31 December 2014

Haiku 2014/365

The old year passes.
Where did all those moments go?
Let me sleep again. . . .

30 December 2014

Haiku 2014/364

you can't see the wind
only the bending branches
and the shattered limbs

29 December 2014

Haiku 2014/363

perky pigeons strut
down undistinguished sidewalks
pecking at random

Poem of the Week

Poem of the Week is taking this week off (this odd little remnant of 2014) and will start the 2015 series next Monday, 5 January 2015.

28 December 2014

Haiku 2014/362

Sunday flea-market
drumming, strolling, smoke curls up
'till the moon is high

27 December 2014

Haiku 2014/361

extravagant rains
washed through the skies and left us
luxuriant weeds

26 December 2014

Haiku 2014/360

burnished and backlit
trees flame out final farewells
before the light fades

Friday photo 2014/52

from the Legion of Honor: detail of two German statues, ca. 1500: wood, polychromed, with linen (the infant Jesus held by St Anne, reaching towards his mother Mary)

25 December 2014

Haiku 2014/359

crescent moon's sickle
slicing upwards through the blue
a harvest of stars

24 December 2014

Haiku 2014/358

wreaths on empty seats
chatter drifts into silence
office Christmas Eve

23 December 2014

Haiku 2014/357

the storm's last remnant:
a sidewalk damp spot under
matted pine needles

22 December 2014

Haiku 2014/356

searching for the moon
I found only streetlights, clouds,
and my own longing

Poem of the Week 2014/52

Christmas Eve

A Christmas Eve for three of us.
Mother has washed the floors,
Father lights up the Christmas tree.
A wafer, a herring.

Mother is crying.
She sings the carol "Sleep well, sweet Jesus"
in the soprano of Miss Stasia,
a beauty
from the town of Ostroleka.

Beyond the window: night and frost and fear.
How good it is we're here,
we three.

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

We'll close out this year with another one by Polish poet Anna Swir. This comes from a posthumously published sequence of autobiographical poems about her childhood. She was born in Warsaw in 1909. Her father was a painter and the family was extremely poor. Her language is clear and simple, yet its very directness creates a whole world through implication. In the very first line, we find out that it is Christmas Eve but father, mother, and child are alone together – do they have extended families? are they perhaps estranged from them? "Mother has washed the floors" indicates that they are too poor to have any help around the house (back when that was more common than it is now) and maybe also that the household is a bit bohemian – cleaning the floors is something worthy of note, a special-occasion thing. The father lights the candles on the Christmas tree. Preparations made, the three of them share a version of the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner. It's one of the biggest feasts in that largely Catholic country, but here, no doubt due to money problems, the traditionally lavish meal is pared down to two basic elements: "A wafer, a herring." The wafer referred to would be the oplatek, a thin unleavened flatbread similar to a Communion host and stamped with sacred images related to the Nativity. Christmas Eve was a fast day so the feast, though lavish, centered on fish rather than flesh. Herring is traditional, but usually there are other, fancier fish like carp – probably herring is all this family can afford. But these two remnants of the usual spread – the communion-like wafer, the fish – add overtones of sacredness and tradition to the little family gathering.

The mother sings them a carol "in the soprano of Miss Stasia, / a beauty / from the town of Ostroleka." An earlier poem in the sequence tells us that the mother is (or was, before her marriage) herself the beautiful singer Miss Stasia. She was engaged to "handsome Mr Raczynski" but breaks it off: "He despaired. / The Lord will punish you for me. / And the Lord punished her. / She married a madman." Her father seems to have been possessed by his painting, though never financially successful. Later in the sequence, we are told again of the mother singing, "after many years," in the "young soprano of Miss Stasia"; this time, she sings to her granddaughter. But before she sings, we are told that she is crying. With sorrow, with joy, with memories of handsome Mr Raczynski, with thoughts of her madman husband, with regrets or pleasures or all of these things? A whole history of complexity is implicit in "Mother is crying."

"Beyond the window" – that is, right outside their dwelling, and able to see in as they are able to see out – Swir lists three things: night and frost and fear. Night is to be expected, since the Christmas Eve celebrations don't start until sundown, and the candle have been lit on the tree; frost is also to be expected, given the time of year. But both of these familiar things can also be threatening and dangerous – hence the third thing this little girl, a child of poverty and bohemia, sees lying just outside: fear. Beyond the hazards outside and the complicated emotions inside, there is still a feeling of warmth and comfort from being with the two people she loves most, her father and mother; and however they are feeling about each other, she finds solace and cheer in being with both of them, all three together: "How good it is we're here / we three."

I took this from Talking to My Body by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.

21 December 2014

Haiku 2014/355

sunset was early
a cat glides through the shadows
why am I awake

20 December 2014

Haiku 2014/354

blue bird, nut in beak:
does he know he's picturesque,
perched in golden leaves?

18 December 2014

Haiku 2014/352

paved with marble clouds,
grout gilded by late sunlight . . .
Sky! To live in you!

17 December 2014

Haiku 2014/351

delicate drizzle
bespangles the bending leaves
and the wilting blooms

16 December 2014

15 December 2014

Haiku 2014/349

blankets cover me
darkness covers us outside
rain dances downward

Poem of the Week 2014/51

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost

Here's a winter snow scene, but one that captures an emotion far from Currier-and-Ives coziness. The first two lines establish that the speaker is traveling, probably on foot since he is alone, and probably swiftly since snow is falling and it's getting darker; he glances into a field in passing, and the concentrated moment of that glance and the feelings and thoughts it evokes expand into the rest of the poem. Both snow and night are falling "fast, oh, fast" – the repetition gives the impression that the speaker is realizing both are falling even faster and more emphatically than he initially thought when he passed the field. He says he "looked into" the field as he was going past, which implies that he glanced over and took a quick look at it (and it appears to be a bit of an eye-catching break in the landscape; we're told later that it's surrounded by woods) – but to look into can also imply to investigate or examine, which is what the visual image of the snowy field causes him to do internally as he continues to go past. (Perhaps past is meant to carry with it not only the sense of moving beyond or away from something, but also an intimation of the past, as in, time that has gone by – combined with the night falling, we get a sense of subtle foreboding, of his life slipping away from the speaker). The snow has almost covered the field; only some tall weeds and stubble (which in this context means the cut stalks left from grain plants after the grain has been harvested – basically, straw) are still sticking up from the rising blanket of smooth icy whiteness.

It is in the first line of the second quatrain that we find out that the field is surrounded by woods – a human interruption in the forested landscape. The stubble implies that the field was farmed, but the farmers aren't much in evidence now, and we are told that "the woods around it have it – it is theirs." Again, as with "fast, oh, fast" the repetition lends emphasis to the perception – it's not just that the woods contain the field, but, more forcefully, it is theirs, as if the human interference that put a field there were only a brief interlude in a longer inhuman history. Even the animals we might expect to find in wood or field are "smothered in their lairs" by the falling snow (smothered presumably just means covered over entirely, yet here too there is a hint of death). Nothing is present here but the woods, and the break in them caused by the field, and darkness and snow which are gradually covering everything (and the one human observer, who feels himself present only physically and absent in spirit). It's in the fourth line of this quatrain that the speaker produces the description that ties the whole scene together and explicates it in human terms: loneliness. The word jumps out with such force and is emphasized by repetition so much in the following two lines that you have to wonder if it is not the true, delayed antecedent of the it that the woods are announced in the first line as having.

