31 May 2014

Haiku 2014/151

the light slides away
stars glow in darkening blue
waiting for the moon

30 May 2014

Haiku 2014/150

dull afternoon heat
pale blooms wave in wilting winds,
wave to us warmly

Friday photo 2014/22

Merrill's, on Market Street, San Francisco. I believe it's been torn down in the past year or two.

29 May 2014

Haiku 2014/149

my careless footstep
crushed sweetness into the air:
bruised, beautiful mint

28 May 2014

Haiku 2014/148

pigeons al fresco
dining off abandoned plates
at outdoor cafés

27 May 2014

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

Early music fans will find a feast at the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, 1 - 8 June; check out all the performers, exhibits, and fringe events here.

Cal Performances once again brings us Ojai North; the artistic director for this year's edition is pianist Jeremy Denk. That's 19 - 21 June on the Berkeley campus. Check out the details here; as usual, it all looks good, but some likely highlights are The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) by Denk and Steven Stucky, based on Charles Rosen's celebrated book; the Uri Caine Ensemble performing Mahler Re-Imagined, on a bill with Denk performing Janacek's On an Overgrown Path and short works by Schubert; and . . . well, I see I'm going to end up just listing everything. There's also a concert featuring works by Timo Andres, Charles Ives, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Kurt Weill; and one with Denk playing the Ligeti Piano Etudes, Books I and II. The whole schedule, and other information, is available here.

ACT presents The Orphan of Zhao, in a new adaptation by poet James Fenton, directed by Carey Perloff and starring BD Wong, 4 - 29 June. More information here. This meets the criterion for things I list here – it's something I'd like to see – but I find myself baffled and annoyed by ACT and generally end up skipping their productions. They are, as far as I know, the only major local theater that still doggedly insists on an 8:00 start time for every night of the work week (they usually have exactly one 7:00 work night start time per play, for a "talk back"; most theaters here have one or two nights per week on which they acknowledge that some of us have to get up the next morning and go to work). And their ticket costs are much higher than any other theater around. I think of them as "theater for the Peninsula, only in San Francisco" – you drive into the city, you have a nice dinner at a semi-fancy restaurant, you get home around midnight, you stroll in to your tech job whenever. I guess it works for some people. Last year, on a Stoppard high after the second fabulous installment by the Shotgun Players of The Coast of Utopia, I decided to get a ticket to Arcadia at ACT. My calendar was clear on the one day with a 7:00 start, and there was a seat that was nearly perfect (front row center – "nearly" perfect because it was one in from the aisle instead of right on the aisle). Then I noticed the price, which was approximately what I'd paid for an entire season's subscription at Shotgun. And frankly, I've had better experiences at Shotgun than at ACT. I still haven't seen Arcadia. (The current show at Shotgun Players was mentioned last month: Daylighting, which runs until 22 June.)

Aurora Theater revives David Mamet's American Buffalo, directed by Barbara Damashek, 13 June - 13 July; details here.

San Francisco Playhouse revives the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine fairy-tale musical, Into the Woods, 24 June to 6 September; details here.

Opera Parallèle presents the American premiere of Anya17, a new work examining human trafficking. The music is by Adam Gorb and libretto by Ben Kaye, conducted by Nicole Paiement and staged by Brian Staufenbiel. That's 20 - 22 June at the Marines' Memorial Theater on Sutter Street in San Francisco; more information here. I don't know a whole lot about this one, but everything Opera Parallèle does is worth seeing.

The San Francisco Symphony presents a semi-staged Peter Grimes, with an excellent cast including Stuart Skelton and Elza van den Heever, on 26, 27, and 29 June; details here.

San Francisco Opera returns for the second half of its season. I'm very excited about the American classic from Kern and Hammerstein, Show Boat, directed by Francesca Zambello, with a fine cast including Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson (in place of the previously announced Nathan Gunn), Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Angela Renée Simpson, Harriet Harris, and Morris Robinson; more details here.

They are also presenting La Traviata (details here) and Madama Butterfly (details here) – both beloved masterpieces, which are revived too frequently for anyone's good. Butterfly is a new production, designed by Jun Kaneko (I very much enjoyed his designs for The Magic Flute a couple of years ago).

