29 April 2015

fun stuff I may or may not get to: May 2015

a reminder about BART

First a reminder before you buy any tickets for upcoming events: BART is shutting off part of its tracks on certain weekends through August; since this will affect traffic as well as the rest of the BART system, you may want to check your plans against the latest shut-down dates, which are currently:

* Saturday 2 May starting at 7:00 PM and all day Sunday 3 May;

* Saturday 9 May starting at 7:00 PM and all day Sunday 10 May; and

* Saturday 23 May starting at 6:00 AM and continuing to 8:00 AM Monday 25 May

But be sure to check here for the latest information, since they've been switching the dates around. Yes, those dates include Mother's Day and Memorial Day weekend. See here for what I wrote earlier about this whole situation.

And . . . already an update. Just today BART "announced" (that is, slipped a little note into a screen buried in their website) that in fact the trains will be running 2 - 3 May, but will be down all day 9 May as well as 10 May. No reason for the change is given. This is . . . aggravating. I had already made plans (or missed buying tickets) based on the previous schedule. And now that's all screwed up for me. Seriously: if you're going to mess up transportation for the entire Bay Area, stick to the dates you've already announced so people can make plans. I've said it before and no doubt will have to say it again: BART, when it comes to letting me down, you never let me down.

Visual Arts
The rebuilding of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art means it's closed for another year or so, but they've been lending out parts of their collection and more than fifty artworks (paintings, sculptures, photographs, and videos) will be at the handsome Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in a show called Portraits and Other Likenesses, starting 8 May and running through 11 October. Check here for more information.

You have until 10 May to catch the Asian Art Museum's exhibits on the Yoshiwara pleasure district and of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). And you have until 31 May to see Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland at the DeYoung Museum.

Early Music / Baroque Music
American Bach Soloists present music by Bach (the Concerto for Two Violins, the Orchestral Suite No 4, and Cantata 169, Gott soll allein, mein Herze haben), Vivaldi (Nisi Dominus), and Leonardo Leo (Concerto for Violoncello in A major), conducted by Jeffrey Thomas and featuring countertenor Ian Howell, Gretchen Claassen on violoncello, and Elizabeth Blumenstock and Cynthia Black on violin. That's 1 - 4 May in a different location on each day so check here for more information.

Opera Parallèle presents the American premiere of Heart of Darkness, based on Conrad's story, with libretto by Tom Phillips and music by Tarik O'Regan, directed by Brian Staufenbiel and conducted by Nicole Paiement. The enticing cast includes Isaiah Bell, Philip Skinner, Thomas Glenn, Jonathan Smucker, Daniel Cilli, Michael Belle, Igor Vieira, Heidi Moss, and Shawnette Sulker; that's 1 - 3 May at Z Space.

At the Oakland East Bay Symphony, Michael Morgan conducts Bernstein's Candide with an excellent cast including Thomas Glenn, Shawnette Sulker, Robert Sims, Tami Dahbura, Hadleigh Adams, and Katy Stephan; that's 15 May at the Paramount.

West Edge Opera presents a semi-concert version of Verdi's I due Foscari on 3 May at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek and 4 May at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Britten's Albert Herring, with a student cast and orchestra conducted by Curt Pajer and directed by Heather Mathews, on 6 and 8 May

Cutting Ball presents the world premiere of Mount Misery by Resident Playwright Andrew Saito, directed by Rob Melrose. It's about the strange intersections in time and space of Donald Rumsfeld and Frederick Douglass. I've really liked what I've seen so far of Saito's work, so this is an exciting prospect. It plays 8 May to 7 June.

Also at Cutting Ball: the Hidden Classics Reading Series closes out its season with Heiner Mueller's Hamletmachine, directed by Rem Myers. That's on 17 May. And the annual Risk Is This. . . . series of new-play readings begins this month, with Mark Jackson's Who Is Heiner Mueller or the End of History (17 - 18 May), Christopher Chen's Caught (24 - 25 May), Katharine Sherman's nightcap (31 May - 1 June); Andrew Saito's Whisper Fish (7 - 8 June); and Andrew Saito's Beauty Secrets (14 - 15 June). More information on all of those plays may be found here.

