29 September 2015

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

The Cutting Ball Theater opens its season with Andrew Saito's new translation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream, directed by Paige Rogers. The show runs from 2 October to 1 November.

Shotgun Players presents The Rover by Aphra Behn, directed by M Graham Smith, from 15 October to 15 November. Behn was featured in Poem of the Week last year; you can check it out here, so that if anyone asks you if you've read anything by her other than Oroonoko you can roll your eyes and say, "Yes, of course!"

Early / Baroque Music
Philharmonia Baroque presents an exciting rediscovery: La gloria di primavera / The Glory of Spring, a long-lost (three centuries is long) serenata by Alessandro Scarlatti, written to celebrate the birth of a royal infant who died shortly afterward, whereupon the work was shelved and forgotten. Nicholas McGegan conducts the revival, with soloists Suzana Ograjenšek (soprano), Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano), Clint van der Linde (countertenor), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Douglas Williams (baritone), along with members of the Philharmonia Chorale. That's 4 October at First Congregational in Berkeley, 7 October at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford, 9 October at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, and 10 October back at First Congregational in Berkeley.

The Lacuna Arts Chorale performs Victoria's Missa Ave maris stella and other hymns to the Virgin Mary by Villette, Górecki, and Pärt; appropriately enough that will be at Star of the Sea (4420 Geary Boulevard at 8th Avenue in San Francisco). That's 23 and 25 (matinee) October.

The California Bach Society led by Paul Flight presents Zelenka's Missa Votiva on October 16 (St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco), 17 (All Saint's Episcopal in Palo Alto), and 18 (First Congregational in Berkeley).

Cal Performances presents the Bach Collegium Japan, led by Masaaki Suzuki, in an all-Bach program on 24 October at First Congregational Church.

Modern / Contemporary Music
San Francisco Performances presents Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng in a program of music for four hands on two pianos by Ligeti, Nancarrow (arranged by Adès), Messiaen, and Adès himself. That's on 30 October, and it marks SFP's return to the Herbst Theater, which is re-opening after two years of renovations.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players have a couple of events this month: on 21 October at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music the group will perform Death Speaks by David Lang, We Speak Etruscan by Lee Hyla, an improvisation by Kyle Bruckmann and Ken Ueno, and Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four songs to cross the threshold) by Gérard Grisey (there is also a preview concert on 20 October with just the Grisey).

Then on 24 October at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco they will perform Six Japanese gardens by Kaija Saariaho, Violance by Jean-Baptiste Barrière (preceded by an on-stage interview with Barrière). During the intermission there will be an on-stage interview with Saariaho, which basically means there is no intermission, because why would you mill around the lobby when you could listen to the composer? That is followed by Saariaho's NoaNoa and then Barrière's Time Dust.

Cal Performances presents the eco ensemble and cellist Anssi Karttunen led by David Milnes in three pieces by Kaija Saariaho: Notes on Light, Tempest Songbook, and Sept Papillons. That's 23 October at Hertz Hall.

There's a wide variety of concerts at the Center for New Music so take a look at their calendar here. A couple of things jump out at me: live accompaniment to Fritz Lang's Metropolis on 14 October and the Del Sol Quartet playing Terry Riley on 29 October.

In October the San Francisco Opera offers a revival of Jun Kaneko's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute and a new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. We haven't lacked opportunities to see either one of these works but these revivals do have various enticements (and of course if you've never seen them, this is a good chance to do so!). In the Donizetti Nadine Sierra (replacing Diana Damrau) is the tragic bride and Piotr Beczala is her lover: Nicola Luisotti conducts. That's on 8, 11 (matinee), 13, 16, 21, 24, and 28 October. Please note that the Mozart is, for reasons unclear to me, sung in English, presumably in the same overly jokey version prepared by David Gockley that we had last time. I liked the production design quite a bit; you can read my thoughts here. Last time it was the casting of Papageno that persuaded me to attend yet another Flute, and this time as well it's a major enticement that the talented Efraín Solís is playing the bird-catcher. You can catch him and the rest of the cast on 20, 25 (matinee), 27, 29 October and 4, 8 (matinee), 12, 14, 17, and 20 November.

The Berkeley Symphony opens its season on 14 October with Music Director Joana Carneiro conducting the west coast premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Laterna Magica, along with Berlioz's Les nuits d'été (with soprano Simone Osborne) and Ravel's Bolero. The concert is at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley (where Saariaho is a visiting professor this fall) and it starts at 7:00 rather than the usual 8:00, due to the Opening Night Dinner, though I feel that starting all of their concerts at that hour would be sensible.

The Oakland Symphony (formerly the Oakland / East Bay Symphony) opens its season on 2 October at the Paramount with Music Director Michael Morgan conducting the west coast premiere of Devil's Radio by Mason Bates, along with the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 2 with soloist Kenneth Renshaw, selections from the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes (led by Choral Director Lynne Morrow), and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances.

The San Francisco Symphony has Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Tchaikovsky Pathétique along with Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (soprano Susanna Phillips is the soloist) and Ted Hearne's Dispatches. The latter is conducted by Christian Reif and is a Symphony co-commission. You can hear this program 30 September and 1 (matinee), 2, and 3 October. I have mixed feelings about this program. I do like the Tchaikovsky and the Barber. I've heard other work by Hearne and I liked it. But I've heard the Tchaikovsky and the Barber recently and frequently, and the Hearne is approximately fifteen minutes long. Do I want to go to the trouble and expense of an evening at the Symphony for approximately fifteen minutes of new music? I'm glad that they don't segregate new music, but considering the proportionate amount of time scheduled for it, I can't help feeling that the Symphony is sticking it in there the way you might swaddle a pill in wads of cheese before feeding it to a sick dog. I am just frustrated by their lack of commitment to new, long orchestral pieces. The Berkeley Symphony usually has half of each program devoted to something contemporary – I wish the San Francisco Symphony would follow their lead.