At the San Francisco Symphony, Charles Dutoit conducts Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 2 (with soloist Kirill Gerstein) and the Shostakovich 10, 4 - 7 June; then Michael Tilson Thomas leads them into a bit of a Benjamin Britten festival, featuring works not only by Britten but by his contemporaries and influences: on 12 - 15 June there are excerpts from The Prince of the Pagodas, along with traditional music from Gamelan Sekar Jaya and also Gil Shaham playing the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 2; then on 19 - 21 June they perform Copland's Danzón Cubano, the Shostakovich 15, and Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, with soloists Toby Spence (tenor) and Robert Ward (French horn); then there are three performances of Peter Grimes, as mentioned above (under Operatic); then, on 28 June, there is a single performance of the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, with video by Tal Rosner, along with a repeat of the excerpts from The Prince of the Pagodas.

Haiku 2014/147

scattered rose petals
dark red, edged with black, fallen
among the dead leaves

26 May 2014

Haiku 2014/146

I'm staying informed:
I shut off the radio
and opened the door

Poem of the Week 2014/22


The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,

unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice

sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,

how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,

leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

Brian Turner

The sense of dislocation in this poem begins immediately: the title of this English-language poem is not an English-language word. Ashbah, we are told in an endnote, is Arabic for ghosts. This poem presents a haunted world, lacking in palpable physical presence: there are the ghosts of American soldiers we hear of in the first line and the Iraqi dead we hear of later (just as many of us think first of our own dead, later of those killed by us), and also the disembodied voice from the minaret, the soulful call, the desert wind and then the dawn wind; even the date palms are seen only in silhouette. The physical place is described in general terms, mostly lacking descriptors that might give us a vivid visual sense of this foreign (to most of us) but very specific place: Balad. Turner mentions the desert, streets, narrow alleys, a minaret, rooftops. But I think most of us will have a sharp awareness that we can supply no concrete mental image here, outside of a generic "middle eastern" stage set. (The possibility that we will come up with a "colorful" moonlight-on-the-minarets image is undercut by one of the few concrete details: what the desert wind blows down the narrow alleys is random trash, just as in any run-down section of any city.)

But Balad, in Iraq, is the location of a major American military base, a central hub for US military operations in that country. There will be exceptions, but most of us readers will feel a further sense of dislocation, between what the Iraqi inhabitants know, and what US military personnel active in the area know, and the little most of us know about the place, despite its importance in our lengthy invasion of that country. A strength of this poem is that, no matter what your opinion of war in general or the Iraq invasion in particular, it concentrates on (and therefore you are forced to see) the sorrows, the spiritual devastation, of war – it is about suffering rather than policy, soldiers and citizens rather than generals and presidents, swept away by larger currents.

We hear nothing in this poem of those living in Balad, outside of the unseen muezzin whose cry is a reminder to the Americans of their alienation from this culture. The ghosts of dead American soldiers wander the streets, deracinated, trapped far from home, exhausted, uncertain. The Iraqi dead feel a bit more present there on their native soil (that's the slight difference in weight between the terms used: ghosts for the Americans, the dead for the Iraqis); they look on in silence, feeling – what? Are they judging the lost Americans, pitying them, feeling contempt for them, or anger, or merely looking on in indifference? All of those things? We can only guess. The poem insistently reminds the reader (again, there will be exceptions to my generalized "reader") that this is an alien culture, with different beliefs and customs: the minaret, the soulful cry (soulful, meaning not just filled with deep emotion but literally a call to fullness of the listener's soul; the call from the minaret is the daily reminder to faithful Moslems to turn to Mecca and pray). But even more, cultural conditioning aside, even if we were there, immersed and aware, the essential mystery in each person would cause him or her to react differently, individually, to this scene of disruption and loss. We know a bit more about the American ghosts (we can see that they would be exhausted, alone, and lost in a land where they are ashbah), but we cannot know for certain about any of them. The mention in the last line of the trees leaning towards the holy city of Mecca and of the dawn wind suggests a different world, one renewed and based on a sense of sacredness, but it is too late for these unknown and unknowing dead.

As in a scene drawn by Goya, we are wrenched out of the familiar and into a strange, eerie landscape with a slightly fantastical vision, both intimate and distant, of the ordinary, largely anonymous soldiers and citizens whose lives were cut short by war. I find a great and even-handed sense of compassion rising from this poem.

Brian Turner is a contemporary American poet. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, and Infantry Division. Before that he had been deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. In the United States today is Memorial Day, an annual commemoration of the military dead that began after the Civil War. This poem is for that occasion. I took it from Turner's first collection, Here, Bullet.

