
       Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
       What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
       "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
       And we fain would take him away

"From those who ride fast on our heels
       With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
       And the rope they bear is long."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
       They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
       And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
       And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
       As they halt my trunk beside.

Oh, the judge he wore a mask of black,
       And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
       Was curiously bedight.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
       'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
       The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
       And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
       The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
       On a bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
       From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
       And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
       In the guise of a mortal fear.

And ever the man he rides me hard,
       And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
       On the trunk of a haunted tree.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

I have been informed that it is not too early to start running Halloween-type poems.

Here is a poem in traditional ballad form: it tells a story, arranged in quatrains, with the second and fourth lines rhyming, and with a 4-3-4-3 beat to the lines, giving the form a galloping propulsion. Ballads, like other forms with origins in oral culture, use repetition, and so does our author ("so bare, so bare"). There is also some striking alliteration; for instance, in the first quatrain, bough in the second line picks up the b of so bare, so bare; o sounds start old and oak with subtly varied music; the third line has through and throw; and in the last line shudder picks up the preceding line's shade. The language is clear but also formal and slightly archaic: I trow, 'tis, bedight (meaning ornamented or arrayed), stay (in the last stanza, in the sense of suspend or postpone, a sense usually associated with the legal system, which is important for this poem, as we shall see).

The subject here is also in line with the ballad tradition: the unjustified murder of an innocent man, and the supernatural results. An eerie atmosphere is skillfully evoked with a few swift (even classic) details: the moonlight is dim and weird, the dog howls all night, the wind wails as if in pain. The lines in the fourth quatrain about the howling dog and the wailing night wind are particularly effective: we've come to a dramatic turning point – we've found out that the man, who has already been described as a "guiltless victim," has been falsely charged with a crime and jailed – and suddenly the forward rush of the narrative is paused by foreboding lines that emphasize an uncanny atmosphere. The delay increases a sense of ominous dramatic tension (which is necessary to this poem since we've already been told the basic story right away, in the second quatrain; we continue on to see how the details unfold). To add to the slightly surreal, unsettled tone, the entire ballad, apart from the first quatrain, is narrated by the oak tree itself.

But something is going on here besides a stylistic exercise in re-creating an ancient English ballad. This is an American poem – more to the point, an African-American poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Ohio to former slaves, lived from 1872 to 1906 (when he died of tuberculosis). In other words, he lived during the period when post-Civil War attempts to integrate the former slaves into American society under its foundational assertion that all men are created equal were being steadily suppressed, through terrorism and official collusion, by a white-supremacist system that threw most of the newly freed African-Americans back into poverty and servitude. Given the worsening conditions for black Americans during his lifetime, his poetry is inescapably political; even a poem like this, with its successful appropriation of traditional form and language, becomes an assertion of racial equality: we can do this too, this too is ours.

But even more specifically and pointedly, what we have here is a poem about lynching. This is clear just from the narrative: an innocent man is taken out of jail by a mob and then hanged. But there are other details that reinforce the association with post-Reconstructionist terror against African-Americans. Quatrain six begins, "Who is it rides by night, by night"; the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups were frequently referred to as "night riders" since they of course usually conducted raids at night. They were also disguised, as are the killers in this poem. This lynch mob includes the judge, the doctor, the minister and his oldest son – in other words, those community members with the greatest education and the most legal and moral authority – the very ones who should be protecting the innocent and defending enlightened values, not undermining them themselves. It is the judge, the representative of the law, who is singled out at the ballad's end: he knows he has killed a man he should have protected, thereby undercutting the legal system he represents. Hence his "mortal fear" (mortal in the sense of fatal, terminal, but also with the implication of human: the memory of the victim's face will haunt the men who denied their shared humanity with him): the legal system is haunted by the ghosts of those it should have protected but destroyed instead, and its adherents fear their coming retribution.

I took this from Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by John Hollander for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series.