Also at the San Francisco Symphony: Susanna Mälkki leads them in a Russian program featuring Shostakovich's arrangement of Dawn on the Moscow River from Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina, Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist Christian Tetzlaff, and the Prokofiev 5; that's 15 - 18 October (the 18th is a matinee).

The week after, Mälkki leads a program featuring the San Francisco premiere of Alma III: Soma by Jukka Tiensuu, along with the Sibelius 5 and the Chopin Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Simon Trpčeski; that's 22 - 24 October.

And the week after that, Andrey Boreyko leads the orchestra in Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite, the Tchaikovsky Suite No 3, and Bartók's Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist Gidon Kremer. That's 28 - 30 October (the Thursday performance is a matinee).

Bay Area Cabaret presents Stephanie Blythe in an evening of songs associated with Kate Smith. If you've ever heard Blythe sing this repertory you know she'll be a knockout. That's 4 October at the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill.

Famed a capella quartet Anonymous 4 stops by as part of their farewell tour, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances. They will perform a variety of ancient and modern works on 18 October at St Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco (they will return to the same venue on 15 November with a program of music associated with the Civil War).

San Francisco Performance's Salon at the Hotel Rex series opens on 21 October with baritone Efraín Solís (who will also be performing Papageno in the San Francisco Opera's Magic Flute). These "Salon" shows start at 6:30 and are shorter than the usual concert. I have not been to them because Wednesdays are usually booked for me, but I hear great things about them. Solís will be performing works by Strauss, Poulenc, and Sondheim, as well as some new settings of poetry by Lorca, written for Solís by Jose Gonzales Granero.

At the San Francisco Symphony, soprano Christine Brewer joins organist Paul Jacobs for a wide-ranging recital on 18 October.

Chamber Music
Cal Performances presents the Takács Quartet on 11 October in a program of Haydn, Shostakovich, and Schubert (Death and the Maiden).

San Francisco Performances presents the powerful young Pavel Haas Quartet in works by Prokofiev, Beethoven, and Bartók; that's 12 October at the SF Jazz Center.

San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony present Sir András Schiff, playing final sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Unfortunately the performance is in cavernous Davies Hall; that's 4 October.

See also the Adès / Cheng recital presented by San Francisco Performances and listed under Modern / Contemporary Music.

Cal Performances presents the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra in Cinderella, with Prokofiev's score and choreography by Alexei Ratmansky; that's 1 - 4 October (with two performances on 3 October) in Zellerbach Hall.

San Francisco Performances and the Yerba Buena Center present Sankai Juku, the famous butoh dance troupe from Japan. in Umusuna – Memories Before History. That's 9 - 11 October at the YBCA Theater.

Cal Performances presents Twyla Tharp's 50th Anniversary Tour on 16 - 18 October.

Visual Arts
The blogosphere's own Opera Tattler has an exhibit of opera- and pastry-themed paintings at the Borderlands Cafe, at 870 Valencia, running from 1 October to 30 November.

28 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/39

"There is a gold light in certain old paintings"

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
             And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
             Share in its charity equally with the cross.

Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
             I say the song went this way: O prolong
             Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.

The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
             And all that we suffered through having existed
             Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Donald Justice

Here are three vignettes. The first is, on the surface, a description of dramatic lighting in some Old Master paintings. At first, we see only the splendid gold light spreading through the canvas, and the paint conveys a feeling: it is like happiness, which, the phrasing suggests, is provisional, temporal, and not all that frequent: when we are happy. (The phrasing might also suggest that it is only like happiness when we are already happy, that our happiness changes the substance of what we're seeing so that it, too, shares and becomes our feelings.) This light, now associated with happiness, comes "from everywhere and from nowhere at once", suggesting again a sort of arbitrary and mysterious essence at work. Only at the very end of the stanza do we discover the specific subject of these paintings: the Crucifixion. So this light that is like happiness (even the word light suggests a buoyancy of spirit) is associated (and possibly has its source in) a scene of intense suffering but ultimate redemption.

Yet in the final two lines the light is disassociated a bit from Jesus on the cross; it falls on the cross but also on the soldiers sprawled below who were instrumental in this execution. There is a further nuance: they are seen as poor soldiers, which indicates mostly a sense of pity for them (those poor guys!), but also suggests their economic status (the army might have been their best way out of poverty; how much responsibility do they, mere instruments of the will of others, bear for state orders?), and also perhaps a hint that they are not so good at being soldiers (sprawling on duty seems like poor soldiering). The gold light falls on all of them, benign and with perhaps a certain amount of divine indifference (there might be an echo here of Matthew 5:45: ". . . for [your Father which is in heaven] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust").

The second vignette moves us from the Christian to the classical world, with Orpheus emerging from his trip to the Underworld in his vain attempt to rescue his dead wife Eurydice. Again the "story" is told mostly indirectly; we are more concerned with the Black River (which balances off the gold light we saw in the first stanza). We know we're in the Underworld because of that river, the River Styx, which flows between the worlds of the living and the dead (Styx is associated with a Greek word for gloomy and black is the traditional color of mourning). We see Eurydice as Orpheus did, only in a fleeting and final glimpse: a "beloved back" momentarily appearing and then disappearing forever. Orpheus hesitates just when he's almost reached success (he's already at the border of the Black River). With so much to look forward to, he looked back: his uncertainty and failure to move forward sabotage his approaching happiness, an act which might seem perverse if it weren't so essentially human.