25 May 2014

Haiku 2014/145

gardens like rivers
are never the same place twice
we too are gardens

24 May 2014

Haiku 2014/144

and night closes in
and what can we do but play
familiar music

22 May 2014

Haiku 2014/142

pale pinkish edging
on massy grey morning clouds:
and that was today

21 May 2014

Haiku 2014/141

watching them walk by
watching me watch them walk by
lifetimes in looking

20 May 2014

Volti: Mechem, Dunphy, Hearne

Last Sunday I went to Berkeley to hear Volti doing what they do, which is present enticing new choral music.

The venue this time was the Marsh Arts Center, which I had not been to before. I found it poorly ventilated, but I guess it had been hot earlier and I had a mild headache anyway, which made it mildly uncomfortable for me. I was the first person in the auditorium. I took my seat, and then after about ten or fifteen minutes someone from the Marsh (not Volti) told me to move since they were going to reserve those spots for wheelchairs. I moved. No wheelchairs showed up, but two women who came in right before the concert started slipped into the chairs. So much for arriving early to get your choice of seats.

Other than that irritation, it was another excellent afternoon with the talented twenty choristers who make up Volti (along with Bob Geary, their conductor and artistic director). The first half opened with two pieces by Kirke Mechem. The first, We can sing that!, in the premiere of a revised version, was a brief, witty display (with lyrics by Mechem) of the emotional range of a chorus – kind of like a less sardonic version of A Wandering Minstrel I, ending on a sanguine note, claiming harmony, in senses musical and otherwise, as the soul of the universe, hoping that humanity would sing along. This was more than an amuse-bouche of a sentiment; it heralded the more overtly political nature of the pieces that followed.

The second Mechem piece, Winging Wildly, set three different bird-related poems. Richard Collier, a former English professor at Cal, read each poem before the performance, which is a great idea. Stephanie Blythe did the same thing at her recent recital here, and announced that "soon everybody will be doing it," and, not that I am one who would doubt Stephanie Blythe anyway, but I guess she was right. The first poem was Sara Teasdale's Birds at Dusk (the original title is Dusk in June), in which she hears the birds singing joyfully as dusk descends and hopes that she, too, can sing before night falls (which is suggestive poetry-speak for hoping that she can give voice to her artistic vision before death takes her). The second poem was a more somber reflection on the need for artistic expression in the face of repression: Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Caged Bird (which is the source of the famous line "I know why the caged bird sings"). The set concluded with Sigfried Sassoon's Everyone Sang, in which the joy felt at the end of the first world war freed the everyone of the title and filled them with exultant song like birds let loose from their cages. Collier prefaced this one by saying that it was written about the armistice, which was useful because that is not immediately apparent when you hear the poem out of context. He might also have pointed out that Dunbar was an African-American who lived in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, which has much to do with what he's saying and why he's saying it in traditional forms. The settings are vivid. You can feel the voices beating like wings, throwing themselves against cages. This chorus is just consistently excellent; you know this if you've heard them, and if you haven't, you can get some CDs here, though of course that's not quite like the live thing. It's inspiriting to hear singers as accomplished as they are adventurous.

The first half ended with The Oath of Allegiance by Melissa Dunphy, this year's Choral Arts Laboratory Composer for Volti, which means she is a young composer commissioned to create and workshop a new piece with the chorus. She talked briefly beforehand, first praising the chorus and then describing the context of her piece: born in Australia, she became a United States citizen in 2008 (in time to vote in the presidential election, she noted). Realizing that most Americans are not even aware of the oath new citizens must take, she decided to set it to music. I was a bit skeptical of this idea, and of the political framework she put it in – that is not a coded way of saying I disagree with what she expressed of her political views, which are apparently identical to mine (anti-militarism, pro-equality, general support of tolerance and skepticism about the role of the US in the world); in fact, it's exactly when the politics are the same as mine (and, we can pretty much guess, the rest of the audience as well) that I'm skeptical of the purpose of "political" art: isn't it just patting ourselves on our collective backs for our superior enlightenment? But her piece turned out to be fascinating – beautiful and emotionally probing. Just as some baroque composers would set texts about twittering birds and purling streams by imitating bird and stream, so she reflected the more abstract words and phrases of the oath: The opening "I" repeated individually, a multiplicity of times, reflecting the many individuals all taking the same oath; the way the opening phrases ended with a strange wistful downward curlicue, as if looking back on the native lands being left behind; the word "freely" floating upward, untrammeled; the majestic granite sound at the first mention of the United States of America, the militaristic marching of "bear arms on behalf of the United States," with the phrase shortened into a repetition of arms, arms, arms: it was an interesting perspective for a native son to hear the emotions of someone who chose to believe in American idealism enough to become a citizen.