Cal Performances presents the Handspring Puppet Company in Ubu and the Truth Commission, conceived and directed by South African artist William Kentridge and written by Jane Taylor, with puppets by Adrian Kohler. That's 1 - 3 May at Zellerbach Playhouse (not Zellerbach Hall, but the smaller theater beside it).

Custom Made Theater presents Grey Gardens, with book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Michael Korie, and music by Scott Frankel, directed by Stuart Bousel. It's based on the famous documentary, which some people find fabulous campy fun and I found extremely disturbing. Either one of those reactions might be a recommendation. That's 22 May to 21 June.

Shotgun Players presents Heart Shaped Nebula by Marisela Treviño Orta, directed by Desdemona Chiang, from 21 May to 14 June.

Berkeley Rep presents One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean, directed by David Ivers. It's an updated version of Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, and plays from 8 May to 21 June.

ACT presents Sondheim's A Little Night Music from 20 May to 14 June.

Modern/New Music
At the San Francisco Symphony, for one night only (16 May), Michael Tilson Thomas leads the band in two works by John Cage: The Seasons and Renga. Tim Robbins is the speaker, and baritones Patrick Dupré Quigley and Christopher Dylan Herbert also take part. Clyde Scott is the video designer for Renga.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Stravinsky's Firebird, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, and his own Nyx on 30 April and 1 - 3 May.

Even if you can't make it to these concerts, check out this interesting interview with Salonen at A Beast in a Jungle.

Also at the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the orchestra in the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, Mozart's Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola (featuring violinist Alexander Barantschik and violist Jonathan Vinocour), and a new work by Samuel Adams – so new that if it has a name, it has not yet been revealed. That's on 20 - 23 May, though the 20th is a morning open rehearsal and the 21st is up at Green Music Center in Sonoma. Then Charles Dutoit leads them in the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Stravinsky's Jeu de cartes, and the Elgar Cello Concerto with soloist Gautier Capuçon on 27 - 31 May.

New Century Chamber Orchestra plays Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet (arranged for chamber orchestra by Mahler), and Murmurations, a new work by Derek Bermel. That's 28 - 31 May, in different locations each day, so check here for more information.

Chamber Music
San Francisco Performances presents the Brentano Quartet in works by Haydn and Debussy; they will also be joined by composer Vijay Iyer on piano for the west coast premiere of his Time, Place, Action. That's 10 May at the SF Jazz Center.

Cal Performances presents violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt in a program of Brahms and Webern on 10 May.

Earplay closes out its season on 18 May with music by Dohee Lee, Bruce Bennett, Peter Josheff, Wayne Peterson, Carla Lucero, Nicholas Tzortzis, and Lou Harrison, at the ODC Theater.

San Francisco Performances presents Stephen Hough in music by Debussy and Chopin on 12 May at the SF Jazz Center.

San Francisco Ballet closes out its season with Helgi Tomasson's Romeo and Juliet, set to Prokofiev's score, from 1 to 10 May.

Volti presents Pandora's Gift, a short vocal/movement work with music by Mark Winges and libretto by Denise Newman. Robert Geary conducts and Erika Chong Schuch stages the work. That's 16 - 17 May at Z Space.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus presents its annual concert on 17 May; Ragnar Bohlin leads them in Stravinsky's Mass, Poulenc's Figure humaine, and the Killmayer arrangement of Orff's Carmina Burana. The concert also features members of the Symphony, the Pacific Boychoir, soprano Joanna Taber, tenor Jonathan Thomas, and baritone Michael Taylor. I expressed some skepticism to a friend of mine in the chorus about Carmina Burana (I enjoy it, but don't feel much need to hear it again). He informed me that the Poulenc and Stravinsky would be well worth hearing. I dutifully bought a ticket.