Art is involved in this vignette as well; just as we were given an Old Master painting (though only indirectly and partially) in the first stanza, now we have music – at least, we think or assume that he sang then, because that is what Orpheus does, he sings; but the song is lost. Even in his sorrow there is some consolation in glimpsing his beloved: "At least he had seen once more the beloved back." Not even her face – even a glimpse of just her back is a consolation. Once again the final two lines add a twist to the stanza, as our poet takes over from the mythological poet and suggests a song that conveys some of our longing for continued life even when we are suffering: O prolong / Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong. As in the first stanza, art is a way of shaping and transfiguring  (and also highlighting) human suffering.

After scenes from the Christian and classical worlds, the third vignette is intimate, contemporary yet also timeless; you can imagine a pastoral poet of ancient Greece saying something similar (though no doubt substituting a suitable instrument, perhaps a lute, for the modern guitar). Family is invoked; the speaker addresses his uncle. Why an uncle, rather than a parent or a son or daughter or a lover? Perhaps it is to suggest that he is addressing a society larger than his immediate clan (uncle can also be a term of respect for an older man you are not related to).

The stanza begins with an understated but overwhelming truth: The world is very dusty. This is a description not of a cataclysm or disaster but of ordinary relentless troubles: it's impossible to keep dust from accumulating everywhere! There may also be a reminder here that the Bible has humanity created out of and belonging to the dust: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19) – in other words, as with the soldiers at the cross or Orpheus looking back before he should, perhaps these problems are inherent in our condition as humans – perhaps we are some of that accumulating, troublesome dust. Dusty can also imply that something is old and undisturbed, since the dust has settled on it so thickly; there might be a suggestion here of the weight of our knowledge of history.

I hear echoes in these lines of Hemingway's stripped-down and suggestive style, particularly in the definition of what is to be valued: that which is strong and clean and good. The lines are simple, rhythmic, and direct as a prophecy is direct: One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good. (For good means forever, but it also suggests that this change will be for the good.) The speaker says Let us work, but it is unclear how much, if anything, our labor has to do with clearing the earth of the sickness (a term both precise and vaguely evocative, suggesting not only physical failures but also psychic ones). Nonetheless, we work. The transformed world is seen in intimate, very local terms: The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar. An orchard in bloom promises sweet abundance; it also suggests human labor and organization (an orchard has to be planted; these aren't just random fruit-bearing trees). And again we have the presence of art transforming the landscape: someone will play the guitar (an intimate instrument associated with love).

Again, the final two lines send the stanza in a different direction: And all that we suffered through having existed / Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed. But our suffering is so essential to our condition, not just in this stanza, with the sickness and the dustiness of the world, but in the previous ones, in which both the Christian and the classical worlds are shown as permeated with loss and pain: we're being told that the thing that defines most of our lives will be forgotten. Yet we ourselves are not completely forgotten: we have also just been told that our work will be seen as worthwhile. This suggests that what we do (specifically, what we create: the gold light of the old painting, the invented song for Orpheus, our guitar-playing among the flowering trees we've planted) has a chance of lasting beyond our physical being and its attendant suffering.

The rhymes in this poem are restrained and musical. After an internal and charmingly four-square rhyme in the first line (gold / old), all the other rhyming pairs (the second and fourth and then the fifth and sixth lines of each stanza) are repeated words, occasionally with a different meaning. In the first stanza, we have sunlight / light and cross / cross; in the second, looked back / beloved back and prolong / prolong; in the third, good / good and existed / existed. That set in the third stanza might be, hidden in plain sight, a little hymn of praise for our human existence. The repetition helps add to the sense that the structure of this evocative poem is – well, strong and clean and good.

This is from The Collected Poems by Donald Justice. The book was first published in 2004, the year the poet died, and this is the last poem in the collection, a position which gives it in context a kind of valedictory feel.

25 September 2015

Friday photo 2015/39

This was taken at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in May 2013, shortly before it closed for a three-year renovation. The powerful and beautiful painting is Hem by Jenny Saville. I don't know who the other women are.

22 September 2015

New Century Chamber Orchestra: Letters from Russia (& other places)

Last Thursday I was at First Congregational in Berkeley for the first concert of New Century Chamber Orchestra's season. The program was called Letters from Russia, since it featured the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin among other Slavic music, but there was some contemporary music featured too, from Jennifer Higdon, this season's featured composer.

The performance opened with Estonian Arvo Pärt's Trisagion, which is Greek for Thrice Holy, and if you know anything about Pärt and his music you will not be surprised to hear that the piece is linked to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, or that it flows with a steady meditative quality, or that it is beautiful. NCCO has such a rich and sometimes even sumptuous sound; yet they can also plink and pluck and be acerbic in the Shostakovich style, as we heard later on. After Pärt's fifteen minutes, Ailyn Pérez came out for Rachmaninoff's Vocalise. She was glittering in a floor-length silver sheath, looking almost incongruously glamorous, like a mermaid just risen from the depths, among the sombre black and purple clothing of the orchestra, there in the austere arches and angles of the colonial New England-style church. She gave a suitably rich performance of Rachmaninoff's flowing line.

And then to close the first half we had sort of a Higdon sampler: Strings, the "quasi-scherzo" second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra from 2002; String Lake, another second movement, this time from All Things Majestic, a 2011 work inspired by the mountainous scenery of Wyoming; and To the Point, an arrangement of the third movement of Impressions, a 2003 string quartet written in response to Impressionist painting as well as the quartets of Ravel and Debussy. (The piece had been commissioned by the Cypress Quartet as part of a series in which composers were asked to respond in some way to a classic of the quartet repertory.) This may sound potentially like a grab-bag mishmash, but actually all three pieces went nicely together, offering enough variety as well as congruity to form a satisfying suite. I'm looking forward to hearing more of Higdon's work (including a world premiere at the season's final concert); there are depths there worth exploring.