The speaker declares himself too "absent-spirited" to count in the scene, so absent that his spiritual blankness joins with the scene's prevailing blankness. The loneliness is unaware of him, but I think that unawares also implicitly modifies me: that is, not only is the landscape – the loneliness – unaware of him, but he himself is unaware, at least until he glimpses the field and has a haiku-like moment of perceptive being. And indeed we do not know anything about him, or why he is walking alone through the woods so close to nightfall, or what thoughts were preoccupying him before he glimpsed the field – loneliness gives us the key, since loneliness is a human construction, and therefore projected by him onto the landscape. It's telling that what he sees before him is not just loneliness, but deepening loneliness (it's interesting to contrast this poem with The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, in which the speaker has a very different relationship to a similar emotion brought on by a similar sight).

In the third quatrain the speaker expresses why the loneliness will become more lonely (until it becomes less, presumably when spring arrives): the snow keeps falling, and the speaker seems to find a kind of terror in the blankness of the blanket of snow covering the weeds and stubble and animals under one undifferentiated white expanse (in this regard it's interesting to remember Chapter XLII of Moby Dick, on "The Whiteness of the Whale": ". . .  there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning [Moby Dick], which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me."). The snow is benighted, which can mean overtaken by darkness, but also a state, usually inducing pity or contempt, of intellectual or moral ignorance. The adjective reinforces the physical description earlier of night falling, and also connects to the covering blankness of the snow, which has no expression because it has nothing to express. It is a nullity, indifferent to his presence: if he lay down in the snow, it would cover him too, and freeze him to death without any conscious ill will or good intentions or any knowledge at all that he was even there).

It is a nullity that terrifies the speaker. He concludes by dismissing any thoughts of being frightened by the vastness of the universe and all those multiple stars empty of and indifferent to human life. Why look so far afield to sense his littleness and isolation? He can find the same fright closer to home (the warm connotations of home stress the contrasting intensity of the terrors, and their inescapability – the blankness will follow him indoors as well). In the last two lines the speaker says "I have it in me . . . / To scare myself with my own desert places." That is, the speaker realizes that the snowy field at dusk has evoked a loneliness and terror that are rooted in him even more than they are in the landscape (as he noted earlier, the snow has no expression and nothing to express; what it evokes in him is something inside him that is his reaction to the blankness). "[M]y own desert places" refers not only to the field (which might be near his home; perhaps he is the farmer who worked the field, and that's why he looked into it in the first place) but also to the "desert places" in his soul. The use of desert is interesting; it means not only desolate, lonely, empty, bleak, but also like a desert, that is, it conjures up a very different landscape from the snowy field. So the word subtly draws attention away from this particular image of isolation – the snowy field at dusk – that prompted the speaker's thoughts and moves your attention towards the underlying sense of arid desolation and loneliness and fear evoked by the sight.

I took this from the Library of America's Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays by Robert Frost.

14 December 2014

Haiku 2014/348

leaves tossed in the wind
(where will I be in a year?)
dramatic clouds pass

13 December 2014

Haiku 2014/347

juicy stalks rising
verdant from the steaming earth:
will the frost spare them

12 December 2014

Haiku 2014/346

a casual glance –
piled clouds, bare branches, black birds –
pitiless beauty

Friday photo 2014/50

detail of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guanyin), Ming (1368 - 1644) or Qing (1644 - 1911) Dynasty, the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

11 December 2014

Haiku 2014/345

drifting off to sleep
soft and steady drumming rain
the waters rising

10 December 2014

Haiku 2014/344

brown leaves hanging on
how many will be stripped down
when the next storm hits

09 December 2014

Haiku 2014/343

no one else saw them
cornered in the crowded train
gently holding hands

08 December 2014

Haiku 2014/342

I missed the sun rise
I was busy when it set
It still rose and set

Poem of the Week 2014/50

A Carol

Oh hush thee, my baby,
Thy cradle's in pawn:
No blankets to cover thee
Cold and forlorn.
The stars in the bright sky
Look down and are dumb
At the heir of the ages
Asleep in a slum.

The hooters are blowing,
No heed let him take;
When baby is hungry
'Tis best not to wake.
Thy mother is crying,
Thy dad's on the dole:
Two shillings a week is
The price of a soul.

Cecil Day-Lewis

Years ago I heard John Harbison's cantata The Flight into Egypt (actually, I think I was at the world premiere). He said at the time that he chose that subject because he wanted to focus on the suffering side of the Christmas story: on refugees, and those without homes. That was his reaction to the mean-spirited Reagan years in America. Here's a British poem, written during the Great Depression, that does the same thing. It's an acerbic lullaby that points to the harsh economic realities and the human misery that underlie the image (made picturesque through centuries of glorious paintings, and through our general urban uncertainty as to what exactly a "manger" is) of the Christ child born in a barn. The moral is conveyed through wit, and much of the wit comes from the constant tension between language reminiscent of traditional Christmas carols (particularly Away in a Manger) and contemporary ways of describing poverty. So on the one hand, playing off "the stars in the heavens / look down where he lay/ the little Lord Jesus / asleep in the hay" from the old song we have "the stars in the bright sky / look down and are dumb / at the heir of the ages / asleep"-- only to be brought short by the reminder that the child is in a slum. "The hooters are blowing" has I think "the cattle are lowing" in its background. I assume the hooters are noise-makers or Christmas crackers for the holidays; lowing is the moo-ing sound of cattle, so in both instances there is noise that might wake a baby: in the carol, the point is that the infant Jesus is too angelic to start crying; here, the hope is that the baby won't wake and realize how hungry he is. Two shillings must have been the amount of government assistance per child: it's a meager amount of money, considering that a soul is priceless.

I took this from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and JD McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series.

07 December 2014

Haiku 2014/341

faded by the sun
a sky bleached to empty white
dazzling and distant

06 December 2014

Haiku 2014/340

I watched the last leaf
swirling slowly down to earth
and then I moved on

05 December 2014

04 December 2014

Haiku 2014/338

the bus is jam-packed
you've run out of things to read
and this is your life

03 December 2014

Haiku 2014/337

stripped by wind and rain
bright leaves circle each tree trunk
a shower of gold

02 December 2014

Haiku 2014/336

pelted by the rain
grimly dripping a cat waits
to melt into night

01 December 2014

Haiku 2014/335

afterwards we drift
mazey through unnoted streets
missing the music

Poem of the Week 2014/49

To Mrs. K_______, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris

What crowding thoughts around me wake,
What marvels in a Christmas-cake!
Ah say, what strange enchantment dwells
Enclosed within its odorous cells?
Is there no small magician bound
Encrusted in its snowy round?
For magic surely lurks in this,
A cake that tells of vanished bliss;
A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new;
When memory knew no sorrows past,
And hope believed in joys that last! –
Mysterious cake, whose folds contain
Life's calendar of bliss and pain;
That speaks of friends for ever fled,
And wakes the tears I love to shed.
Oft shall I breathe her cherished name
From whose fair hand the offering came:
For she recalls the artless smile
Of nymphs that deck my native isle;
Of beauty that we love to trace,
Allied with tender, modest grace;
Of those who, while abroad they roam,
Retain each charm that gladdens home,
And whose dear friendships can impart
A Christmas banquet for the heart!