Sven Edward Olbash leads the Lacuna Arts Chorale in works by C Hubert Parry and C V Stanford on 15 May at St Mark's Lutheran and 17 May at St Luke's Episcopal (both churches are in San Francisco).

at the Jazz Center
Quite a few interesting vocalists at the SF Jazz Center in May: Esperanza Spalding is doing a run early in the month, but it's sold out, though you could check with the box office for returns; the Carolina Chocolate Drops are playing 14 - 17 May; Lavay Smith & Her Red-Hot Skillet Lickers are playing 21 - 24 May; and Laurie Anderson is playing 28 - 31 May.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival holds its twentieth anniversary festival from 28 May to 1 June at the Castro Theater. It opens Thursday evening with the silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front, with live musical accompaniment by the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (the festival has really wonderful live music for almost all its presentations) and closes the next Monday with Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and you can keep your Chuck Heston, for me the only Judah Ben-Hur is Ramon Novarro. In between those two films are a wide-ranging display of the joyful variety of silent films, from classics such as Murnau's The Last Laugh (one of my all-time favorite films) and Flesh and the Devil (if you want to know why many consider Greta Garbo the most beautiful woman ever to step in front of the motion-picture camera, see this film) to rarities such as the Chinese Cave of the Spider Women and the newly discovered Sherlock Holmes with William Gillette. You can find a full schedule here and you can buy either tickets for individual shows or a festival pass that gets you into everything.

27 April 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/17

I Smell the Fragrance of Withered Plum Blossoms by my Pillow

To the Tune "Unburdening Oneself"

Last night, so very drunk,
I fell asleep in make-up and jewelry,
Withered plum blossoms still in my hair.
The fumes of wine and blossoms saturated my dreams of Spring,
And finally broke through and woke me up.
I could not return to dreams of far-off love.
Everyone was still.
Under the declining moon,
I unrolled the kingfisher-green curtain,
Crumpled the fallen petals,
Lit the remaining incense,
And confronted the passing hours.

Li Ch'ing-chao, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

I thought this poem would make an interesting companion to last week's, and not just because both were written by Chinese women who lived in the Hangzhou province (though Li Ch'ing-chao, whose name is also transliterated Li Qingzhao, lived several centuries earlier, in the early twelfth century). Though last week's poem was written by a nun in solitary meditation, and this week's by a fairly wealthy and worldly woman (she has jewelry and wine and attends parties), both end up contemplating the fleeting pleasures of the world and the passing of time.

The world's pleasures may be fleeting, but they are indeed pleasures, and not to be dismissed lightly. It is the awareness of them and their temporary nature that gives this poet the poignant reflections that bring her close in spirit to the nun. The details here give a picture of the aftereffects of delight (the withered, crumpled plum blossoms; the fumes of wine and drunkenness; the declining moon, the remainder of the incense); still, these things were delightful, and even their decay has romantic charm. In fact part of the appreciation of plum blossoms has always been (as with cherry blossoms) exactly that they are so transitory. Although there is a sense of sadness here, as there always is as a party wanes, and a sense that the green happiness of youth has passed (her drunken dream is of Spring, and when she wakes up she cannot return to her those early dreams of far-off love), I can't help feeling there's something both glamorous and cozy about this picture; it's permeated by a refined sense of sorrow, related to the luxury and beauty that surrounds her.

The party seems to have collapsed into sleep; you'd think she was alone except for the line "Everyone was still" – presumably they have fallen asleep around her, having, like her, drunk too much wine. She is living in comfort, even luxury – falling into intoxicated sleep and dreaming of love, even lost love, is more appealing when you can raise the soothing green curtains and not worry about rising with the sun to work in the fields. I find a raffish charm in her bohemian disarray, and beauty in her delicate hints of impending loss. Last week Jingnuo was filled with pleasure as she studied holy texts; this week Li Ch'ing-chao is filled with a serious, even spiritual sense through contemplation of passing pleasures. The final similarity of these two despite their disparate approaches to the world reminds me of the second stanza in W H Auden's Lullaby:

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

This week's poem is from Li Ch'ing-chao: Complete Poems, translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung.

24 April 2015

Friday photo 2015/17

a yard filled with California poppies that are furling because the sun is low in the sky, San Leandro California, March 2015

23 April 2015

Poem of the Week bonus: for Shakespeare's birthday

. . .
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come ho, and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear
And draw her home with music.

