30 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/48

Turkeys Observed

One observes them, one expects them;
Blue-breasted in their indifferent mortuary,
Beached bare on the cold marble slabs
In immodest underwear frills of feather.

The red sides of beef retain
Some of the smelly majesty of living:
A half-cow slung from a hook maintains
That blood and flesh are not ignored.

But a turkey cowers in death.
Pull his neck, pluck him, and look –
He is just another poor forked thing,
A skin bag plumped with inky putty.

He once complained extravagantly
In an overture of gobbles;
He lorded it on the claw-flecked mud
With a grey flick of his Confucian eye.

Now, as I pass the bleak Christmas dazzle,
I find him ranged with his cold squadrons:
The fuselage is bare, the proud wings snapped,
The tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder.

Seamus Heaney

After Thanksgiving last Thursday, many of us have spent the weekend dealing with turkey carcasses in various stages of being devoured. So here's a poem by Seamus Heaney reflecting on them.

With the very first line, Heaney sets up the strange and somewhat contradictory alternating states that will keep us off-balance throughout the whole poem. One observes the turkeys, and that's a significant act, more so than noticing or seeing would be; observing suggests watching closely, registering significance, adhering to custom or ritual (the way one observes a holy day). Yet one also expects them, which suggests one knows they will be there – one takes it a bit for granted.

Why would one expect them? In the second line, we discover these are dead turkeys, displayed on cold marble slabs, which suggests, long before we reach the bleak Christmas dazzle in the last stanza, that it's holiday season, and we're seeing the plucked birds in a butcher's shop. (Turkey means Thanksgiving for Americans, but it's associated with Christmas dinner as well, particularly in the British Isles.) But the butcher shop is referred to as a mortuary, a term usually associated with human remains. Throughout there is an insistence on the carcasses' identity as (former) birds: the feathers, the gobbles, the claw-flecked mud, the wings and tail-fan. Yet all these identifiers are subtle skewed, deracinated from their birdness and linked to humans or, at the end, weapons of war: the feathers are immodest underwear frills, the gobbles were extravagant complaints, he lorded it over his little farmyard, his eye was Confucian, suggesting a rational system of government, order, piety, and philosophy, even in his little stretch of native mud.

Suggestions of triumph are quickly countered (we're brought back to the counters, the cold marble slabs): the Christmas dazzle is bleak, the majesty of living is smelly. But smelly also suggests a certain vitality still found in the huge sides of beef; the near-rhyme on retain / maintains gives a certain elevation to the beef stanza, and some isolation, since rhyme is not used elsewhere in the poem. Beef consumption has a traditional association with courage and strength and other manly virtues (think of the British royal guards known as the beefeaters). By contrast, the turkey – this half-humanized creature – cowers; you can pull his neck – the neck that once gobbled complaints – without reprise. He is, vividly, a skin bag, his flesh and blood not demandingly red like the half-cow's, but inky putty.

He is just another poor forked thing, which calls to mind King Lear's Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man [man on his own, stripped bare, lacking civilizing flourishes] is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art (King Lear, Act 3, scene iv, ll 108 - 110). Once again, the turkey is associated with human existence, though it's a life reduced to its sometimes humiliating essentials. Forked refers to the split formed by the two legs of the turkey or a person, but it also, with a bit of macabre wit, may remind us that these birds are on sale and intended for the dinner table.

Finally the dead turkey is compared to a war-plane, but one that is out of commission: the body of the plane is bare (just as the turkey has been plucked of almost all his feathers), the wings snapped, the tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder (a rudder is a flat piece used for steering; is there a phallic suggestion in rudder, given how much we are guided by sexual urges? if so, stripped and shameful suggest, in keeping with the emotional mood of the poem, a deeply ambiguous view of our urges).

This is from the anthology On Wings of Song: Poems About Birds, selected and edited by J D McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

27 November 2015

Friday photo 2015/48

street lamp in front of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, early evening, October 2015

23 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/47

Yet praye ich you that reden that I write,
Yet I pray you that read what I write,
Foryeve me that I do no diligence
forgive me that I take no pains
Thil ilke storye subtilly t'endite;
to write this story artfully;
For bothe have I, the wordes and sentence,
For I have both the words and the substance
Of him that at the seintes reverence
from him who, in honor of the saint
The storye wroot, and folwen hir legende,
wrote the story and followed her legend,
And pray yow that ye wol my werk amende.
so I hope that you will take my work in the best way.