After the intermission, the second half started with Shostakovich's Elegy and Polka (also known as Two Pieces for String Orchestra). The first part was shaped from a melancholy, moody aria from his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, and the contrasting second part was adapted from his ballet The Golden Age, about a Soviet soccer team traveling to Paris. It sounded suitably sporty.

Then Pérez came out again to perform the Letter Scene from Onegin, in which the naive Tatiana writes a letter declaring her love to the sophisticated, Byronic Eugene Onegin. (It does not turn out well.) Clarice Assad did the arrangement of Tchaikovsky's music. When Pérez entered, she once again (glittering in her silver sheath) looked so glam and sophisticated, so much the opposite of a young country girl like Tatiana, that I wondered how she could possibly convey the character. With vocal skill, it turns out; with a finely detailed, yearning performance. Even with only the English words in the program it was easy to know exactly where she was in the aria, so well-defined was her emotional arc. The orchestra matched her level of passion and precision. What a wonderful thing all around. The applause was so great afterwards that the orchestra did an encore, a piece by Schnittke, whom Music Director and lead violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg amusingly described as of course "the first name that comes to mind when Russian music is mentioned!"

Next up for NCCO is a holiday concert in December, featuring the San Francisco Girls' Chorus and klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer; that's 17 - 20 December and you can find out more about it here.

21 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/38

Poème d'Automne

The autumn leaves
Are too heavy with color.
The slender trees
On the Vulcan Road
Are dressed in scarlet and gold
Like young courtesans
Waiting for their lovers.
But soon
The winter winds
Will strip their bodies bare
And then
The sharp, sleet-stung
Caresses of the cold
Will be their only

Langston Hughes

This is a good example of being able to enjoy and understand a poem even if you don't really get every reference or why the artist made certain choices – in fact, a certain amount of incomprehension about the artist's intentions can actually enrich your reading by leading you down suggestive paths. There are two things here that seem a bit puzzling: why does a poem written entirely in English by an American poet have a French title? And is there some particular significance to Vulcan Road?

The French title lends a certain wistful elegance to the comparison between the slender trees and the young courtesans who will eventually be stripped by winter. Perhaps the use of French is meant to distance or aestheticize the picture. For much of Hughes's career, the assumption was that every poem by a black American was inherently a political poem – Hughes might simply be signaling to us that he is claiming the freedom to write a poem that is more about capturing a sad and beautiful thought than it is about protest (Hughes certainly wrote quite a few political poems, so there is some legitimacy in taking the political as a first approach in reading him). For a Harlem Renaissance writer like Hughes, Paris may represent a certain level of freedom and respect; black American artists like Josephine Baker and Richard Wright (and, later, James Baldwin) made their homes there and were lionized in a way that would not have been possible in the segregated United States (not that there was not an element of racism in the French showing how much they appreciated the occasional and distinguished black artist who came there for refuge from the racist oppression of the wealthy, powerful, and Philistine United States). Another possibility is that for many Americans, French is the language of romance, and its use may play into the erotic imagery of the poem: certainly courtesan brings to mind Belle Époque Paris rather than any American category. Or Hughes may simply have liked the music of the French words.

And the Vulcan Road: Vulcan was the Roman god of fire and the forge – fire connects with the flame-like scarlet and gold of the autumn leaves, and brings a little underlying heat to the image. He was also the husband of Venus, goddess of love, who betrayed him with Mars, the god of war. So there is a love angle here, too, and again it lends a poignant tone, since the deity invoked is not the goddess of Love herself, but her betrayed husband (perhaps hinting at future grief for the young courtesans?). Vulcan Road might have meant something else to Hughes – it might have been an actual road he lived on or walked down. But reducing it to an autobiographical detail would cut the reader off from a resonant consideration of what the name is really doing here.

I picked this poem hoping we would be entering autumn by now (we officially enter the season this week, but I was thinking more generally of autumn weather, and an autumn-like feeling in the air). But we seem to be stuck with more of the deadening heat of summer. Anyway. If you've been to New England, or other areas in which masses of trees change color with the onset of winter, then you know the brilliant display Hughes invokes: the masses of leaves are too heavy with color; even the names of the colors – scarlet and gold rather than red and yellow – are weighed down with stately and imperial connotations. This magnificence lies heavily on the slender trees; their youth seems weighed down by their fancy dress. Hughes compares them to courtesans: prostitutes, yes, but of the most elegant and privileged sort. These are not desperate streetwalkers; they are kept women, able to refer to their men by the dignified term lovers. They are still young. It sounds romantic, but of course as courtesans these young women are in an ambiguous position.

Hughes tells their future using two nicely balanced echoing phrases: But soon / And then. Youth is fleeting, as poets (and life) have always told us. The line about the winter winds stripping their bodies bare is both a literal statement about what happens to trees as the weather gets colder and windier and the daylight hours decrease and a metaphorical image of the young courtesans as they age in a cold and indifferent world. Winter often represents the onset of age and death; just as we saw the trees / young women bowing under the weight of their splendid leaves / garments, so now, imposed on their youth as by a double-exposure, we see them stripped bare in their age. Stripped bare might connote poverty, but could also be erotic (there is always an undercurrent of the erotic here, implicit in the slender bodies of the trees / girls seen as young lovers – perhaps another reason for the French title is that as you read the poem in its context the use of French might summon up, in the far reaches of the reader's mind, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur / In the shadow of blooming young girls, the second volume of Proust's great novel).