I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

The reason is, your spirits are attentive.
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood:
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods;
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

The Merchant of Venice, Act V, scene 1, ll 55 - 88

For Shakespeare's birthday, an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice. Like Twelfth Night, it is an odd and melancholy play, permeated by music, with a comic villain whose treatment is likely to win an audience's sympathies and whose heroes are sadly selfish. This passage comes towards the end, after the famous trial scene. We switch to Portia's house; Lorenzo and his new bride Jessica, the fugitive daughter of Shylock, are awaiting her return. Under the moonlight, the young newlyweds evoke the nocturnal atmosphere by citing famous lovers; each reference begins like an incantation with the phrase In such a night (this is the passage Berlioz drew on for Dido and Aeneas's duet Nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie / Intoxicating night of infinite ecstasy in his opera Les Troyens). But the swoony-soft mood of erotic teasing is not all that far removed after all from the harrowing court and its grinding wheels of justice and mercy: each of the mythical lovers referenced – Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason – came to spectacularly bad ends. It seems like a bad sign when Lorenzo and Jessica playfully add themselves to the list.

The patens to which Lorenzo compares the stars (the floor of heaven is / thick inlaid with patens of bright gold) are small plates, usually made of precious metals, used for holding the bread during the Eucharist, which seems suitably heavenly. He then refers to the divine music that Ptolemaic astronomy said was produced by the movements of the celestial spheres: there's not the smallest orb . . . / But in his motion like an angel sings, / still quiring [that is, acting like a choir] to the young-eyed cherubins [cherubim]. But again the note of sadness comes in: we cannot hear it while we are alive, while the muddy [since man was made from dust] vesture of decay [our bodies are compared to clothing, which will decay and be cast off] grossly [that is, crudely] closes in our immortal part. And notice how the sound of his speech has changed: from the soft murmuring ms (moonlight, music) and the sighing long es (sweet, sleeps, creep) and the gentle ss (sweet, sleeps, sounds, soft, stillness, sweet again), it sinks into related but heavier sounds: muddy, decay, grossly. He ends on an erotic note (perhaps thinking of a good use for bodies, since we're trapped in them), calling for a hymn that will wake Diana – suggesting that she will not only pay attention to the hymn as sacred praise of her as goddess of the moon, but also suggesting that it might wake her from her cold nature as the goddess of chastity. Even his instructions to the musicians to play for their mistress Portia's return are phrased erotically: he tells them to pierce her ears with sweetest touches. (Perhaps he's also linking her with the goddess Diana whom he wants them to wake: this will be, after all, Portia's wedding night with Bassanio).

Jessica notes that she is never merry when she hears sweet music. We might associate music with laughter and parties; for her it brings melancholy. Lorenzo replies that it is because it concentrates her spirits – her turbulent inner life – removing her from the physical up to the spiritual, an effect he compares to a herd of wild youthful horses suddenly arrested by music: savage eyes turned to a modest gaze, continuing the link between music and spirituality (and opposed to our fleshly failings) that he began with the description of the music of the spheres. The mythological allusions also continue, as he refers somewhat dismissively, or perhaps, in the flirty mood of the scene, playfully (the poet / Did feign) to the poetic legends of Orpheus, whose music drew to him not only humans and animals but also inanimate objects such as trees, stones, and floods (that is, rivers and streams). Note how the ensuing adjectives balance the nouns: the trees are stockish, that is, stationery, like a block of wood, the stones are hard, the floods are full of rage, that is, violently forceful, the way foaming waters can be. (It's worth noting that, like the mythological lovers mentioned in the opening of the scene, Orpheus, too, came to a bad end, in love and in life.)