After the intermission came Ted Hearne's Sound from the Bench. Hearne has recently been named this season's New Voices composer (the residency is shared by the San Francisco Symphony, the New World Symphony, and music publishers Boosey & Hawkes), and just as in Homer the sea is always wine-dark and Hector the tamer of horses, so "recently named the New Voices composer" now inevitably follows Hearne's name, his very own Homeric epithet. His five-movement piece is based on texts from Corporate Relations by poet Jena Osman, in which, using modernist techniques of collage and "appropriation" (Hearne's word), she pares, cuts, and juxtaposes a variety of sources (generally dryly instructional or legal) into a truly poetic and provocative examination of the American history of seeing corporations legally as  people (with an emphasis on the notorious Citizens United case). In his remarks before the performance Hearne was very enthusiastic about the text, and urged us to buy a copy of the book (and what Osman did was interesting enough so that I would indeed buy the book). He was clearly interested in getting the words across, and not just in using them as the basis for musical pyrotechnics; his handling of them was by and large – I don't want to say straightforward, but clear, as if sung in a block (as opposed, say, to the rising beating combinations of phrases that evoked the fluttering bird-wings in Mechem's piece), so that the words could come through, though he certainly also played with them at other times, as when the phrase "these corporations have a lot of money" ended up, in another evocation of martial marching, as a repetition of money money money (which reminded me of Money Makes the World Go 'Round from Cabaret).

The first movement of the cantata, how to throw your voice, is taken from a 1906 book with instructions for aspiring ventriloquists. The second, mouth piece, taken from the case First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, is just the phrases No mouth. / The very heart. The third and longest section, (ch)oral argument, is taken from Citizens United. The fourth, simple surgery, is a poem by Osman about seeing a drop of water fall one foot in front of a piece of metal and, her eye eliding the distance between the two, misperceiving the drop as a chip in the metal. The fifth, when you hear, is taken from the book on ventriloquism used in the first movement: "when you hear that distant sounding drone, / you know you have your mouth as it should be" – in its original context the drone is a vocal technique when making your dummy talk, but in the context of today drone is also an implicit reference to the remote-controlled death/spying machines we send with increasing frequency out into the monitored world.

Unlike most of Volti's pieces, this one is not a cappella; Hearne brought with him percussionist Ron Wiltrout and two electric guitar players, Taylor Levine and James Moore. I have realized over the years that I mostly dislike electric guitars, and not just because I lived in too many apartments in Boston where I was tormented by Berklee College of Music's aspiring rock gods: I find them perversely anti-human, taking an intimate instrument and turning it into a stadium-shaker. But that's part of Hearne's point. Usually I don't get much out an artist's statement of purpose, feeling that the work should speak for itself, and if we're not interested in figuring it out, then the work has failed (or, equally possibly, we have failed the work) – but in this case I was glad to have Hearne offer the context of the tension between the electric guitar and the human voice to guide me out of my prejudiced dislike of the instrument and into an openness to what he was doing with them. And he does get interesting sounds out of both instruments and chorus. He doesn't keep it a simple division, though; it's not just a bad/good opposition, and at times it's not an opposition at all. The lines blur. Sometimes (as in the money money passage referred to earlier) it's the voices that sound mechanical, while the guitars (which are of course designed, built, and played by humans with the intention of expressing musical ideas and emotions) can offer subtle washes of sound and poignant melodies. The drums can sound like a heart-beat. The voices rise above the instruments, and sometimes the instruments drown out the voices. It all ends with a soft, mysterious, distant drone.