The poem ends with a vivid and also suggestive and ambiguous description of sharp, sleet-stung / Caresses of the cold. The sharpness of the caresses is enhanced by the s and t sounds stinging through sleet-stung. Is this an unpleasant sensation? It's difficult to say. Depending on how you feel about the cold, and how hot it is when you read this poem, the sensation might sound revivifying – refreshing you, giving you an awareness that you are still alive. And though these caresses are cold, and their only Love, still, their old age is neither without caresses nor loveless. Perhaps Hughes is suggesting the primary importance of our physical being, not only in youth, but in age? Is cold and stinging love better than no love? Can we ever escape the longing for love? Do we have a choice?

The poem is from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad editor and David Roessel Associate Editor.

15 September 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/19

Sunday morning I woke up to find that the basin of the bird bath had been flipped over.

I assume it happened while I was off at a concert Saturday night, as I am a light and fretful sleeper and my bedroom is right over the backyard and I would have heard it go over during the night. My guess was that one of the visiting cats had jumped up from the wrong side and that flipped the basin over. I had only seen them jump on it from the back; coming from the front, given the uneven ground it's on, might have been enough to bring it down.

So Sunday morning while doing the usual yard work – the leaves are starting to fall more heavily now – I set the basin back on its pedestal and filled it with water. No cats were in sight, though, until the afternoon, when Beautiful Cat, his hair a bit grown out and his eyes of a burning orange intensity, showed up. I was inside and stood at a window to watch him. I like observing him anyway, but I was curious to see if he would attempt the bird bath – if he had been the one to knock it over, perhaps that would be like touching a hot burner and he would stay away. He soon saw me and to my surprise instead of heading toward the bird bath he walked right over and sat directly opposite me, staring. I was eating popcorn out of a bowl so I wondered if he wondered whether he was going to get fed. I grabbed my camera and he was still there staring so I took a picture. You really need to enlarge these to feel how fiery his glare is.

I opened the door and as I expected he scooted off, heading to the side of the house but stopping to give me a final stare before hopping the wall. His eyes were practically glowing.

Earlier that week I was outside and started cutting back the tomatoes. This is the time of year when I gradually start cutting off obviously dead vines or ones that are past their fruit-bearing. Sometimes all the tomatoes are ready and once they're gone it's too late in the season for the plant to do anything else. I picked all the beautiful tomatoes below and the vine had nothing else but one small half-rotten fruit on it so up came the plant. I'm actually not sure what tomato it is since the marker in the little pot  at the nursery was labeled Mr Stripey and I've grown Mr Stripey before and – note the lack of stripes, or streaks of any sort – that is not Mr Stripey.

We had a week of oppressive heat. It's not unusual to have a heat wave at this time of year, but it is unusual for us to have a heat wave that lasts more than maybe three days. The weekend was supposed to bring in cooler temperatures, and technically that is true, but if you drop fifteen degrees from the low to mid-nineties you're still in the upper seventies or even the low eighties, and it was also muggy. I continued sleeping with all the windows open and the sheets thrown off.

The heat did a number on the tomatoes, too. It was just too much for some of them, and they went from under-ripe to rotting overnight. Michael Pollan is still holding on, though it was one of the plants I cut back.

There are still eleven fruits on it. 

Six of them are on one cluster at the top of the plant, and four of those are pretty tiny, so we'll see if they have enough time left in the sun to ripen.

The heat pretty much finished off Cherokee Purple, at least as a fruit-bearing vine. There were four or five tomatoes that were hit with some kind of black growth. The lone survivor is below.

And here is Cherokee Purple:

. . . into the compost pile, to be covered over and mixed in with the swept-up leaves of autumn and winter, until they all rot into the soil for next year's tomatoes. We'll see what the drought situation is like next year. There is pretty confident talk that we'll have an El Niño winter, which should mean lots of rain. I'm a little concerned that people will hear this and think the drought is over, even though we've had plenty of rain predicted the last couple of years and it never amount to more than a splutter under heavy grey skies. Lord knows most people aren't taking the drought seriously as it is. As usual, there are a conscientious and somewhat self-righteous few doing our little part while surrounded by people blithely wasting vanishing resources, most of which get used up anyway by industries we have no control over. It's possible that even if we do get plentiful rain, it will mostly hit southern California, leading to floods and mudslides and not enough accumulating in reservoirs. There's also a concern that rising temperatures will mean we get a lot of rain, but it evaporates more quickly, and the Sierra Nevada snow-packs on which we rely for long-term water will continue shrinking. And after four years of drought, will even a season of floods make up the water deficit? But the most important thing to remember is: the rain hasn't actually fallen yet.

And with that – Michael Pollan nearing its end, and Cherokee Purple off to the compost heap – I will bring this series to a close. Over the next few weeks, I'll be eating up the rest of the tomatoes, or maybe tossing them in the freezer for future use in soups or sauces (after they're frozen you can't really eat them on their own). Then it's months of sweeping up leaves and waiting for rain and hoping to get through next summer with more tomatoes.

14 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/37

An Arab Shepherd is Searching for His Goat on Mount Zion

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion

and on the opposite mountain I am searching
for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
both in their temporary failure.
Our voices meet
above the Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants
the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels
of the terrible Had Gadya machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes

and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or a son

has always been the beginning
of a new religion in these mountains.

Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch

The two men here may seem opposites: a Jew and an Arab, wandering on what has long been contested ground. The speaker is the Jewish man, but he begins by describing not his own plight but the other man's. The Jew is a father and presumably an avatar of the poet, and therefore someone connected to the larger world of literature and scholarship. The Arab is a shepherd, therefore presumably a fairly poor man (why else would he be searching for a single goat?), one affected by but not directly connected to the larger currents in the world. His very profession hearkens back to the pre-Biblical inhabitants of that land (shepherd is an emotionally loaded and significant term in the Hebrew scriptures – among many examples, think of the celebrated Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd" – and it remains a resonant term in the Gospels, particularly in the image of a shepherd searching for a single lost animal, as this man is). The Jewish man, despite his social voice as a celebrated poet, is presented here in an intimate, personal capacity, as a father. The Arabian man, despite his low social status and prehistoric profession, is connected to the world through his work: he is one of those supplying food to the city. He is wandering on Mount Zion, sacred to Jews for millenia. The Jewish father is on the opposite mountain. The Sultan's Pool is between them: the Sultan's Pool is a basin of water dating back to King Herod, later enlarged under the Ottoman Sultans, after whom it is named. It's a reminder of the many layers of history and contradictory possession that lie invisibly over this region.

There are many contrasts between the two men, but at heart, both are searching. (Both are searching for a kid, actually). Both share a "temporary failure": they have lost what they need to find again. Their voices mingle in the space between them.

The speaker refers to "the terrible Had Gadya machine." But Had Gadya (also transliterated Chad Gadya) is a playful song in Hebrew and Aramaic traditionally sung at the end of the Pesach seder. (The polyglot nature of the song in itself furthers the poem's representation of two cultures inextricably intertwined.) It's a cumulative song, in the style of The House That Jack Built, starting off with "one little goat" (you may find lyrics and some analysis of the song here): the goat that the Father bought gets eaten by a cat, that's eaten by a dog, that's beaten by a stick, that's burnt by a fire, that's extinguished by water . . . and so on until at the end Messiah puts a stop to it all by killing the Angel of Death. So why is this playful nursery rhyme sort of song called a terrible machine? And why would it affect the Jewish child as well as the little goat who might be its subject?

There are several possibilities. One is simply the relentless cumulative nature of songs like this: there's no escape from the ever-lengthening chain of creature finishing off creature. Then there are several allegorical interpretations of the song. The one that is probably most relevant here sees it as a history of the various conquerors of the Jewish nation: in other words, the song implies the inescapability of cumulative history. Both men are aware of the lurking potential for terrible tragedy for those who wander searching in these sacred and contested grounds.

The beginnings of that history are suggested when the lost goat and son are "found among the bushes": presumably not the same bushes, since the men are on separate hills, but the phrasing makes it sound as if both make the discovery in the same place, part of a pattern of connections between the searchers. The discovery brings to mind the patriarch Abraham, ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac as a proof of obedient faith in his God until divine intervention halted him and substitutes a ram caught in a thicket. After their discoveries, we get a burst of human emotion: laughing and crying.

Their voices return inside of them once they find, respectively, the son and the goat. Perhaps the voices projected outward during the searches are part of why these searches can end up as "the beginning of a new religion." (There's not only the suggestion of Abraham here, and of the wandering tribes that gave birth to Judaism and Islam, but perhaps also a suggestion of Mary going to the Temple to look for her lost son.) Both men live in a place of ever-present historical pressures and dangers; the poem implies that they are well aware of this, and want to recover what they've lost before things escalate to tragedy. Perhaps there is a delicate suggestion here, given the pairing of the two men searching for precious living things, that a new religion might form simply through a shared sense of compassion over the "temporary failures" that make up our lives.

This is from Poems of Jerusalem by Yehuda Amichai, collected in a bilingual edition with Love Poems. It looks as if a major edition of the poet's work, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited by Robert Alter, will be issued in early November.

08 September 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/18

Last week there were a couple of nights with hints of that increasingly elusive fall chill in the air, and I thought about maybe adding back some of the blankets I had stripped off my bed this summer, and I was happy to think the season was changing even though I know better; our hottest weather often comes in September and even into October. Sure enough, we have a hot Labor Day weekend. Tomatoes that are not quite ripe enough one day are by the next suddenly split open dribbling juice or splatting on the ground. The problem with seasonal eating is that there is a very small window of peak ripeness for most of these things, and we're usually forced to organize our lives around other things.

Today was one of those days when I had planned to get out in the garden first thing but by the time I got myself together it was already really hot out and other obligations were pressing and the neighbor children were screaming in their little wading pool. I should probably have taken this week's photographs either earlier or later, the light was hitting the tomatoes better. I took the usual double-portrait of Michael Pollan and Cherokee Purple but they both looked so bedraggled I decided I could hold off on that.

Michael Pollan currently has thirteen tomatoes in various shades of ripeness. I realized too late that I should have been counting the number I've harvested. There should probably be three categories there: eaten, given away, lost.

There are some really small green fruits on Michael Pollan, as you can see below. Since it's a fairly small tomato (between a cherry and a plum) I guess they could actually ripen before the hours of daylight decrease too much. I am also hoping for cooler weather, though that slows down the ripening of tomatoes, but will hazard no guesses as to when it will arrive.

Cherokee Purple now has eight tomatoes on it. The one shown below is the one that was stubbornly green. It has suddenly decided that summer is ending and ripeness is all.

The cats disappeared for a few weeks, except for the occasional glimpse. Beautiful Cat showed up once with ragamuffin fur and a crazed look in his orange eyes. He scatted off. I have pretty much surrendered on the "be my cat companion" front, but I still put water in the birdbath and try not to scare off either cats or birds if they showed up. I'm happy to have them use my yard as a refuge from the many obnoxious dogs in the neighborhood.