Helen Maria Williams

I thought I'd segue from Thanksgiving to Christmas with a poem about that essential holiday ingredient: food. Few things summon up remembrance of holidays past like the foods we always eat on those special days. In this case, the memorable item is an English Christmas plum-cake, which is what we also often call a plum-pudding (in British English, pudding covers a much broader range of desserts than in America, where it refers only to a type of creamy custard). It's a heavy cake, baked by steaming, traditionally rich in suet and filled with various dried fruits, like raisins and prunes (plum used to cover a broader range of fruits than what we think of when we hear the word). Perhaps it was the fruits filling the cake that inspired the sort of odd use of cells in line 4: inset in the dark batter, they may have looked in their abundance like the cells that held monks (or prisoners), or even like the cells that make up a honeycomb. The biological meaning might also apply, since Robert Hooke applied the name in 1665, and as you can probably tell from the style, this poem is late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. (Of course, Williams may simply have needed a rhyme for dwells, which caused her to get metaphorical.)

Her recovery of the past through a familiar food anticipates by about a century another Parisian, who tasted a madeleine dipped in a lime-flower infusion and was thereby transported back to his childhood in Combray. In this case she opens the package from her friend and the sight and smell (the odorous cells) of the cake transport her back in time and place: crowding thoughts wake in her; perhaps crowd also brings with it the sense of large numbers of people she used to know. Williams was separated from many of them by more than distance: a political radical and associate of thinkers like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, she moved to France during the Revolution (not without danger to herself; though she supported the Revolution's radical goals, she was imprisoned under Robespierre) and lived abroad most of the rest of her life (which ended in 1827). She also had a long relationship (without marriage) with a radical named John Hartford Stone, who left his wife for her. The combination of what was seen as an irregular union with her radical politics alienated many former friends and supporters in England, particularly as the situation in France grew increasingly violent and anarchic, and as it became clear that the wars on the continent would soon involve the British. So the present of a cake meant more than simply a tasty holiday treat: it was a sign of unalienated love and affection when many others had fallen away.

No wonder she finds the cake magical, and wonders if there is a small magician bound / encrusted in its snowy round. That's a delightful image, and makes the cake seem like a small snow-capped mountain range (encrusted can mean covered with a hard surface layer, as of dirt, though there's obviously also a reference to the cake's crust). I like that the magician is bound; it's like something out of a fairytale – the enchanter enchanted – and you feel that he is thereby under control; magic permeates this cake that conjures up visions of happier times and also memories of sorrows, but the magic is not going to get out of hand and become destructive. She finds the cake mysterious in its power, and refers to its folds: a fold can mean an undulation or gentle curve, usually of the earth, but it also is a way of mixing ingredients in cooking; so, as with encrusted, she's punning on the cake as a little world and also reminding us that it's a cake.

Initially she is filled with questions and wonderment at the Christmas cake's strange, unexpected power to transport her back in time and place; then she moves to a contemplation of that past, reflecting that it was a happier, more hopeful time. Then she thinks of sorrows and lost friends (though she seems to be enjoying a pleasing melancholy rather than feeling distraught: tears wake in her, as thoughts did earlier, but these are tears she love[s] to shed). She moves to a long encomium to the friend who sent her the thoughtful gift. I have to say I really love For she recalls the artless smile / Of nymphs that deck my native isle: to me those lines seem echt eighteen-century, and if (the Muses forbid!) all eighteenth-century British poetry were destroyed, you could probably recreate a substantial portion of it with the lyric DNA found in them. For someone who lived such an uncompromising and radical life herself, Williams is almost surprisingly rhapsodic over the tender, modest grace of traditional feminine domestic virtues. She ends with the thought that the true sustenance, the true rich feast, comes not so much from the Christmas cake itself as from the dear friendship it represents.

Usually I link to the book from which I took the poem (hoping some reader might be inspired to make a purchase), but in this case, though I have shelves and shelves of poetry books, they do not contain this poem: I found it on-line. So this is a good chance to mention a terrific resource: the Poetry Foundation website. They have a wide and deep collection of verse, along with detailed biographies of the poets and many interesting articles. It's a great site to keep in mind when you're bored at work and cannot take another minute of the usual social media or news sites, not that I would know anything about that of course. There does not seem to be a handy modern edition of Williams's poetry, but some of her other poems can be found in Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: an Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale. The biographical information I've included here comes from the headnote to Lonsdale's selection of her work. If you enjoyed this poem, you'd probably enjoy that whole anthology – I just want people to buy books! Remember that poetry makes a great gift! Almost as great as an English Christmas plum-cake!

30 November 2014

in which I am a sacred choral music stud

Several Sundays ago I attended two concerts in a row of sacred choral music (some of it officially sacred, all of it sanctified): Magnificat with Schütz's Opus Ultimum at St Mark's Lutheran at 4:00 PM and then, skipping the Magnificat après-concert reception and rushing across the street to the Cathedral, Cappella SF at 6:00 PM with a program called Autumn Light, progressing, as my favorite season does, from the last bright glow of summer to the somber inward reflectiveness of on-coming winter. Altogether that was about three hours of (like an old-school Puritan) sitting on hard pews and paying attention to the divine words. But to hear unified human voices, on what started out as a hot and miserable day, conducting us (as Virgil did Dante) into a sacred realm. . . It was well worth the sore behind and the rushing and the worrying about time and the cost of the tickets. When I left the second concert, there was a cool and blessed wind blowing, and the day's heat and aggravations had, if not vanished, moved somewhere else.

Schütz's Opus Ultimum is also known as Der Schwanengesang: that is, his swan song, his last work before death took him. It is a setting for double chorus of the epic Psalm 119, the longest of the Psalms, an elaborate acrostic in the original Hebrew. The composer asked one of his Dresden colleagues, Constantin Christian Dedekind, to add the instrumentation, but instead Dedekind wrote his own setting. So Magnificat's artistic director, Warren Stewart, stepped in over the centuries to aid Schütz.

In his talk beforehand, Stewart discussed feeling somewhat stymied at the task, until a German colleague of his said, "Well, this is how you'll do it this time!" – with the implication that there will be another time, another opportunity. This sense of the provisional can be oddly freeing. Stewart did a beautiful job, and his introductory talk gave some helpful guides for listening, and as a result the concluding doxology of each section (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen) sounded like the guide and blessing it was meant to be.

Magnificat used one voice per part, and the words came through in a clear and meaningful way, with passionate, committed declamation. The sun burned through the windows as we started, and was declining by the end. It was hot in the church, and paying sustained attention can be exhausting, but there was a sustained and enthusiastic burst of applause at the end. There was a reception afterwards in the lower level of the church, but instead I rushed across the street to the cathedral to buy a ticket for another concert (I had actually not bought tickets for either concert in advance, not sure if I would be able to get to either one).

It turned out I was there in a good amount of time, so I sat in the cathedral, which I haven't been to in a while, just gathering my thoughts. We, the audience for Cappella SF, were in only one section of the arrayed pews, and I vaguely thought about going over to one of the far corners of the church where I could let the sound wash over me in delightful and splendid isolation. But I stayed where I was, figuring that the baffles behind the chorus indicated that the sound would be best if I stayed put, on the aisle in my pew. For Magnificat I had sat up close. That may account for the dramatic vividness of the one sound and the more blended sound of the other. There was interesting variety in the different sounds, each enticing in its own way.

Ragnar Bohlin, the conductor of the redoubtable San Francisco Symphony Chorus, is the artistic director of Cappella SF. His interesting and well-chosen selections were mostly from northern parts; we started with Bach's Singet Dem Herren, followed by Josef Rheinberger's Mass in E-Flat Major, Op 109, Ingavr Lidholm's De Profundis (an interesting mixture of the old prayer with texts by Strindberg), Arvo Pärt's Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen, and concluding with the solemn thoughts of Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance, No. XI and XII.