Haiku 2014/140

same objects, new space
a stranger light colors them
other dust dusts them

19 May 2014

Haiku 2014/139

wild winds keep blowing
the spring leaves laugh and hold on
the fall leaves will fall

Poem of the Week 2014/21

The Wild Flower Man

Do you know the old man who
Sells flowers by the South Gate?
He lives on flowers like a bee.
In the morning he sells mallows,
In the evening he has poppies.
His shanty roof lets in the
Blue sky. His rice bin is
Always empty. When he has
Made enough money from his
Flowers, he heads for a teahouse.
When his money is gone, he
Gathers some more flowers.
All the spring weather, while the
Flowers are in bloom, he is
In bloom, too. Every day he
Is drunk all day long. What does
He care if new laws are posted
At the Emperor's palace?
What does it matter to him
If the government is built
On sand? If you try to talk
To him, he won't answer but
Only give you a drunken
Smile from under his tousled hair.

Lu Yu, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

Rexroth includes this note to this poem: "There is a veiled ironic reference to a Sung* Buddhist saint who was reputed to live only on honey." The old man described here also lives on flowers ("like a bee") but doesn't seem particularly attuned to the spiritual; in fact, he's very much of the earth, and daily survival, and indeed almost lives like a semi-domesticated animal, on the margins of human civilization. There are holes in the roof of his shelter – not so bad, maybe even kind of nice, in the warmth of Spring, when they let in the blue sky, but not so nice during a downpour or on a cold night. He is "in bloom" during spring weather, when the flowers are in bloom, but what does he live on when they're not? In many ways his is an animal's life, very dependent on the sometimes capricious and cruel seasons and the earth, the sort of life civilization arose to cushion us from. An animal would accept this life, but being human, the old man is drunk as often as he can be (again, nice while it's happening, not so nice in the after-effects). Does he see the beautiful flowers as anything but a way to get money for liquor? What does "beautiful" mean to him? We are given no clue. Is the drunkenness an escape from the harsh daily reality of his life? Is it an answer, a question, an addiction, a habit, all of these things or something else? Is this man happy? Is he even aware of his situation? It's difficult to say. His actions (that is, his survival tactics) are described, but his attitudes, thoughts, and motivations are hidden from the speaker describing them. The poem ends with his "drunken smile"; we are explicitly told that it is his only answer ("If you try to talk / To him, he won't answer. . . "), as if, like an animal, he is denied the power of articulate speech, of explaining himself. But what is the answer the smile is giving? Is the smile of joy, of contentment, of deeper knowledge, of bafflement, of indifference, of incomprehension, or perhaps simply an automatic muscular reflex, or an action of the nerves? In fact, since it's a drunken smile, does it "mean" anything at all?

Since the flower-seller himself does not (and perhaps could not) tell his own story, it's told to us by an official: an adult, a serious man, a disappointed man, one who is not only aware of laws, government, and Emperor, but knows – and disapproves of – what they are doing (here the speaker Lu Yu echoes what historians know of the man Lu Yu). He feels the government is unstable; new and apparently useless or destructive laws proliferate. Laws and Emperor have no effect on the Wild Flower Man, but this has more to do with his low social standing than with any sort of conscious decision or philosophy on his part; laws affect him the way they would a dog or a cat. Yet in a way the sophisticated official is mirrored in the drunken beggar: both are outsiders, both marginal in their worlds, both without influence. We readers, just by virtue of being readers, are more like the speaker in education and social status (and probably in discontentment as well), and our initial reaction, seeing the Wild Flower Man's life from the outside, and during his blooming spring months, might be to see him as an enviable or even admirable figure. But given the lack of conscious intention in his life I think such a reading would veer towards the sentimental and even the cruel, as if an executive were to wax poetic about the free and unconventional life of a dirty street person pushing a shopping cart, begging for spare change: although the life of the Wild Flower Man may sound idyllic, the description of him is actually quite neutral, and it's not reading too far outside the limits of the words to see the hole in the shanty roof and the empty rice bin, the drunkenness and the lack of speech, as evidence of a frequently miserable life: he's fine during springtime, but (as Charlotte Smith reminded us last week) spring doesn't last forever. The very emphasis on how he manages during spring must lead us to wonder how he manages the rest of the year. He has no protection from rough weather, no steady source of food, apparently no family or friends – he doesn't even have a name; he is simply "the old man" or "the wild flower man." His need for booze, and the need to get money to pay for it, seem to be the only things tying him to human society. His life is as unstable as the government. And we can't honestly say that the official describing him is wiser or better or even more content – his knowledge and insight bring him mostly unhappiness, though they also give him the ability to write this poem.

I took this from Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

* The Sung (sometimes put in English as Song) Dynasty lasted from 960 to 1279; Lu Yu lived from 1125 to 1209. Kenneth Rexroth lived from 1905 to 1982.