Just the other day, though, one of the beautiful grey cats once again started showing up more frequently, and I managed to get the photo below. He darted off; whatever progress we had made in mutual understanding was gone, and so although I figure the occasional photograph is the price he pays for whatever refuge my yard offers, I also don't want to harass him.

Later he went slinking by the window at the side of the house. I guessed (correctly) that if I went outside he would speed up his departure, so I took another shot through the window.

I am happy to say that I also see the occasional bird in the birdbath, though they're not as frequent as they have been in other years. Below is one of the raucous bluebirds that used to be a regular. (Maybe it was its parent, though?) I was glad to see him back. The shot is not great because it's from a distance (magnified and cropped) and shot through the kind of odd plastic used for the window in the back door, so the photo looks as if it's shot through a scrim.

I was out in the yard one evening this week, going into the little structure the previous owners built there (I think they used it as a home office, though I've used it for other things over the years), and I noticed that an industrious spider was building quite a web under the eaves. The sun was low enough in the west so that its filaments were shining.

07 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/36

Green and Red, Verde y Rojo

for Jacobo Mena

At night, when Beacon Hill
is a private army
of antique gas lamps
glowing in single file,
Jacobo vacuum-cleans
the law office of Adams and Blinn,
established 1856, with the founder's
wire-rimmed Protestant face
still supervising the labor,
a restored photograph in the window.

Jacobo's face
is indio-guatemalteco,
bored as the work,
round as worry,
heavy as waiting.
Guatemala is green and red,
green volcanoes, red birds,
green like rivers in rain,
red like coffee beans at harvest,
the river-green and quetzal bird-red
of his paintings,
perfiles del silencio.

Testimony of death-squad threats
by telephone, shrilled in the dark,
the flash of fear's adrenaline,
and family stolen with the military's greed
for bodies, all recorded by stenographers,
then dismissed:
Guatemala leaves no proof,
and immigration judges are suspicious
only of the witnesses, who stagger and crawl
through America. Asylum denied,
appeal pending.

As he waits, Jacobo paints
in green and red, verde y rojo,
and at night he cleans the office
of Adams and Blinn,
where Guatemala cannot be felt
by the arrogant handshake of lawyers,
where there is no green or red,
only his shadow blending
with the other shadows in the room,
and all the hours of the night
to picture the executioners.

Martín Espada

This poem opens in a Boston law office. The office will be a constant background presence, but the focus is really on one of the workers there: not one of the lawyers, just the man who comes in after hours to clean up this office on Beacon Hill. If you've been to Beacon Hill (I used to live there, on the "wrong" side, next to a burnt-out building), you may remember it as actually a pretty colorful place, filled with the deep blunt red of brick buildings, accented with brass fixtures and black shutters (and the occasional purple window pane) and, depending on the season, full leafy green trees, but here it is stripped of color and seems drab and forbidding. This is not the Beacon Hill that has a "wrong" side; it's an old-time nexus of political and social power. It's night, so the "antique gas lamps" are predominant; the description of them as "a private army" might at first make them seem almost quaint, almost like toy soldiers, but the poem is told from the point of view of a man without political and social power, and we come to realize he has reason to fear anything that reminds him of soldiers, even if a tourist might see, in the same thing, a quaint reminder of bygone days. For Jacobo, a night-time worker in an empty office, Beacon Hill does not look colorful – certainly not in comparison with the vivid colors of his native land, as he dreams them to life in the second stanza.

There is history in this office: in Beacon Hill itself, of course, the site of the Massachusetts State House, but also in the name of the founder: Adams is a name to conjure with in American history. We can assume that the law firm's founder is linked to the prestigious Massachusetts family of presidents and diplomats and distinguished writers. This long-dead founder (his firm now has its own lengthy history and its own Adams as a Founding Father, making it a bit of a microcosm of the United States) is still photographically hovering above the workers: history weighs on the present. He has a wire-rimmed "Protestant" face – another indication that we're seeing things from Jacobo's point of view; his own face is a mixture of Spanish and Indian features, and he is most likely Catholic; of course to him this eminent lawyer would signify mostly as an undifferentiated Protestant, that is, Anglo, establishment, authoritative, other. There is powerful history there, but it is only indirectly the history in which Jacobo finds himself trapped.

Jacobo performs his mundane job. He's bored, like most workers. But there's also a sense of unease: he is worried. He is waiting. There is a weight and heaviness to these feelings; they have not yet been attached to anything specific. While he works, he conjures up mental images of his native land: so lush, so alive, so appealing to the senses. We find out that this semi-anonymous office janitor is also a painter – like many who have had to flee to a foreign land, a land with a different language, he has to take menial, low-status work to survive economically. (This was as true of the Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848, and of each successive wave of refugees or immigrants, as it is today.)

At the end of the second stanza, right after we find out that Jacobo is an artist, right there in the middle of the poem, the language switches to Spanish: perfiles del silencio. You'll note that this poem does not follow the convention of setting foreign words in italic: which words here are "foreign"? Jacobo is suspended between his two languages. The title has suggested the equivalence of the two languages: Green and Red is immediately balanced by Verde y Rojo. This suggestion that the immigrant's language is equal to his employer's is subtly subversive: the poem makes us interested not in the high-powered lawyers of the prestigious firm, these worldly and assured dwellers in the historic halls of conventional success, but in an isolated, semi-anonymous man, someone they would most likely notice only if he failed to perform his maintenance work correctly.