Lorenzo says that music changes the nature of these things, but he also suggests that it must connect with something inside a person: the man that hath no music in himself, / nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds – such a man is not to be trusted. The motions of his spirit (that is, his inner urges and compulsions) are as dull as night (apparently Lorenzo is as changeable as the moon and has already forgotten how enticing and beautiful he made the night sound just moments ago; here he uses it more conventionally as a time of darkness and weariness). The man without music has affections (that is, emotions in general, not just likes) as dark as Erebus – the classical Greek personification of primordial darkness (it can also refer to the underworld). This condemnation of the man without music is another reminder of the banished Shylock, who had earlier warned Jessica to lock up his house when she heard the drum / And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, and who had cited, as an example of inexplicable but justified natural aversion, those who when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose, / Cannot contain their urine. Part of this reminder of Shylock is of the pain Jessica caused him by her desertion, and the wrong she did him in robbing him before she left. Music under the moonlight comes at a price, and one way or another everyone pays his pound of flesh.

I used the Signet Classic Shakespeare Merchant of Venice but of course there are many editions.

20 April 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/16

Living in Seclusion, Sitting in Silence

Living in seclusion, one can simply do as one pleases,
With a single text, one can forget oneself for a while.
The daylight hours – how much time is there really?
Why then do I not exert myself?
Although the ancients are long gone,
Their wisdom must still be grasped.
From the empty eaves, water keeps on dripping,
From the censer, ashes fall marking the time.
This mood always brings me great pleasure,
As with both hands, I clasp my book tightly.
What a pity it is that ordinary people of the world
Know not this intimacy with the words of the wise!

Jingnuo, translated from the Chinese by Beata Grant

Like the poems from the last two weeks, this one involves our relationship to what we read and how we read it.

Jingnuo was a seventeenth-century Buddhist nun who lived in the Hangzhou province of China. Living apart from the world (which means only the social world), cut off from the entanglements and pressures, the tragedies and trivialities, of conventional social life, she has a certain freedom, which is dedicated to exploring the deeper spiritual aspects of life. Her guides are the thoughts, preserved in writing, of previous nuns and other spiritual sages. Even a single text opens up vistas of thought that remove her from the consciousness of self that limits each of us. Yet far from being lost in a sense of eternity, her religious dedication has given her a keen sense of the passing of time, of how limited and valuable it is – time's passing comes through not in sweeping statements about long spans or epochs, but in the mention of brief, measurable units that make up a life speeding by: the daylight hours, the dripping of water, the fall of ashes from a censer. Given her time and place, her hours of study would be limited by the amount of daylight available. Her awareness of the dripping water gives a sense that she is in as much silence as is possible in this world. The eaves are empty, yet water falls from them drop by drop; eventually it might wear away even a tough stone like granite. A footnote to the poem tells us that the "use of calibrated incense to keep time appears to have originated in Buddhist monasteries; later the 'incense-seal' became a widely used time-keeping device." We have a sense of solitude, of near silence, of near stillness, interrupted only by the gentle drip of water and the scented smoke rising up while the ashes fall down. Though in a state of deep contemplation, Jingnuo is aware of the world around her: the water drops, the ashes. She clasps her book tightly. Far from feeling lonely, isolated, or bored, or even solemn, she feels great joy; a sense of fullness and deep meaning permeates the scene she creates for us. As final proof of her compassionate awareness of the world's problems, she wishes that ordinary men and women could share this happy state that comes from continued intimacy with wise words.

For some ascetics, a love of Nature and poetry is a hindrance rather than a help on the way to enlightenment. Even those who found them useful gateways to spiritual awareness could not avoid a feeling that this, too, was vanity. In her biographical note on Jingnuo, Beata Grant (from whose anthology Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns I took this poem) ends with these remarks: "Jingnuo also occasionally professed shame at the pleasure she derived from words. Late in life she is said to have noted to a disciple, somewhat ruefully, that 'The religious life does not rely on words and letters. I am already old, and I've managed to cleanse myself of all kinds of attachments; still I laugh at myself and this one remaining thought.' "

17 April 2015

13 April 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/15

A Study of Reading Habits

When getting my nose in a book

Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thick specs,

Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don't read much now: the dude

Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Philip Larkin

I thought this poem would make an interesting companion to last week's. Both involve speakers who, motivated mostly by love or just sex, reject the books they devoured in childhood. But last week's speaker does so because he finds their language inadequate to describe his adult love, and this speaker finds in them an exposure of his own inadequacy as an adult.