First wolde I yow the name of Seint Cecilye
First I will for you the name of Saint Cecilia
Expowne, as men may in hir storye se.
Expound, as men may see in her story.
It is to seye in Englissh "hevenes lilye",
It is like saying in English "heaven's lily",
For pure chastnesse of virginitee;
for the pure chastity of her virginity;
Or, for she whitnesse hadde of honestee,
Or, for the whiteness [spotlessness] of her purity,
And grene of conscience, and of good fame
And greenness [spring-like freshness] of her conscience, and of good reputation
The swote savour, "lilye" was hir name.
the sweet scent, "lily" was her name.

Or Cecile is to seye "the wey to blinde",
Or Cecilia is like saying "a path for the blind",
For she ensample was by good techinge.
for she was an exemplar by her good teaching.
Or ellis Cecile, as I writen finde,
Or else Cecilia, as I find written,
Is joined by a manere conjoininge
is formed by a sort of conjoining
Of "hevene" and "lia"; and here in figuringe
of "heaven" and "lia", which here symbolizes
The hevene is set for thoght of holinesse,
Heaven for thoughts of holiness
And "lia" for hir lasting bisinesse.
and "lia" for her lasting labor and diligence.

Cecile may eek be seid in this manere:
The name Cecilia may also be interpreted in this manner:
"Wantinge of blindnesse", for hir grete light
"lack of blindness", for her great light
Of sapience, and for hir thewes clere.
of wisdom, and for her bright and clear qualities.
Or elles, lo, this maidenes name bright
Or else, indeed, this maiden's bright name
Of "hevene" and "leos" comth, for which by right
comes from "heaven" and "leos", because of which 
Men mighte hire wel "the hevene of peple" calle,
men might well call her "a heaven of the people",
Ensample of goode and wise werkes alle.
as an example of works good and wise altogether.

For "leos" "peple" in Englissh is to seye,
For "leos" is "people" in English,
And right as men may in the hevene see
and just as men may see in the heavens
The sonne and moone and sterres every weye,
the sun and moon and stars in every direction,
Right so men goostly in this maiden free
just so men spiritually in this gracious and liberal maiden
Sayen of feith the magnanimitee,
may see the magnanimity of faith,
And eek the cleernesse hool of sapience,
and also the spotless wholeness of wisdom,
And sondry werkes brighte of excellence.
and various works of bright outstanding excellence.

And right so as thise philosophres write
And just as philosophers write
That hevene is swift and round and eek brenninge,
that heaven is swift and round [quickly revolving] and always burning,
Right so was faire Cecilye the white
Just so was fair Cecilia the white [pure]
Ful swift and bisy evere in good werkinge,
always swift and ever occupied in good works,
And round and hool in good perseveringe,
and daily dedicated and complete in persevering in good,
And brenning evere in charite ful brighte.
and ever-burning with the full brightness of charity [caritas];
Now have I yow declared what she highte.
and now I have explained to you why she was called what she was called.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The Second Nun's Prologue, ll 78 - 119

Yesterday (November 22) was the feast of St Cecilia, so here is an appropriate selection from The Canterbury Tales. The Second Nun (the first nun would be the Prioress, who also recites one of the lives of the saints) tells the story of Cecilia's life and martyrdom. Oddly enough, in our eyes, no mention is made of her role as the patron of music, except for a passing reference in the opening section describing her self-mortification and spiritual practices: And whil the organs maden melodye, / To God allone in herte thus song she (And while the organs were being played, to God alone in her heart thus she sang) (The Second Nun's Tale, the beginning of the third stanza). Although her story was always a favorite among the lives of the early Christian martyrs, her musical prominence, the reason for her continued renown, seems to be a product of the early baroque.

The Canterbury Tales is an anthology of many varieties of medieval narrative genres, from chivalric romances and beast fables to bawdy anecdotes. Hagiography (or the lives of the saints, a form of magical realism before the term was invented) was one of the most favored story-forms in this period in Europe; The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, a massive compilation of these legends, was one of the most popular books of the period, surviving in around one thousand manuscripts, which is an amazing number for a lengthy book that had to be written out by hand for each new copy in those years before the invention of the printing press. De Voragine is the him that at the seintes reverence / The storye wroot referred to in the first stanza of this excerpt.