18 May 2014

Haiku 2014/138

passing clouds parted
sudden purity of light
then it disappeared

17 May 2014

Haiku 2014/137

enjoy your mourning
dove cooing in misty dawns
against noisy days

15 May 2014

Haiku 2014/135

finally a breeze
visits from another world
wafting us with it

14 May 2014

Haiku 2014/134

day dismisses us
in the heat of the moment
with a languid air

13 May 2014

Haiku 2014/133

Today, here we part:
we're staying in the present,
you become the past

12 May 2014

Haiku 2014/132

frail pale sickle moon
harvesting the heated day
wilted, wasted hours

Poem of the Week 2014/20

Written at the close of spring

The garlands fade that Spring so lately wove,
   Each simple flower which she had nursed in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
   The primrose wan, and hare-bell mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
   Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Till Spring again shall call forth every bell,
   And dress with humid hands her wreaths again. –
Ah! poor Humanity! so frail, so fair,
   Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant Passion, and corrosive Care,
   Bid all thy fairy colours fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness – no second Spring?

Charlotte Smith

For some historical and cultural background on Charlotte Smith, please see my entry on another sonnet of hers, On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, because it was Frequented by a Lunatic.

Smith's use of the sonnet form helped revive its popularity in English poetry, after its early flowering during the Elizabethan age. (If you already know what a "sonnet" is, feel free to skip this paragraph.) The form had been taken from Italian poetry. Here is a very broad description of the sonnet (poetic forms are fluid and adaptable, and there are minor variations and exceptions to everything I'm about to say): a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter (that is, a five-beat line consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, repeated five times). There are two main types, defined by their rhyme schemes: the Italian or Petrarchean sonnet, consisting of an octave (that is, an eight-line stanza) rhyming abbaabba and a sestet (a six-line stanza) rhyming cdecde in varying combinations; and the English or Shakespearean sonnet, consisting of three quatrains (that is, four-line stanzas) rhyming abab cdcd efef and a concluding couplet, rhyming gg. There is a certain emotional and rhetorical logic that tends to follow from these arrangements: Italian-style sonnets usually fall into two parts, whereas the English-style sonnets usually fall into three followed by a concluding zinger.

Here Smith uses the English form, but interestingly divides her subject into an opening of eight lines and a conclusion of six: the ghost of an Italian-style sonnet lurks in this English structure. Her first two quatrains are devoted to a description of Spring, though these quickly passing beauties are already seen in retrospect, and with the first words ("The garlands fade. . . ") the spring flowers are immediately put in an elegiac frame. (She will reinforce this view by starting the second quatrain with a similar acknowledgement of loss: "No more shall violets linger in the dell. . . "). For her, Spring is all about its flowers, which she details with loving precision. Nature here is not threatening or strange or magnificent (as it is in her sonnet about walking on the headlands); instead, she gives her description a gentle, restorative air: the "simple flowers" (it might be relevant to note that simple means not just "not complicated" but can also mean a medicinal herb) are "nursed in dew"; the anemonies, that delicate plant also known as windflower (as passing as a breeze), "spangled every grove"; the primroses are wan, the blue of the harebells is mild. She also mentions violets, usually seen as a half-hidden, and even anthropomorphically shy, bloom; these are not forceful flowers. Perhaps the only suggestion of the sexual energy usually associated with the return of Spring comes with the purple orchis (that is, orchids, along the lines of our forest-land lady-slippers, not the tropical orchids of extravagant appearance we tend to think of nowadays), but perhaps they only have this association if you already know that the name of the plant comes from the Greek word for testicle.

This is random, but I have to say I love the phrase "humid hands" to describe the actions of personified Spring.