19 October 2014

18 October 2014

16 October 2014

Haiku 2014/289

this old recording. . .
memories drift with music
through this empty house

14 October 2014

Haiku 2014/287

from four blocks away
I hear them cheering their team
then they fall silent

13 October 2014

Haiku 2014/286

bone-dried by the sun
the birdbath lay there, leaf-filled
the birds are waiting

Poem of the Week 2014/42

Insomnia

The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she's a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she'd tell it to go to hell,
and she'd find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Elizabeth Bishop

The first line of this poem tells us that it's night (because the moon is visible), and we're in the speaker's bedroom (because she can see the moon's reflection in the mirror of her bureau). But we've already been told that and something more significant by the title, Insomnia: the speaker should be sleeping, or wishes she were sleeping, but she isn't, or can't. So it's night, she's at home, in her bedroom, unable to sleep, and her restless mind reflects on the moon's reflection. Bishop's language deftly conjures up that in-between state, floating and free-associative, when you can't sleep but are not quite alert. In her waking/not-quite-awake state, the speaker seems to be hovering somewhere between childhood dreams and adult worries.

The moon is personified throughout in a way that echoes nursery rhymes in the "dish ran away with the spoon" vein of homespun surrealism. The language slides and re-forms: notice how "sleep, or" in the penultimate line of the first stanza melts into "sleeper" in the next line. The moon looks out "a million miles"; a million is (or used to be), the childish way of saying "an uncountably high number." The speaker fancifully imagines a world in which the moon is deserted by the universe (perhaps prompted by the isolated reflection of the moon in her mirror; she is not after all looking at the moon itself, but only a reflection trapped in the domestic environment of her bureau mirror). But there are odd intimations of underlying irritation or even anger, as when the speaker notes that the moon never smiles, or that it would tell the universe to go to hell.

But the language continues in a very musical way, the simple end rhymes chiming discreetly in every other line (miles/smiles; hell/dwell/well, right/night), and a fairy-tale world is never far away, a world in which the conscious moon might decide to dwell not in the Universe in which it is, in reality, physically fixed, but instead purely as a reflection in a mirror or a body of water. (Incidentally, fans of composer Elliott Carter may recognize the phrase "a mirror on which to dwell" as the title of one of his song cycles, in which he sets six poems by Bishop, including this one). This is a world in which there are wells which seem to have an atavistic power; we are jauntily told to "wrap up care in a cobweb" (care: another intimation that something is eating at the speaker) "and drop it down the well" – again, we seem to be in a night-world of the fantastic, in which (as when the fairies administer to the enchanted Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream) cobwebs are a thing that can be used to take care of you, to wrap up the obviously non-physical (and as yet unspecified) cares.

In the third stanza we are brought into the well itself, or more exactly into the not-quite-real world reflected in the well's water: our world inverted. The speaker begins with a simple physical description of what happens in this reflected world: left is right, as in a mirror. And "the shadows are really the body": yes, that's what happens in the world of a reflection, though it's impossible not to feel a metaphorical and moral force in the thought that our physical bodies are being replaced with the seemingly insubstantial shadows. Then, floating and free-associating again, she moves from a description of what you can actually see in a reflection to a magically reversed world, an opposite world: we are awake during night, not day! So far the lines have lilted along, each of them beginning with where, each of them ending with the completion of a thought.

And then, in the last two lines of the poem, the neat and almost stately progression turns into something odd and awkward: instead of a thought ending as the line ends, there is an enjambment in the last two lines, and the rhymes (sea/me), instead of being separated as in the rest of the poem by another line, slam right into each other, and the description almost stumbles into the final line, with one of those images that make emotional if not literal sense (we're now unhinged from natural reality; the meaning is generally clear, but what exactly does it mean in precise physical terms – and Bishop's work generally finds poetry in precision – to say the "heavens" are as shallow as the sea is currently deep?). The melodious stanzas have tripped over themselves; the last two lines aren't as smooth as the earlier ones, and read almost clumsily: and then, as if the speaker realizes she can't evade the real problem, as if to break what is now shown to have been a logjam of reticence and awkwardness, the crux of the matter surfaces: in this inverted world, you love me.