There was a reception after this concert, too, and since I had no where in particular to go (and was by then both hungry and thirsty, though only physically) I went to this one. I had no idea that below the cathedral was a honeycomb of meeting rooms, though they're in a disappointingly mundane style: down there it seemed not like a catacomb but like a Holiday Inn badly in need of updating. I found the room where the reception was held, and gratefully grabbed some cookies and cheese straws and a glass of wine before I realized that there would be a series of speeches, at which point, having waved to the singers I knew in the chorus, I slipped out into the blessedly cooling dusk. When I was younger I did not hesitate to attend two concerts in a day, but I have less stamina now, and less patience. But this seemed like a special opportunity, and I was glad I took it.

Magnificat's next concert is 19 - 21 December, and they will be performing Cavalli's Christmas Mass in various venues; check here for details. Cappella SF's next concert will be 6 February 2015 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and will feature music by Conrad Susa and David Conte; check their website here for more information.

Profane and Sacred with Philharmonia Baroque

Philharmonia Baroque started its season with two enjoyable concerts, both of which I attended in Berkeley, at First Congregational. Each concert offered an opportunity to hear a renowned soloist as well as the excellent local talent.

First up was cellist Steven Isserlis, who joined the band for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Concerto for Violoncello in A major, Wq 172 and then, after the intermission, Boccherini's Concerto for Violoncello No. 7 in G major, G. 480. Those were flanked by two Haydn symphonies: No. 57 in D major to open, and No. 67 in F major to close. The symphonies were crisp and vivid under Nicholas McGegan's direction, but the centerpiece was the two cello concertos. They were recording the Haydn, and asked us to be particularly quiet because of the recording, so of course someone unleashed her hacking cough through both. I wonder if they got anything usable.

Isserlis is a very dramatic player. I enjoyed watching him. He has long, curly grey hair, which he tosses back regularly. During the break my concert companion overheard two old ladies having the following discussion about the concert: "Well, he's had a haircut." "Yes, but he needs another one." Sometimes I wonder if people say things like that because the emotions summoned by music are too intimate to be shared and possibly spoiled by opening them to the air. Other times I think that's just all there is, right there on the surface – they're there for the hair – and it gives me a chuckle.

For whatever reason the playbill listed the concertos in one order and they were performed in reverse; I had heard about this from some of the earlier concerts and by the time I was actually listening I could not remember which we were going to hear first. They were clearly very different pieces of music, though – it was only the names that I couldn't remember. Isserlis spoke a bit before the Boccherini, describing it as "the spirit of the rococo" and very different from the more complex and adventurous CPE Bach piece. Indeed it was lighter, more curly in sound if you see what I mean, and the orchestra was all or almost entirely strings. The violoncello was Boccherini's own instrument, and he wrote himself a delightful showpiece.

The second concert featured countertenor Andreas Scholl and was conducted by Julian Wachner, who also led SF Opera's Partenope. At first glance (at least my first glance) the program seemed sort of an odd though enjoyable jumble: it opened with the Sinfonia from JS Bach's Cantata No. 42, BWV 42, followed by Scholl singing three Handel arias (Va tacito from Giulio Cesare, Dove sei from Rodelinda, and Aure, deh, per pietà from Giulio Cesare), followed by Telemann's Concerto in F major for Violin, Oboe, and Two Horns, TWV 54:F1. After the intermission, Scholl returned for Bach's Cantata No. 170, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170, and then the Brandenburg Concerto No 1 to close. But it turns out there were several interesting organizational ideas guiding the selections: one was to join three giants of baroque music for compare and contrast purposes and another was to draw attention to some spiritual principles guiding Bach's music. For example, the argument is that though familiarity with the Brandenburg Concertos and unfamiliarity with baroque standards may blunt the point for most of us, the instrumentation in the Brandenburgs is unexpected and a reversal of the usual, illustrating the gospel precepts that the first shall be last and the last first. We were to contrast the Brandenburg that closed the second half with the Telemann that closed the first half, a gorgeous but more strictly correct composition. We were also to hear the connections between the Brandenburg and the cantatas, and contrast the spiritual yearning of the latter with the more world-directed loss and pain in the Handel arias.

Scholl was, not surprisingly, wonderful, with a clear, sweet, full sound. The exemplary players of the natural horn also got quite a workout in this concert; the lead horn, RJ Kelley, spoke at one point and explained why the inside of the horn's bell was painted a dark color: it was because the instruments originated as hunting horns, and because of the way the horn was held (or, more accurately, worn), the inside had to be painted a dark color so that the sun's glare off the metal didn't startle the horse behind, causing him to rear and throw his rider. Fun facts about baroque life! As for the Brandenburg No 1, it reminded me once again how wonderful it can be to hear a work we think we know, after it's been long absent from our ears and even memories. It was an exhilarating jaunt, and they could have retitled it borrowing from one of our contemporary composers: a short ride in a fast machine.

Philharmonia Baroque's next concerts are this week; they're celebrating Christmas with Vivaldi and Zelenka. Check here for details; these sound like fun and unusual concerts.

Haiku 2014/334

Planes pass overhead.
A train whistles, passing through.
I plant fava beans.

29 November 2014

Haiku 2014/333

Dull clouds hang pendant
over the expectant earth.
Christmas music plays.

SF SoundBox

Lisa Hirsch left a comment on my December preview mentioning SF SoundBox, whose opening I had omitted. I started to reply to her comment and realized I needed more space, so here are my thoughts:

SF SoundBox. . . . I went back and forth on including that. My criteria for the things I list is: (1) something I'm going to or (2) something I'd like to go to, given world enough and time. In other words, this list is what they now call "curated." I have a number of swirling thoughts on Sound Box, some of which I will unload here, since you bring it up.

For those who don't know, SF SoundBox is a new initiative by the SF Symphony to create a small informal space for performances. It's in a former (maybe still current?) rehearsal room in Davies Hall. It will rely heavily on a Meyer Sound System. Programs start late in the evening and there will be drinks and snacks (excuse me, "small plates"). I think they also plan to incorporate audio-visuals into the shows. Basically, it's a night club.

I wish them well with it, but it's really not my thing, and not just because the late start times make it a non-starter for someone like me who thinks 8:00 PM is too late to start a show (ironically, I will be in SF that night, but it's much easier to get to Davies from my home in San Leandro than from where I'll be in SF).

I'm put off by the reliance on an electronic sound system. I know it's standard for certain styles of music, and it's creeping more and more into "classical" performances, but I think hearing music in the moment and without enhancement is worth the trouble and enhanced music maybe not so much (as with everything I'm saying, I realize that opinions and tastes will differ on this).

I'm really put off by the self-consciously cool vibe. I assume they're trying for an SF equivalent of NY's Poisson Rouge, which I'm sure is a fun place for many but I always imagine people sitting there self-consciously eating nachos (or other foods that crunch) and deliberately talking during the music to show they "get it." If you really want to listen to music, as opposed to basking in your own coolness, you are OK with sitting there silently. You are also OK with not imposing yourself on those around you. That's something that has evolved in concert halls. Night clubs are different. And that's great, but that's why I don't go to night clubs (or whatever the kids call them these days).