Chaucer's rendition is closely based on the story as found in The Golden Legend; up until the Romantic era, when the idea of the genius writer became linked with inspiration and originality, it was common practice to borrow, adapt, or loosely translate earlier works (this is one way stories were disseminated across Europe in the days before the printing press). Such new versions were seen as adding to and building off of (or even surpassing) the original; there's a whole tradition of poets taking specific similes from Homer or Virgil and adapting them – the point is not to present someone else's work as your own, but to show your knowledge of and your skill compared to the great classic writers. Sometimes the debt is acknowledged, as it is here (though de Voragine is not named; presumably, given the popularity of his book, you would recognize him as the source); other times educated readers are being flattered by the assumption that they will recognize the source. Part of the fun is seeing how the author has changed the original, and seeing how that changes the shading of the story.

The miracle-filled stories of the saints may seem more like fantasy than history to modern eyes, but they are meant to reveal a spiritual reality – actions illustrating Christian doctrine – under mundane reality (as with magical realism, the fantastical reveals a deeper, often emotional or otherwise non-physical, truth). This attitude underlies the long analysis of possible meanings of the name Cecilia; though each interpretation suggests that she is a moral exemplar for us, there are a number of possible interpretations with no definitive final meaning given – an ambiguity which might remind us that "in my Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2). Though we tend to think of the religion of the middle ages as monolithic and intolerant, it was actually, within certain boundaries, full of multiple meanings and different pathways: a compendium of possibilities, like The Canterbury Tales itself. Many people associate the collection with the stories that are robust and ribald jokes, but the longest single "story" is a prose sermon on the seven deadly sins (and it's actually quite lively; I had never read that one until this past summer, when I decided to read the entire book, from the General Prologue to Chaucer's Retraction, something I had never done despite majoring in English and taking at least one course solely in Chaucer; The Parson's Tale is not usually assigned to undergrads).

The whole lengthy analysis of the significance of a name comes from de Voragine; it is his typical way of opening a saint's life. The idea is that the name reveals some truth about the person. Such playing with names seems to be an ancient form, dating from a period when nomenclature was likely to be based on personal circumstances. (The Second Nun and Wagner may seem like an unlikely duo, but this passage always reminds me of Siegmund's lengthy explanation to Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walküre of the name he travels under.) Here is the relevant passage from The Golden Legend, in the translation from the Latin by William Granger Ryan:
The name Cecilia may come from coeli lilia, lily of heaven, or from caecitate carens, lacking blindness, or from caecis via, road for the blind, or from coelum and lya, a woman who works for heaven. Or the name may be derived from coelum and laos, people. For Saint Cecilia was a heavenly lily by the modesty of her virginity. She is called a lily because of her shining cleanness, her clear conscience, and the aroma of her good renown. She was a road for the blind by giving good example, a heaven through her continual contemplation, and a worker for heaven by her application to good works. Or she is called heaven because, as Isidore says, the philosophers have said that heaven is revolving, round, and fiery, and Cecilia was revolving in a constant circle of good works, round in her perseverance, and fiery with the warmth of her charity. She was free of blindness through the splendor of her wisdom. She was a heaven of the people because in her, as in a spiritual heaven – the sun, the moon, the stars – people saw how to imitate heaven, namely, by the perspicacity of her wisdom, the magnanimity of her faith, and the variety of her virtues.
(The life of Saint Cecilia is found in Volume 2 of the two-volume translation of The Golden Legend, the first complete one in modern English, by William Granger Ryan, issued by Princeton University Press in 1993.)

The lily is a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, signifying her purity and chastity (in paintings of the Annunciation you will almost always see, either prominently or tucked in some corner, a vase of lilies), so referring to Cecilia as a lily links her to the Virgin Mary (and, in fact, the Second Nun begins her prologue by invoking the Virgin Mary as a kind of heavenly muse to guide her in her tale, just as Homer and Virgil begin by asking the appropriate muse to inspire them). The Isidore referred to is St Isidore of Seville, the sixth-century archbishop whose Etymologiae was a learned, vast, and vastly influential compilation of universal knowledge as found in hundreds of classical sources.