In the first stanza, the speaker reveals himself in his boyhood as that ill-fitting specimen, the student who hates school but loves to read. It might be the academic subjects, or resistance to regimentation, or social awkwardness, or a combination of these things and others, but the books he chooses provide a respite from all that. He's bookish, and his eyes are getting worse; we can assume he doesn't have any athletic ability to help him get by in his world, especially since his big dream is to have physical strength and skill, expressed heroically – his right hook will fell the hugest bad guys, and (just as important for his dream-vision of masculinity as being able to fight) he'll keep his cool the whole time. (You might be reminded of the snappy quips that muscular comic-book heroes always deliver with their lightning blows.)

The speaker is older in the second stanza: a teenager, and sex has taken over, as it does. He now wears thick glasses, the reward for "ruining his eyes" through his escape-hatch of reading. Once again he doesn't come right out and say he was unpopular or picked on, but once again it's implicit in what he now chooses to read: if girls liked him, he might continue in the hero vein as a romantic hero. Instead, his complicated feelings of fear, anger, and rejection express themselves in a rather sprightly way through vampire books (I should point out that this was written long before the Twilight series or even Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat series brought vampires back; those recent books are just further evidence of the deep-seated and widespread need the speaker is describing). He's not seducing women; he's "clubbing" them with sex (I'd assume club has a phallic implication here). He has ripping times in the darkripping is British slang (perhaps outdated by now?) for excellent, wonderful, but also brings with it thoughts of the bodice-ripper type of romance novel and a sulfuric whiff of Jack the Ripper and the prostitutes he murdered. But these angry emotions are complicated by reminders in the first and last lines of the stanza of just how far this fantasy is from what this boy's life must be: first the "inch-thick specs" he has to wear, and then the striking rhyme with fangs: meringues. I always find this word unexpected and a nice little surprise, undercutting the rest of the stanza with something sweet and fragile, a childish treat – a word that gives us more of what the speaker must seem like to others than the fantasy fangs of his favored books.

In the third stanza, the speaker has slumped into adulthood. The notes to the edition I used (for which see below) mention that here the "language is coloured by usage that is American or originally American"; this is interesting to me because, being American, I tend to think of American usage as usage. As you can tell from the spelling of colored in the quotation, the editor is British. Actually, what I get from this third stanza is not so much American usage (chap certainly is not) but the language of American westerns: dude meaning a citified, perhaps slightly effete or overly cultured man, fancily dressed and out of place on the rough and tumble range (not in its current meaning of just a guy); yellow (a variant is yellow-bellied) meaning cowardly; the hero who arrives in town as opposed to the storekeeper stuck there with his dull necessities. The speaker's reading, never very sophisticated, stays on the same ultimately unsatisfying level: life has forced him to admit to himself that he can never fulfill his adolescent fantasies, and the women (plural) he dreamed of conquering have been replaced by a girl (singular) whom he lets down. Slang and obscenity are always carefully used by Larkin, and the poem ends with a slide into exasperated, almost despairing coarseness. Sex and drunkenness are two of the most fertile sources of slang, and here the sexual longing rippling through the poem is rejected in favor of oblivious drinking: get stewed. The speaker finally rejects what has apparently been his only source of consolation into early manhood with a crude dismissal: books are a load of crap. It's shocking and funny, but also deeply sad, as it always is when a loved illusion is stripped away.

This final stanza seems like a demotic version of this section of Eliot's Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two, / Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, / Deferential, glad to be of use; / Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous – / Almost, at times, the Fool." Prufrock comes to the sad admission that he is not the questioning, intellectual Hamlet, star of the show, but the buffoonish counselor Polonius, casually murdered halfway through the play: Prufrock even omits the identifying I in the second line, leaving himself merely an implication of the verb am, and towards the end he illustrates how "politic, cautious, and meticulous" he is with his delicately placed, hesitant commas and qualifiers (indeedalmost; at times).