I wonder what kind of research they did on the potential of a place like this, or whether they're just dreaming of a cool involved late-night audience that would of course eat this up with a spoon. As ad agencies and politicians know, you can get awfully far by appealing to how people want to see themselves, as opposed to how they actually have to live, but how many people are going to show up often enough for late-night innovative concerts for this to be worth the expenditure?

Also: though I find it admirable of the SF Symphony to experiment with new types of concerts and concert presentations, I have to say I'm puzzled that most of these ventures, however interesting and worthwhile and fun on their own, do not involve major musical works for orchestra, which is the basic purpose of a symphony orchestra. It seems like an admission of defeat, in a way, as if they feel large orchestras just really aren't what people want these days. But what else are they for? There are already lots of groups that perform chamber music or have interactive concerts etc. (Contrast this with the Berkeley Symphony, which has a major commitment to big new works for orchestra, as opposed to the little tidbits the SF Symphony drops into its schedule).

So: I wish them well, I hope it's a big success, I'm sure I'm missing out, but: this is not for me.

28 November 2014

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

So we come to the close of another year. This always seems as if it should be a peaceful time for contemplation, but instead I always find myself trying even more desperately than usual to stay afloat. It's an odd month for performances; like most of American society since around Halloween, most of what we get here has some link, outright or indirect, to Christmas – or at least to feelings of good fellowship and a cherishing of light amid the darkness; this will appeal strongly to you, or not. In any case I wish you all a happy merry joyous [whatever you celebrate, even if it's nothing], and as you think about gifts to give, to yourself or others, or donations to make before year's end, please remember to support the artists and organizations that persist in trying to light a candle to show a way through the night.

Messiah (Great was the company of the preachers!)
The splendid American Bach Soloists kick off their season with their popular presentation of Messiah in Grace Cathedral on 16, 18, and 19 December (there are also performances in other, far-flung locations on 14 and 21 December). Check here for more information.

Jane Glover leads the San Francisco Symphony in Messiah on 18 - 20 December, with soloists Yulia van Doren, Leah Wool, Nicholas Phan, and Troy Cook (and of course the Symphony Chorus); more information here.

Philharmonia Baroque offers some Christmastime rarities: a recently discovered Dixit Dominus by Vivaldi, the Missa Nativitatis Domini (Mass for Christmas Eve) by Zelenka, the Sonata natalis by Vejvanovsky, and Ave Regina Coelorum by Haydn. Nicholas McGegan leads the band along with excellent soloists Dominique Labelle, Christopher Ainslie, Dashon Burton, and Thomas Cooley on 3 and 5 - 7 December in their usual various locations (though the San Francisco venue this time is Calvary Presbyterian, easily reached on the #3 Jackson bus). More information here.

Cal Performances marks both Christmas and the World War I centennial with All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 performed by nine-man vocal ensemble Cantus and actors from Minnesota's Theatre Latté Da. As you can probably tell from the title, the program commemorates the impromptu Christmas Eve cease-fire, which has become well-known through the film Joyeux Noel and Kevin Puts's Pulitzer-Prize winning operatic version, Silent Night, which somebody local needs to do soon *hint, hint*. That's 4 December at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, more information here.

The Oakland East Bay Symphony, led by Music Director Michael Morgan and joined by the Oakland Symphony Chorus, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Mt Eden High School Concert Choir, the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, and Linda Tillery & the Cultural Heritage Choir, presents Let Us Break Bread Together, a celebratory holiday extravaganza that this year pays special tribute to the late folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger. That's 14 December at 4:00 at the Paramount in Oakland; details here.

In a co-production with the San Francisco Early Music Society, Magnificat joins with members of The Whole Noyse to present a Christmas mass by Francesco Cavalli; that's 19 - 21 December, in a different location each performance, so check here for details.

SFJazz presents the Blind Boys of Alabama in a Christmas program on 20 December, details here.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus gives a winter program called Northern Lights, featuring Nordic and Nordic-inspired music as well as some traditional Christmas carols (I guess you're supposed to sing along with some of those? My gift to the world is to spare it my singing voice); that's 8 December at Davies Hall; details here.

The San Francisco Symphony, in addition to the Messiah performances mentioned above, has a wide selection of holiday and family concerts, with something for (almost) every taste, ranging from Peter & the Wolf with Rita Moreno to a Disney concert to mariachi to what you might call sophisticated pop; you can check out their offerings for December here.

SFJazz presents the Klezmatics, performing music from their album Happy Joyous Hanukkah; that's 21 December; details here.

Shotgun Players present Thornton Wilder's Our Town, directed by Susannah Martin, 4 December to 11 January at the Ashby Stage; more information here.

Cutting Ball Theater's Hidden Classics Reading Series presents Calderón's Life is a Dream in a new translation by Andrew Saito, directed by Paige Rogers. That's 7 December at 1:00; more information here.

San Francisco Performances presents Yuja Wang playing Schubert (as arranged by Liszt and just plain Schubert), Scriabin, and Balakirev at Davies Hall on 1 December; details here. They are also presenting Garrick Ohlson in an all-Scriabin program at the SF Jazz Center on 7 December; details here.

This year's fine crop of Adler Fellows give their final 2014 concert on 4 December, at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center, a venue which unfortunately does not seem particularly convenient for non-drivers. Nonetheless it might be worth it to hear more from Hadleigh Adams, Julie Adams, AJ Clueckert, Erin Johnson, Noah Lindquist, Jacqueline Piccolino, Efraín Solís, Zanda Svede, Maria Valdes, Philippe Sly, and Sun Ha Yoon. Details here.

New/Modern Music
Cal Performances presents the Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic Band and Amy X Neuberg in They Will Have Been So Beautiful: Song & Images of Now, a series of new compositions inspired by Diane Arbus. The composers are Lisa Bielawa, Jay Cloidt, Conrad Cummings, Paul Dresher, Fred Frith, Guillermo Galindo, Carla Kihlstedt, Amy X Neuberg, Ken Ueno, and Pamela Z. Sounds like fun! That's 5 - 6 December at Zellerbach Playhouse; more information here.

The Center for New Music in San Francisco has a constant stream of new and exciting music. Check out the whole schedule here; some things in December that caught my eye are Michael Mizrahi playing new piano music on 7 December; Splinter Reeds & Wiener Kids on 12 December (no idea what they play, but the names are entertaining); Pamela Z and Shinichi Iova-Koga on 15 December; and the Double Negative Ensemble (again, just love the name) on 17 December.

Chamber Music
Cal Performances presents the Takács Quartet in Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 130. They are joined by violist Erika Eckert for Mozart's String Quintet in G minor. That's 7 December; details here.

Choral Music
The International Orange Chorale of San Francisco celebrates its tenth anniversary with a concert of music written for the ensemble by Robin Estrada, Jeremy Faust, Zane Fiala, Elizabeth Kimble, Noah Luna, Shaffer McGee, Caroline Shaw, and Nicholas Weininger, along with premieres by Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw. That's 13 December at 7:30 at All Souls Episcopal in Berkeley and 14 December at 6:00 at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco. More information here.

Haiku 2014/332

half-empty diner
a tourist eats by himself
enjoying his book

Friday photo 2014/48

Christmas in July: Jackson Street, San Francisco, July 2014

27 November 2014

Haiku 2014/331

before guests arrive
a swell of nervous stillness
and that is your life

26 November 2014

Haiku 2014/330

I should be working
but I'm reading poetry.
There is no third line.