Perhaps she chooses to present the spring scene this way – mild, calm, nurturing – to heighten the contrast that follows with "poor Humanity" and its inescapable troubles. When we reach the final six lines, Smith's rhetoric changes radically: the smoothness of the first half gives way to more broken, eruptive, phrasing, interrupted with interjections (twice she sighs "Ah!"), with exclamation points, with dashes. It is also more general; in place of the named plants, each described and located, she offers a sweeping, almost impersonal description of the human lot: "tyrant Passion and corrosive Care" (this is one of those phrases in her work that strikes my ear as having a definite eighteenth-century ring). The passions and the cares are unspecified, as are the "fond visions of early days": this isn't about her particular life, but about the human condition. She is positing a general rule, and though like all general rules it grows from her personal experience (which was not easy), she believes it is true of all human life: and the almost generic description of the troubles of life allows the reader to fill in the blanks with his or her own individual experience of controlling passions and destructive worries. Our hopes are seen as inherently illusory, and restricted to our early days (which is to say, before experience teaches us to know better): they are "fond visions" (we should note that fond still carried the overtone of foolish), that is, trances, dreams, delusions, and Smith reinforces the point by referring to these frail and fair illusions as "fairy colours": pretty apparitions belonging to an unearthly, impossible, and (ask any adult) non-existent realm. In the final couplet, the emotional summation of a sonnet, she sees humanity as alienated from the cycles of Nature, contrasting the fleeting but ever-renewing delights of Spring with the early and irrevocable loss of human happiness. In Smith's view, our childish hopes are as frail and fair as spring flowers, but though the flowers disappear, they will also come back; we die, but without return.

I took this from The Poems of Charlotte Smith, edited by Stuart Curran, in the Oxford series Women Writers in English 1350 - 1850.

11 May 2014

Haiku 2014/131

love the bug-chomped leaves;
eventually they'll give
bright-winged butterflies

10 May 2014

Haiku 2014/130

looking to the sky
half asleep, still lying still:
the heavenly blues

08 May 2014

Haiku 2014/128

conference room chairs
always look strangely empty,
even when they're not

07 May 2014

Haiku 2014/127

train platform pigeons
departing just when we do,
mocking the wingless

06 May 2014

Haiku 2014/126

massive clouds pile up
outside my window branches
so bright that they glow

05 May 2014

Haiku 2014/125

orange Doritos
spread out along the sidewalk
like butterfly wings

Poem of the Week 2014/19

The Dancers

Under the light of the Cretan moon
The maidens are dancing together in tune,
They dance together the dances of Crete,
Round the altar with delicate feet,
Delicate feet that lightly pass
Treading the delicate bloom of the grass.

Sappho, "freely translated and adapted" by Dorothy Burr Thompson

It's only the beginning of May but it feels as if spring is drawing to a close, at least here in the Bay Area; we've already had some unpleasantly hot days that left the plants as wilted and dusty as they left me, and our year-long lack of rain means the dewy fresh greenery is already turning sere, even with our local fog. So I wanted to get in this lovely combination of some Sapphic fragments while it seemed timely rather than ironic. Spring is not explicitly mentioned here, but I feel the season is evoked in "the delicate bloom of the grass" and there is a very vernal feel to the maidens dancing under the moon, perhaps exactly because they are maidens (in the sense of young, virginal women) and because of the aura of delicacy and lightness, which seems appropriate to the beginning of things (as opposed to the ripeness and maturity and even heaviness one would expect if that were a harvest moon). Thompson evokes the circular movement of the dance by using repetition: the "light of the Cretan moon" is reflected later on as the maidens' feet "lightly pass," and the "Cretan moon" itself gets reflected in the "dances of Crete"; the girls are "dancing together in tune, / They dance together the dances of Crete" and they go round the altar "with delicate feet / Delicate feet that lightly pass / Treading the delicate bloom of the grass"; and note also how many of these phrases are joined with the alliterative sound of d. The poem has a lilting, dance-like rhythm, and each line of each couplet ends with the double bar of an accented syllable. (The term for this sort of rhyme, in which the stress falls on the final syllable, is masculine rhyme, which is sort of comical for a poem that evokes women dancing under the moon, but then these names – to complete the set, feminine rhymes end with one or two unaccented syllables after the beat – somewhat arbitrarily reflect gender roles in a way that makes me think there must be other, less loaded terms that are replacing them. If there are, I haven't heard them yet, for though I sometimes hear them called strong and weak rhymes, that seems under the circumstances more like an objectionable euphemism than an improvement.)

I took this from a collection with the gorgeous title Swans and Amber: Some Early Greek Lyrics Freely Adapted and Translated by Dorothy Burr Thompson.

04 May 2014

Haiku 2014/124

light kissed me awake
then, doing as lovers do,
left me in the dark

03 May 2014

Haiku 2014/123

last night's crescent moon
came glowing back to me but
last night never will

01 May 2014

Haiku 2014/121

bluish blush pre-dawn
collecting in crystal bowls
cascading birdsong