There are apparently people who think this poem is Larkin speaking of himself. In fairness to them, it is close enough to what we know of his physical appearance and complicated relationships with women to make that theory superficially plausible (though I find it difficult to believe that a professional librarian, formally astute poet, and Oxford graduate like Larkin would, when speaking in his own voice, misuse the objective case: Me and my cloak and fangs as the subject of the sentence – doesn't that tip people off?). Nabokov used to write scornfully of people who need to "identify with" or even just like a novel's characters, rather than admire the artist's skill in creating a world out of words. And I think that's some of what Larkin is getting at here: the use of reading (mostly novels, it appears; our speaker apparently avoids nonfiction or poetry) as an alternative to and escape from reality, and how reality eventually shows us who's boss. Even Don Quixote had to admit in the end that he was just an exhausted, unstable old man.

I took this from The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett.

06 April 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/14

Take all the books
That I read in my childhood,
Take all my school notebooks,
Take the chalk,
The pens,
And the blackboards,
But teach me a new word
To hang like an earring
On my lover's ear.

I want new fingers
To write in another way,
High like masts of ships,
Long like a giraffe's neck
So I can tailor for my beloved
A garment of poetry.

Nizar Qabbani, translated from the Arabic by Bassam K. Frangieh & Clementina R. Brown

Love poetry may be the most familiar of all types of poetry – in fact, I suspect that when a lot of people mention poetry what they really mean is love poetry. And so though each lover's love feels unique and radiantly special to him or her, to the reader it can all start to blur indistinguishably. Out of this dilemma Qabbani forms a distinctive love poem. He starts off by offering to surrender all the things that made him a user of language (that is, a poet): the books he read in childhood, the notebooks in which he did his lessons, the usual classroom equipment. But in exchange he asks for a new word. He doesn't specify what type of word, exactly, but it's clear from his simile (to hang like an earring / On my lover's ear) that it is a word related to his love. It must be stylish, beautiful, and valued, like the jewelry you would give someone you love, and it must hang by her ear, where she can always hear it whispering his message. Though others may see this word – it glitters right there from her earlobe – it really belongs only to her. In a delicate way, it pierces her flesh.

This word he seeks, the word that can express the love he feels, cannot be found in the standard vocabulary he learned in his childhood (perhaps there's an implication there that now that he feels love as a man, he cannot use a boy's vocabulary?). He clearly values the language he was taught and the books he read: as mentioned earlier, they're what formed him as a poet, and they're what he is using to write this poem; he must call on them even to express their own inadequacy. But they are not enough to express his elusive ecstasy. He feels that even his fingers need to be replaced to write as he wishes; he wants to change his body so that his fingers are almost comically high and long – covering vast areas, striking and graceful. He compares the fingers he would need to produce this new way of writing to the masts of ships (bringing to mind the voyages and explorations of old sailing ships, a way of adventuring into the unknown) and to the necks of giraffes (graceful, elegant, and undulating, belonging to creatures that walk gently on the earth).

These are striking and unusual comparisons – perhaps a movement towards the new language he needs to demonstrate his love. But they also hearken back to a very old tradition of Middle Eastern poetry, one that indicates love by comparisons to fruitful, bounteous things of the earth, which often leads to striking and even surreal images. This tradition is probably most familiar to English-language readers from the Song of Solomon: "Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them." (Song of Solomon, Chapter 4, verses 1 - 2, King James translation). In the final lines of Qabbani's poem, the speaker's love mounts to such a pitch that he no longer wants just a word to hang in his beloved's ear; he wants to clothe her in an entire outfit spun of radiant poetry. He both implies and refutes the impossibility of finding new ways of expressing things that are universal and yet also individual.

Nizar Qabbani was a twentieth-century Syrian poet. I took this from the new anthology Arabic Poems, edited by Marlé Hammond, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series. It includes the original Arabic on the facing page of each poem, if you can read that language (sadly, I can not).

And since this is National Poetry Month, here comes your annual reminder: with every poem I post I include a link to a place where you can purchase the book in which I found that poem. If you enjoy something I post, please buy the book if you can. The best way to show support for publishers who still issue poetry and to ensure its continued survival in our commercial society is to buy books of poems. You could do a whole lot worse than going to the Everyman's site and selecting any of their Pocket Poet series. I only have a few of their volumes dedicated to individual poets (I tend to favor buying complete works rather than selections), but I have many of their anthologies and can vouch for the thoughtfulness and care that go into both their selections and their design – they are handsome and enjoyable books to hold and read.