25 November 2014

Haiku 2014/329

laden with fresh loaves
I pass by hungry pigeons
pecking at gravel

24 November 2014

Haiku 2014/328

my attention drifts
down and away, like that leaf
mindfulness is tough

Poem of the Week 2014/48


The turkeys wade the close to catch the bees
In the old border full of maple trees
And often lay away and breed and come
And bring a brood of chelping chickens home.
The turkey gobbles loud and drops his rag
And struts and sprunts his tail and then lets drag
His wing on ground and makes a huzzing noise,
Nauntles at passer-bye and drives the boys
And bounces up and flies at passer-bye.
The old dog snaps and grins nor ventures nigh.
He gobbles loud and drives the boys from play;
They throw their sticks and kick and run away.

John Clare

For Thanksgiving week, a poem about the Thanksgiving bird par excellence, the turkey. Since Clare was active in early to mid-nineteenth century England, the bird he is describing here is what we now would call a "heritage turkey," something closer to our wild turkeys than to the breast-heavy, stupefied bird currently filling the freezer section of your local supermarket. Clare's life was marked by struggle, poverty, and ill health, both physical and mental. The son of farm workers, Clare himself worked on farms (among other jobs) and though his poems often present attractive scenes of rural life, he does not idealize that life. He was, during his lifetime, sometimes known by the rather condescending term "the peasant poet"; the lettered and leisured love to feel that they are connecting with the real life of "the people." He hovered uneasily between the world of laborers and the world of letters.

A poem like this may seem just a picturesque vignette of farm life à la Currier & Ives, but there are underlying political implications here. Clare grew up in a rural England in which centuries-old traditions were being uprooted by the Industrial Revolution, by the building of factories and towns for their workers and the laying of train tracks and the enclosure of previously "common" spaces. Clare and others like him were shoved out of the way just by trying to stay in place. So what we have here is a vision of the age-old ways that were being wiped out, often with little thought – his description reminds his readers (most likely, the educated and urban) of life outside the powerful city centers. What Clare is doing here is relevant still, as we face our own looming ecological disasters, all the while being distracted by the shiny promise of new digital toys. And ultimately, any work that forces you to look closely at what is actually in front of you (rather than what you want to see, or what your theories tell you you will be seeing) is inherently subversive.

Though the gist of the poem is perfectly clear, looking closely at it actually requires a surprising amount of research (I've posted poems in Middle English that needed less annotation and less hunting after definitions). Clare used many dialect and archaic words (probably for a combination of reasons, including lack of formal education and, as with Robert Burns, a determination to use the language of his people). The turkeys wade: that can mean to move vigorously or forcefully, through water, or, more likely here, a damp substance, as in moist or swampy soil found in the close, which would be an enclosed area. The turkeys strut among the old maple trees bordering the farm to catch and eat bees. They lay their eggs there, too, and lead out their brood of chelping chickens: chelping is chirping, like a baby bird, and chickens is an old term for the young of any domestic fowl. The chicks are chirping, and we switch to a single turkey, who gobbles and drops his rag: that is, he lowers his wattles, just as (in a couple of lines) he will lower and drag his wing. But before he does that he struts and sprunts his tail: that is, he makes a quick, convulsive or spasmodic movement with it. He makes a huzzing noise: that is, a buzzing or murmuring noise (though maybe it's more like a hissing?). He nauntles at passers-by: that is, he rears up, raises himself up, strutting. He moves vigorously to scare off strangers walking by, or the local boys at play – anyone who invades his domain. There is a dog, but an old and presumably tired and cautious one, who snaps and grins (which here I take to mean bares his teeth rather than smiles broadly) but does not come close enough so that he actually has to tangle with the obstreperous bird. The scene ends with the turkey chasing the boys, who throw sticks and kick at the bird, but also run away.

We get a vivid picture of how these birds behave (anyone who has come across ducks, geese, or swans in public parks knows that this sort of behavior is pretty typical of a certain type of bird). And we get a vivid sense of country life, not as the orderly hierarchy beloved by rural nostalgists but as unstable, ruled by a complex and wavering web of power relationships, in a constant state of tension and flux, marked by an endless back-and-forth of aggressive show and retreat and further attack. The boys run away from the turkey, but – and this part isn't explicitly stated, and maybe it's the influence of Thanksgiving week, but – I can't help thinking eventually the farmer will show up with his axe, and so much for the turkey's control of his turf.

I took this from On Wings of Song: Poems About Birds, selected and edited by J D McClatchy, another excellent anthology from the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone celebrating it this week – and even if you're in some place where it's not an official holiday, it never hurts to give thanks. As a holiday bonus, here is my recipe for cranberry chutney. And I give thanks, among other things, for my readers.

23 November 2014

Haiku 2014/327

is this beech – or birch?
either name, or none, this tree
is so full of grace

22 November 2014

Haiku 2014/326

midnight approaches
things done and undone now rest
beneath distant stars

21 November 2014

Haiku 2014/325

pale in the garden
I stand piebald in moonlight
rain, come rinse me clean

Friday photo 2014/47

November sky, from the San Leandro BART station, California 2014

20 November 2014

Haiku 2014/324

as I turn away
let those waving branches stand
for what is unsaid

19 November 2014

Haiku 2014/323

angular shadows
zigzag down silver-streaked streets
under a crazed moon

18 November 2014

Haiku 2014/322

rows of gray buildings
silent under gray sunsets
lone slant of pale light

17 November 2014

Haiku 2014/321

dandelion seeds –
we used to call them fairies –
float past my window

Poem of the Week 2014/47

A Woman Talks to Her Thigh

It is only thanks to your good looks
I can take part
in the rites of love.

Mystical ecstasies,
treasons delightful
as a crimson lipstick,
a perverse rococo
of psychological involutions,
sweetness of carnal longings
that take your breath,
pits of despair
sinking to the very bottom of the world:
all this I owe to you.

How tenderly every day I should
lash you with a whip of cold water,
if you alone allow me to possess
beauty and wisdom irreplaceable.

The souls of my lovers
open to me in a moment of love
and I have them in my dominion.
I look as does a sculptor
on his work
at their faces snapped shut with eyelids,
martyred by ecstasy,
made dense by happiness.
I read as does an angel
thoughts in their skulls
I feel in my hand
a beating human heart,
I listen to the words
which are whispered by one human to another
in the frankest moments of one's life.

I enter their souls,
I wander
by a road of delight or of horror
to lands as inconceivable
as the bottoms of the oceans.
Later on, heavy with treasures
I come slowly
to myself.

O, many riches,
many precious truths
growing immense in a metaphysical echo,
many initiations
delicate and startling
I owe to you, my thigh.

The most exquisite refinement of my soul
would not give me any of those treasures
if not for the clear, smooth charm
of an amoral little animal.

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

Last week's poem made me think of this one.

Like the previous poems we've seen by Anna Swir (check here for the poems and some background on the poet) she takes a somewhat distanced yet still intimate attitude towards her body, as if it's "an amoral little animal," as she describes it in her last line here, some beloved pet that, due to its alien and animal nature, sometimes behaves unpredictably. This is a poem specifically to her thigh, so it's more openly erotic than some of her other poems about her physical being. The speaker here is at an age in which she is still physically attractive – she begins by thanking her thigh's good looks for enabling her to have sex. Yet she's old enough to have had several lovers, and to have a sort of emotional distance from them (just as she's sort of distanced from her own body; perhaps this is a function of aging, or of this particular woman's personality). These anonymous men are subject to her power, and pretty much the same in their reactions. Their souls open to her under her dominion; she is an artist of love-making, a sculptor seeing them, in the throes of love, as her creations, their faces snapped shut with eyelids yet their souls open. They are martyred by ecstasy (this makes me think of Bernini's famous statue of the Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila); they are made dense by happiness – solid, substantial, like a sculpture, with perhaps also a suggestion of made a bit thick-skulled by sex. (This is a translation, so I wouldn't rely too heavily on analysis of a single word, but at least one of the translators knew Swir and is himself a great poet, so there's no reason to think he's misrepresenting her.)