And suddenly the little bombshell of the last three words throws the entire poem in a different light, and we now see the likely reason why this woman cannot sleep. The moon is traditionally associated with women (probably because of the monthly cycles), but in particular with chaste or virginal women (in Greek and Roman mythology, it is associated with Artemis/Diana, the virgin huntress and sister of the sun-god, and, again, there is perhaps an underlying memory of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Hermia is threatened, if she does not marry the man her father wishes (rather than the man she herself loves), with the convent, in which she, a "barren sister," will chant "faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon"). The speaker, who has been playing all along in her sleepless state with whimsical thoughts about the moon, both identifies with the isolated virginal moon and creates in it a projection of what she wishes she were: the moon is dignified, she is proud of herself, she does not smile (how many of us smile when we are embarrassed, and hate ourselves for it later!). If the moon were deserted by the Universe (and now we see that the object of the speaker's unrequited love meant the universe to her), she'd just tell it to go to hell, and she is emphatically put in italics, as if to rebuke the insomniac by contrast for whatever it was (still unspoken, perhaps out of shame) that she actually did when she was rejected. The moon would just go ahead and find another place to live her life, not be stuck sleepless in her bedroom like our speaker. Yet what had at first seemed the lovely, fanciful thought of the moon living as a reflection in water or glass can now be seen as a disembodying of the moon's physicality; she is only a reflection, not a physical being: so perhaps, underlying and undercutting her defiance, we can feel an intimation of the speaker's physical longing. The poem's fairy-tale ending (and now you love me!), by being put into the context of an inverted world, is also a sardonic reminder of the speaker's actual unhappiness. What had seemed like an enchanted, half-dreaming world is retrospectively thrown into a harsher light, more searching and painful, by the last three words of the poem, which reveal a rejected lover's sleepless night-world of isolation and regret.

I took this from The Complete Poems 1927-1979 of Elizabeth Bishop, though there are now a number of other editions, notably a Library of America set.

12 October 2014

11 October 2014

Haiku 2014/284

walking through moonlight
coolness, calm, blessed silence
all days should end so

09 October 2014

08 October 2014

Haiku 2014/281

this tree wants to bend
to relax its uprightness
when the right wind blows

07 October 2014

Haiku 2014/280

smear the sky with fog
pull all the leaves off the trees
put on pale winter

06 October 2014

Haiku 2014/279

fragile in the heat
leaves streaked and spotted yellow
waiting for the fall

Poem of the Week 2014/41

Lethe

Above the brink
of that lamentable river I shall lean,
hesitant, unwilling to drink,
as I remember there for the last time.

Will a few drops on the tongue,
like a whirling flood submerge cities,
like a sea, grind pillars to sand?
Will it wash the color from the lips and the eyes
beloved? It were a thousand pities
thus to dissolve
the delicate sculpture of a lifted hand,
to fade the dye
of the world's color, to quench forever
the fires of earth in this river.

The living will forget
more quickly than I,
dead, lingering with lips unwet
above Lethe.

Mary Barnard

Mary Barnard is probably best known for her 1958 translation of Sappho, a version which has held its own even against more recent translations, but she was also a poet in her own right. In this poem you can see the vivid phrasing and emotional intensity that drew her to the ancient Greek poet. You can also see the use of stripped-down and specific metaphorical images that drew her to the Imagist school of poetry, informally headed by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell (Pound was a mentor to Barnard, and she writes about him in her memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon – in Greek mythology, Mount Helicon is sacred to the Muses).

This poem has a timeless quality; the speaker could be our contemporary, or it could be read as a translation of an imaginary lyric of ancient Greece, a time and place that are suggested not only by the subject but by some of the images. The river Lethe is one of the five rivers of Hades. each of which had different qualities: that of Lethe was forgetting, oblivion; the dead were required to drink from it before they could pass into the Underworld (as always with Greek mythology, there are variants on all the details). So the subject of this poem is the spirit of someone newly dead, pausing before she drinks the waters of oblivion that will wipe out all of her memories of her earthly existence.