01 April 2015

Poem of the Week bonus: #whanthataprilleday15

See here for an explanation of this holiday celebrating all old, middle, ancient, archaic, and even dead languages. For last year's entry see here. Then see below for this year's entry: a few lines from Silence, an Old French Arthurian romance about a girl raised as a boy. She is named Silence, because her true nature must be kept in silence until the king reverses his decree against women inheriting property. Among her various adventures, she wanders the land in the company of two minstrels. They have trained her in their art, but she so surpasses them that they feel their livelihood is threatened. They plan to kill her. She overhears their plot and saves herself by refusing to leave with them, in a dialogue tense with danger and double-meanings.

Interlined with the original Old French I've put the translation by Sarah Roche-Mahdi, who newly edited and translated this fascinating work. The work's opening line attributes it to the otherwise unknown and probably pseudonymous Master Heldris of Cornwall. The unique manuscript was only rediscovered in 1911, in a British manor house in a box marked "old papers – no value."

"Amis," font il, "ne vos cremés.
"Friend," they said, "don't worry.
Nos amons vos, vus nos amés.
We are loyal to you, as you are to us.
Quant dites qu'estes si haïs,
When you say you feel threatened,
Cremons que ne soiés traïs.
we, too, are afraid you might be in danger.
Se li malfaitor sont a destre,
If the criminals are on the right,
Acuellons la voie a senestre.
we will take the path to the left.
Ses encontrons par aventure
And if we should happen to encounter them,
Et faire nos voelent rancure,
and if they want to attack us,
Por nos meïsmes i serons.
we will all be there to help each other.
S'il i fierent, nos i ferrons."
If they strike, we strike, too."
"Dirai vos," fait il, "une rien:
"I have something to say to you," said Silence.
Je ne cuic pas, ains le sai bien
"I think, or rather, I know very well,
Que vos i ferrés volentiers.
that you will be only too happy to strike.
Et cil se guart endementiers,
In the meantime, the one who has to protect himself
Se il violt, qui a garder s'a,
had better be on his guard, if he wants to defend himself;
U s'il nel fait que fols fera.
And if he doesn't do this, he is a fool.
Segnor, jo que vos celeroie?
Gentlemen, why should I not speak openly?
Mes enemis enconterroie
Se jo aloie o vos en France,
Cho sachiés vos tolt a fiänce;
You know very well indeed
that I would encounter my enemies
whether I went with you to France
U s'o vos aloie en Espagne,
or whether I went with you to Spain
En Alvergne, u en Alemagne.
or Auvergne or Germany.
Si me vient chi miols remanoir,
Therefore, it would be much better for me to stay here
Qu'aler allors por pis avoir.
than to go somewhere else and be worse off.
Jo remanrai, cho est la some,
In short, I'm staying here.
Et vos end irés com prodome
And you will go off, like upright
Et bone gent, bien le savés.
and honest men, make no mistake about that.
Si com vos viers moi fait avés,
As you have done to me,
Vos rendie Dex le gueredon;
may God do to you in return;
Por tel deserte altretel don.
may you receive your just deserts.
Moult m'avés fait, plus eüsciés
You have done much for me,
Se moi faire le peüssciés.
and would have done more if you could have.
En vos servir ai jo perdu."
I haven't been able to do quite enough for you."
Li jogleör sont esperdu.
The minstrels were undone.
Aportent le gaäig avant,
They took out the earnings
Se li ont dit par avenant:
and graciously said to him,
"Sire, amis chiers, prendés vo part."
"Dear friend, good sir, take your share."
Et l'enfes .c. mars en depart./
Then the youth took a hundred marks as his portion,
A çals en lasce plus de .c.,
and left them more than a hundred,
Et cil s'en vont hastivement.
and they took off in a hurry.

Silence, ll 3437 - 3476, translated and edited by Sarah Roche-Mahdi

In line 3466 of the translation I've corrected just desserts to just deserts.