But her love-making is bringing her more than just mechanics or physical relief; she speaks of "the rites of love," of mystical ecstasies, of treasons delightful – social and soul-full states. Throughout she alternates between sweetness and despair, delight and horror. She would tenderly lash her thigh daily with a "whip" of cold water. Although she sees her body as amoral (perhaps amorous because amoral), it is thanks to it that she receives precious (yet undefined, perhaps because they are too deep to be captured in words, which always limit and deceive) truths, which grow "immense in a metaphysical echo": there is a strong spiritual current underlying this very physical poem; she sees herself not as her body but as something acting with and through and inside of it; she speaks of souls, martyrs, angels, of ecstatic trances and mystic visions just as if she were a saint trying to describe the divine presence.

There's a wonderful comparison of coming out of her erotic swoon/reverie to being a traveler in strange lands, strange as the bottom of the ocean (heavy, wet, swirling, mysterious) slowly coming (perhaps there's a pun on "come" in the sense of sexual climax?) to herself – as if her self is separate but not unrelated to what she's just been through – as if her self is, like a delta, something constantly growing and changing under the accretions of these ocean currents.

I love the lines about "treasons delightful / as a crimson lipstick" – the lipstick is both an inward satisfaction and an outward sign; you feel she enjoys buying different shades of lipstick, playing with her appearance, taking pleasure in the way she looks. Yet the lipstick is also for others, a way of presenting herself (in an attractive way) to the world, the thin layer of interaction between herself and the social world. Crimson lips are seen as an erotic signal, but make-up itself is not only a way of ornamenting but also a way of hiding her naked self from the world (mascara of course comes from the Italian word for mask, and lipstick can function the same way). The lines remind me of the passage in one of Barbara Pym's novels in which an orderly middle-aged woman insists, despite the saleswoman's suggestions (helpful? condescending? both?), on buying a shade of lipstick that doesn't suit her, either as a color or as an emotion: "I shall take Hawaiian Fire," she insists. She buys it defiantly, but of course she knows the purchase is a mistake. It would be interesting to read that woman's talk to her thigh; it might be very different from that of the speaker here.

I took this from Talking to My Body by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.

16 November 2014

Haiku 2014/320

I wanted the moon
but found only stars: Bette
Davis, you were wrong

15 November 2014

Haiku 2014/319

It's cold at night now.
I think of past Novembers.
Birds cross the gray skies.

14 November 2014

Haiku 2014/318

framed in the window:
a tree, some houses, some wires
till night blots them out

Friday photo 2014/46

bust of Lady Elizabeth Bingham, 1810, by Joseph Nollekens, at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, July 2014

13 November 2014

Haiku 2014/317

after the rain passed
breezes through the branches shook
a second shower

12 November 2014

Haiku 2014/316

it's just getting dark
houses start glowing within
the street is quiet

The Czech Philharmonic at Cal Performances

Last Sunday afternoon was one of those recent days of disquieting beauty – November is supposed to be cold and rainy, and something feels awry when all is blue, balmy, and beautiful. There was comforting beauty in store at Zellerbach Hall, where I headed that afternoon to hear the Cal Performances's presentation of Jirí Belohlávek leading the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Philharmonic Choir (Lukáš Vasilek Choir Master) and four soloists in Dvorák's Stabat Mater, his epic setting of the old Latin prayer meditating on the Virgin Mary at the foot of her son's cross.

I'm surprised the piece isn't as well known as the Brahms and Verdi Requiems; it requires vast forces – the stage was packed – but it's a wonderful piece, and people want to hear it – the auditorium was also packed, and on such a lovely day. I've sometimes thought of compiling a list of words and phrases I've come to loathe, and accessible (as applied to the arts) would head the list – it always makes me feel like a scrawny baby bird mewling for mommy bird to chew up my worms for me – so I'll say that the piece is immediately emotionally available, and filled with melodies that flow and ebb like a melancholy sea; it creates a meditative and moving atmosphere and keeps you there for its ninety-minute duration.

The orchestra and chorus were both splendid, but I did go back-and-forth a bit about the soloists. I guess my favorite was the imposing bass Jan Martiník. I really liked tenor Jaroslav Brezina (oddly listed in the program as a baritone) but I always had the feeling he was singing Italian opera – that's not a bad thing, necessarily. It was just how his voice struck me, with its exclamatory heroic sound. Alto Dagmar Pecková seems a bit underpowered to me, though I heard from others who sat elsewhere (I was about halfway down the left-hand side of the orchestra) that her voice had more presence elsewhere. Soprano Lucie Silkenová had a lovely clear voice but sometimes it seemed a shade unsteady to me. But these are all quibbles. I've heard recordings of this piece but they never really came alive for me the way this performance did. The audience was spellbound and deeply attentive. The young woman down the row from me kept coughing loudly, but she did leave several times – but then she'd come back. I can't really blame her for wanting to hear the rest of the performance, though.

At the end there was an ardent ovation, one of the most striking I've heard recently. As his final gesture, the lights behind him giving him an aureole of white hair, Belohlávek held up his copy of the score. I love it when performers do that, giving the composer the final salute. When the audience started filing out I ran into a friend who raved about how pretty it all was. I think I'd have gone for a different word, but she clearly loved it though she then said she had to ignore the words since she has trouble with all religious stories. I was kind of amused by this since I had been wishing they had used surtitles for the Latin text. I suggested that perhaps she could just think of it as a mother mourning a son tortured to death by the authorities. "No, I just want to hear it as sound, all sound." The sounds were indeed beautiful, and conveyed their own meaning.

11 November 2014

Haiku 2014/315

first I swept leaves up
then the wind swept more leaves down
all gets swept away

10 November 2014

Haiku 2014/314

I found a feather
and kept it in memory
of a former flight

Poem of the Week 2014/46

The Soldier Address His Body

I shall be mad if you get smashed about,
we've had good times together, you and I;
although you groused a bit when luck was out,
say a girl turned us down, or we went dry.

But there's a world of things we haven't done,
countries not seen, where people do strange things;
eat fish alive, and mimic in the sun
the solemn gestures of their stone-grey kings.

I've heard of forests that are dim at noon
where snakes and creepers wrestle all day long;
where vivid beasts grow pale with the full moon,
gibber and cry, and wail a mad old song;

because at the full moon the Hippogriff
with crinkled ivory snout and agate feet,
with his green eye will glare them cold and stiff
for the coward Wyvern to come down and eat.

Vodka and kvass, and bitter mountain wines
we've never drunk; nor snatched the bursting grapes
to pelt slim girls among Sicilian vines,
who'd flicker through the leaves, faint frolic shapes.

Yes, there's a world of things we've never done,
but it's a sweat to knock them into rhyme,
let's have a drink, and give the cards a run
and leave dull verse to the dull peaceful time.

Edgell Rickword

For Veterans Day tomorrow: a poem by a World War I poet. Rickword was an officer in the British army.