Perfiles del silencio means profiles of silence. My Spanish is unfortunately pretty basic, but if I'm understanding correctly the definitions I looked up, perfiles is a very evocative word, implying a line marking the boundary of a thing seen from a certain point, and the general outline of something, and the set of qualities and traits that make up a person or thing, and the particular aspect with which something occurs. Some of these meanings are also possible in the English profiles; others hover just beyond our usual sense of the word. Perfiles del silencio may seem to refer to his paintings, which are of course "silent," and which are full of shapes and boundaries and an implied particular point of view – but the term also suggests the boundaries around the artist himself, and it suggests the distance between him and the alien world in which he's trying to survive, the usually overlooked point of view of this menial employee and his secret (to his employers) life as an artist. Right in the middle, in the heart of the poem, is a phrase in the janitor's native language (a "foreign" language), suggesting the silent boundaries (or the boundaries of silence) around him and in him.

The ambiguous, suggestive Spanish phrase is the hinge of the work. In the second half, the colorful (and perhaps, intentionally, just a touch overly picturesque, and distorted by love and nostalgia) Guatemela of bright birds and flowing rivers and volcanoes is balanced with a harsher view of the country, and we find out why Jacobo is burdened with fear and worries: his home is also a land of death-squads, the disappeared, the shrill shriek of a phone or a knock on the door that could mean danger and death to himself and his family. Legal bureaucracy and procedures appear in the second half of this stanza – the stenographers taking down evidence that disappears from sight (like the actual bodies of the victims), the mentions of proof and pending appeals and suspicious judges – and somehow in there we slip seamlessly from the death-squads of Guatemela to hostile American judges; just as the two languages are made equivalent, so the boundaries/perfiles are blurred between the Guatemalan and American mechanisms of order, suggesting a continuum between the death-squads and the legal system that sends a refugee back to face them. (You might be reminded of the charming street lamps, lined up like soldiers, piercing the night darkness like someone's private army.)

This is a night-time world: threats are made at night, and it's at night, when he won't be in the way of the more valued employees, that Jacobo works to support himself. He is a legal non-person (a refugee, his asylum denied, his appeal pending), working to clean up the empty offices of an old-line Boston firm. The lawyers who work there are confident – actually, arrogant – and connected, they get things done, their handshakes mean something. They see a janitor they hired, not the artist caught up in the crushing waves of history. He is dependent on the legal system not only for his marginal livelihood but for his very safety: his family is threatened; his existence precarious, subject to the arbitrary suspicions of an American judge who assumes the worst – not about history, or about life, but about the silent man in front of him. Who is a shadow among the shadows. Who waits, and who paints while he waits.

This is a poem for Labor Day, at a time and place when many seek to demonize low-level workers, and refugees, and immigrant workers (particularly if they are dark-skinned and speak Spanish). It's from For a Living: The Poetry of Work, edited by Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick. You can check out Martín Espada's website here, and find a list of his books (with links for ordering them) here.

01 September 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/17

Michael Pollan now has twelve tomatoes in various degrees of ripeness. As you can see from the shot below, however, the lower parts of the plant are starting to wither away. This is fairly normal for this time of year, though probably accelerated by the lack of water. I have, without really intending to, cut back watering even further. We did actually get some rain the other day, on one of those oppressively muggy days that are increasingly common out here but still rare enough for us aging folks to say to one another Remember when it wasn't like this?

Here's another shot of it. You can tell from the amount of yellow on two of the tomatoes in these pictures that I'll probably be eating them before next week's photos.

And the heirloom lettuce I've occasionally shown has gone completely to seed, with striking little cottony tufts at the end of each former flower. I haven't pulled them up yet, partly because I like the way they look and partly because I hope they will spread seeds all over the yard so that next spring I will have volunteer heirloom lettuce wherever I look.

Since I'm revisiting plants I've shown before, here is the lovely Flower Girl. I cut it back quite a bit, and it's still slightly surprising to see, like someone you've always known with long hair who suddenly got it cut really short. You don't really see that effect in the shot below, but you can see how simple and satisfying the individual flowers are, and imagine how wonderful they look massed together in pale pink clouds. You can see by the buds that I'll get at least one more burst before the cooler weather sets in.

I think I haven't shown this rose before: it's an "old rose," Souvenir de la Malmaison. In previous years it's struggled a bit but it actually seems to be doing a bit better with this year's heat and dryness and neglect. Old Roses can be surprisingly tough. It's about the same shade as Flower Girl, a soft pale pink. There's an old rose with a French name that translates to something like "thigh of a blushing nymph" and I think it might be the same rose as this one, but I'm not sure about that.

So we come to Cherokee Purple. It now has fourteen tomatoes, all of them in various shades of red except for one stubbornly green fellow. We'll see if he ever catches up. At this time of year, as the sun sets earlier, it takes longer for tomatoes to reach their peak, as they require a certain amount of sun and heat (which is why though I've occasionally had tomatoes ripening as late as November, they never taste quite right, lacking the flavor and depth of the ones that ripened in the long days of summer heat).

So this week I finally got to eat some tomatoes from Cherokee Purple, and I'll say: this is a very good tomato! Nice texture (meaty, not watery or mealy; I kept thinking of a large and particularly succulent grape), a flavor mild but full with some pine notes, then an afterburst of sweetness, followed by an aftertaste of that classic "tomato" flavor.

And the figs have started ripening. I've had several. A couple were a bit under-ripe, but at least one was at that delicious state of just-over-ripeness when the fig has the texture of jam and a concentrated sweetness. I like to eat figs with some of the peel still on them, as it has an earthy flavor that can balance some of the sweetness. You eat a fig like that, right off the tree, warm from the sun, and you have a moment of happiness.

And my beautiful lemon tree just keeps rolling along.