In addition to the subject, though, there are specific details that conjure up for us the ancient world: the reference to the sea, so important to Mediterranean poetry; the reference to pillars (rather than something obviously modern but equivalently tall, like church spires or even skyscrapers); the reference to colors being washed away (ancient Greek sculpture was vividly painted in various colors; most of this polychrome has been worn off with time, except for a few traces that show what was once there); the reference to the "delicate sculpture of a lifted hand," a description reminiscent of the influential sculpture that is one of the first things many of us think of when we think of ancient Greece (even if the hands are one of the jutting protuberances that have been broken off over the years, their obvious absence makes us conscious that they are no longer there, that they have been snapped off by Time). The pillars (often the only part of ancient buildings left standing, stark against the sky) and the washed-away colors and broken sculptures conjure up ancient Greece for us, but of course that is not how an actual inhabitant of ancient Greece would have seen the place, so by using these images Barnard summons up not only ancient Greece but also our own time (we too have pillars, and sculptures) and the strange space between the two, the space of cultural memory in which we recall the things that summon up and sum up ancient Greece for us.

And all of these things that evoke the speaker's world, that she thinks about having to forget, are created by people: she thinks not of trees and flowers but of pillars and cities. The things of Nature – the whirling flood, the sea, the sand – are apart; destructive of human creation, but beautiful and lasting (the city is overtaken by the sea – a thought given new urgency by our sense of global climate change – and the pillars, pounded by the sea, end up as new layers of sand). The speaker's concentration on the loss of human artifacts rather than of Nature gives added poignancy to the final stanza, in which she reflects that she will be forgotten by the makers of those artifacts she treasures, even before she has drunk the waters that will wipe them out for her.

Another method Barnard uses to create a sort of timeless effect is a slightly formal diction: phrases like "it were a thousand pities," with its careful and correct use of the subjunctive, as well as the moderately old-fashioned phrase "a thousand pities," are not archaic or fustian or even "poetic" to our ears, but they are also not the words of colloquial speech or everyday writing. Ancient Greek poetry did not use rhyme, so it is a contemporary touch not only that she uses it, but that she uses it irregularly (the Imagist school favored free verse): in the first stanza we have brink/drink, and in the second, we have cities/pities, sand/hand, and harmonious but not exact rhymes like eyes/dye and forever/river; then in the third stanza we have forget/unwet. These words are sometimes in adjacent lines, sometimes separated by several lines.

Barnard also makes subtle and effective use of the lapping, liquid sound of l, which helps evoke the river: it is not only the first letter of its name, but the sound reappears throughout the lyric: first in lamentable (why lamentable? for many, forgetting might be a blessing – but the speaker resists forgetting her earthly life; for her, the river is lamentable in the sense that having to drink from it is something to be lamented, something regrettable or unfortunate; and perhaps there is also an implication that the river is lamentable in the sense of something that is full of or expressive of grief, meaning that perhaps Lethe has been absorbing and runs with the earthly sorrows it wipes out in the spirits of the dead). She shall lean over the lamentable river, unwilling to drink; we have shall and will and like, whirling, pillars, lifted, and so forth. In the third stanza, there is again a concentration of l sounds, particularly with living, lingering, lips, and, literally the last word on the subject, Lethe. (And in the middle of this final effluence of ls we get the reminder dead, emphasized by its placement at the beginning of a line, set off by commas, with its double d dropping the word down like a stone.)

The third line of the stanza, right before the close, ends with the striking usage unwet: why not simply dry? Because the speaker knows that, however much she tries to delay, with her spirit poised between the separate worlds of the living and the dead, now that she has died on earth the natural and inevitable condition of her lips is to be wet with Lethe's waters of oblivion. It is unclear exactly how long she has the power to delay before she must drink from the river, but already her lips are defined by what they are not yet, but must be. They can no longer be truly dry; they are merely not yet wet, potentially wet: unwet.

Having broken the poem down like this, let me pull it all together again by saying that I find this an incredibly moving and powerful lyric: the speaker is clearly someone marginal in the world, soon to be forgotten by the living (which means they didn't much remember her when she was still among them) – already almost entirely forgotten on earth, all that remains of her existence is her own memories, and in her last human act, she hesitates, she resists – resists the few (possibly merciful) drops that will wipe out the last trace of her existence, which is her own memory, this fragile, variable, precious thing that is her own.

I took this from the Collected Poems of Mary Barnard. I've linked above to her memoir and her translation of Sappho; if you're interested in the latter, you might want to read over some of her translations in my Sappho entries.

05 October 2014

04 October 2014

02 October 2014

01 October 2014