The soldier begins by addressing his body as if it were a separate entity, a buddy of his rather than something inseparable from his existence: perhaps the stress of war requires this sort of psychological divorce between yourself and the body you are constantly forced to put into danger. He is fond of his body/buddy; they've been companions through good times and also bad – not bad compared to war, of course (war and the constant imminent threat of mutilation or death loom over and shape everything this man says: he's not just a young man speaking to his body, he is specifically a soldier). Just the usual young man's bad luck: rejection by a girl, no booze at hand, a run of bad luck.

Moving into the second stanza, he's still not directly mentioning war, but the thought clearly underlies the track his thoughts do take: the whole vast and thrilling world he has not yet seen. He begins with easily identifiable and, for him, exotic and far-away lands, where people do things like eat raw fish (this was written long before sushi or even ceviche became international staples). His imagination (again, under the unspoken constant pressure of possible mutilation or death, and the fear of battle, and whether you will behave as a man and soldier should in battle) grows wilder, more heated: he dreams now of jungles writhing with snakes and creepers (creepers are creeping or climbing vines, here indistinguishable from snakes), and maddened wild things under the pale haunted light of a full moon: and then he moves into straight-out fantasy, in which hippogriffs and wyverns are real.

A hippogriff is the offspring of a griffin and a mare. A griffin has the body, tail, and back legs of a lion and  the head, wings, and forelegs of an eagle, so a hippogriff is a winged horse with the head and upper body of an eagle. A wyvern is a reptilian creature, with a dragon's head and wings and only two feet, and a barbed tail. I've never before seen the the hippogriff and wyvern described as working in concert as they do here, or seen the wyvern described as cowardly. These things may have been invented by the poet. He's also given the basilisk's paralyzing stare to the hippogriff. There may be another element here, though. Both hippogriffs and wyverns are found not in real life but in medieval bestiaries and books of heraldry: perhaps the two represent the ruling classes (marked by heraldic beasts, based in the Middle Ages, whose existence our age no longer believes in), working together to kill the "vivid beasts": vivid has its root in the Latin vivere, to live. These heraldic animals conspire to feed themselves off the anonymous but intensely alive beasts. And the beasts know this, they know that it happens when the moon is full, so they "wail a mad old song" – mad, just what the soldier said he would be if his body got "smashed about."

After the striking and perhaps allegorical appearance of the two imaginary beasts, the soldier begins to turn his thoughts back (always with the consciousness of possible imminent loss, of being snuffed out in a flash, or so crippled that he'll wish he had been) to the booze and girls he had mentioned in the first paragraph: only now they're all vivid and strange and new, very different from his English life: eastern European drinks like vodka and kvass, and southern European drinks like "bitter mountain wines." The scene is lively and erotic, with bursting grapes and slim girls among the vines; it is also evanescent, and the girls are flickering and faint, vanishing figures. Even if he were sent to fight on the Russian or Italian fronts, he would not have the experience of vodka, kvass, or wine, or of playing with slim girls among the vines.

And so his thoughts cool down, and he becomes the matter-of-fact good fellow, drinking and playing at cards and putting aside the hard yet fancy work of poetry. And this is how many of us see soldiers. It's a class-based view – that they're good but unintellectual fellows, doing our dirty work for us. But the speaker here has just shown us what mad poetry, what vividness, lie hidden under the drab surface, what practically unmentionable fears, what longing for life. He leaves "dull verse to the dull peaceful time" – war can be a surge of adrenalin, a dangerously exciting and appealing constant surge in place of the dullness of daily peacetime life. While war (with its intensified sense of the precariousness and preciousness of life) hangs over him, he will try to live as much as he can, even if all he has are booze and cards, and even if he knows they are only a weak substitute for the enchanting endless world he may never come to know.

Since this year marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, there have been a growing number of anthologies devoted to the poems and fiction inspired by the war. I took this poem from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, but Penguin appears to have issued another, different compilation under that title. The one I have is the second edition of an older anthology, edited and introduced by Jon Silkin.

09 November 2014

Haiku 2014/313

loops of colored lights
glow along the dingy eaves
of a shuttered house

08 November 2014

Haiku 2014/312

salvaged from today
in its only appearance
that one light gleaming

07 November 2014

Haiku 2014/311

mesmerizing moon
so low on the horizon
so pure, so distant

Friday photo 2014/45

a pair of eyes, from the classical galleries, the Metropolitan Museum, New York

06 November 2014

Haiku 2014/310

strolling down a street
feeling yourself pricked by love
passing like your day

05 November 2014

Haiku 2014/309

remember rising
wind and grey clouds at your back
when it used to rain

04 November 2014

Haiku 2014/308

like a thin curved cloud
haunting late afternoon's light
pale ghost of a moon

03 November 2014

Haiku 2014/307

down dim corridors
striding as purposefully
as if we had one

Poem of the Week 2014/45

The Unquiet Grave

"The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

"I'll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I'll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day."

The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
"Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?"

" 'Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek."

"You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.

" 'Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen
Is withered to a stalk.

"The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away."


I thought I'd continue the ghostly poems for another week. I was looking for something suitable for the Día de los Muertos and I thought of this poem, which is not directly about it but is not unsuitable, since it's about the continuing presence of the beloved dead, remembering their spirits, and dealing with the loss in life.

Like The Haunted Oak from two weeks back, this poem is in ballad form: it's a narrative, told in quatrains with a 4-3-4-3 beat and rhymes at the end of the second and fourth lines. Certain phrases get repeated, for emphasis and rhythm, such as "one kiss of your clay-cold lips," which we hear three times. And the vocabulary has some archaic touches: 'Tis, and ere (meaning earlier, before, so that the sense of "the finest flower that ere was seen" is "the finest flower that we saw in the time before this, back when we used to walk together in the garden" – though I wonder if the word is meant to be e'er, the contraction for ever, so that the sense is "the finest flower that ever was seen"?).

This seems like a poem Edward Gorey might have illustrated. It is written by the prolific Anonymous, but feels very Victorian to me, particularly the last two lines, with their sense that:

* you can create your own attitude, sort of an emotional and philosophical way of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps ("make yourself content"),

* the attitude it is wisest to try for is contentment (rather than, say, happiness; it's a reconciliation with life, a way of making the best of things), and

* a presumably benevolent Deity is watching over things and has a plan for you.

There are suitable atmospherics that give a late autumn/wintry feel: the wind, the rain, the cold grave. After the fairy-tale "year and a day" (a year was the length of time assigned to official deep mourning by the Victorians, so the speaker is showing that he will do more than society requires), the dead woman speaks. She has already moved into the kingdom of the dead, and responds to his passionate mourning with dispassionate wisdom: her kiss would mean death; death will come to him eventually, just as it did to the most beautiful flowers they saw on their walks together; he should move on as best he can until the inevitable happens to him. It's kind of a carpe diem poem, with the acknowledgement that the diem can be tough to get through sometimes.

My first assumption was that the speaker was a young man, given the lines "I'll do as much for my true-love / as any young man may," which I took to mean that he will do the utmost possible in mourning, compared to anyone else in his position. But it could possibly be read as "although I am no longer a young man, I will do just as much as any young (implying physically strong, headstrong, passionate) man." The language, she is slippery. I think my first assumption was probably correct, but I find it more poignant to think of this poem as about an old man with not much time left himself, yearning for one more kiss from his life-long and lost love.

I took this from Poems Dead and Undead, edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust. It's a new addition to the excellent series of anthologies available from Everyman Library's Pocket Poets.

02 November 2014

Haiku 2014/306

delightful darkness
descended like a blessing
rest in moonstruck peace