Despite the elaborate and suggestive interpretation of the saint's name, our speaker protests that she is speaking plainly, not artfully: what is important is not stylishness but the truths exemplified by the martyr's life. Throughout this passage there is a traditional association of whiteness and light with purity and holiness. This association of whiteness with purity and goodness tends to make modern readers understandably uncomfortable, so it may help to think of it as suggesting spotlessness and clarity rather than the mere color. Though light is traditionally associated with Godhead, the name Cecilia's connections to caecus, the Latin word for blind, may strengthen the association between this saint and brightness and light (think of the opening of Purcell's setting of an Ode to St Cecilia: Hail, bright Cecilia!). The word heaven keeps recurring in this passage, reminding us of our ultimate goal. The climax of the passage is that the life of a single good and wise woman expands to the size of the universe, glowing with the celestial light of the sun, moon, and stars. (Chaucer – the author of The Legend of Good Women and the creator of the Wife of Bath as well as of a strikingly sensitive and empathetic portrait of Cressida, who is traditionally seen as basically a faithless whore – tends to be very sympathetic to women.)

By the way, current research suggests that, just as Judith is actually a generic name meaning a woman of Judea, so Cecilia is actually a collective name common to all women from the Roman family Caecilii, named after their legendary founder Caeculus (the little blind boy, from caecus, blind), a son of the divine blacksmith Vulcan. It was, early on, mistaken as a personal name. The beloved legend is based on little to no actual historical evidence.

This is from the Penguin Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales, edited and with notes by Jill Mann. One of the interesting points she makes is that referring to you that reden that I write is inconsistent with the framing device of the Tales, in which each speaker tells the story orally to the other pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Chaucer used some of his earlier works in putting together the Canterbury Tales, and died before the work reached final form, so these little contradictions do occur.

The interlinear crib is my attempt to convey the meaning of the passage. For some suggestions on how to pronounce the Middle English text, see the links in this earlier entry from Chaucer.

16 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/46

I won't come
I won't go
I won't live
I won't die

I'll keep uttering
The name
And lose myself
In it

I'm bowl
And I'm platter
I'm man
And I'm woman

I'm grapefruit
And I'm sweet lime
I'm Hindu
And I'm Muslim

I'm fish
And I'm net
I'm fisherman
And I'm time

I'm nothing
Says Kabir
I'm not among the living
Or the dead

attributed to Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Kabir is a fifteenth-century Indian mystic, one of those who expressed his intensely spiritual vision in robust poems. His primary concern is not aesthetic, but sacred: removing all distinctions and obstacles, he immerses himself in the deity's sacred name, specified in other poems in the series as Rama, but Kabir doesn't seem too hung up on particulars. Since we (we being contemporary Americans) tend to live in a less clearly religious and rule-bound society than fifteenth-century India, the important thing for us to keep in mind when reading these poems is that Kabir is not just being a loosey-goosey proto-hippie: he is arguing against rigid adherence to doctrine and religious laws in favor of an inclusive search for the annihilating surrender to the Godhead, a radical approach that is part of both the mystic fringe and the essential core of religious searching (I can imagine a mystic in Europe a century later writing that he or she is both Catholic and Protestant, though I can't imagine such a poet at that time and place not being silenced or killed).

This loss of self is not without its terrifying aspects. Note the opening of this poem, with its paired opposites (I won't come / I won't go / I won't live / I won't die); if there were an and between the opposites, that might suggest some sort of personal volition, but as it is, the lines suggest an almost helpless suspension between two states in constant, irreconcilable tension (a tension that, perhaps, is the nature of the universe). The closing lines have a similar effect: I'm not among the living / Or the dead; even the lack of a concluding period emphasizes the on-going, endless state of being-not-being. When you're everything – when you're the fish, and net in which it's caught, and the fisherman casting the net, and the time in which all this is happening – then you, yourself, are nothing.

This is from Songs of Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, with a preface by Wendy Doniger. The volume is brief – I read the entire collection, along with the illuminating forewords by Doniger and Mehrotra, in maybe a bit under an hour – but it is intense and invigorating. Some poets suffer from having many of their lyrics read at once, as repetition makes their effects pall; for a few, accumulation is an advantage. I found that to be the case here. It's worth reading the introductions first, as they give some cultural and theological background for Kabir's "upside-down" language (such as his use of direct contradiction, which we see in this poem, and surreal juxtaposition, as in the poems in which he describes "fish spawning / on treetops; / A cat carrying away / A dog . . .") and his complicated relationship to the two major religions of his time and place (he was most likely born a Muslim, though also influenced by Hindus; attacked by both religions during his life for his disregard of their protocols, he was claimed by both after his death). Mehrotra has some interesting things to say about the fluidity of Kabir's corpus, which was composed and initially passed down orally – there is no single definitive text. In a way what we now have of Kabir's works is a collective expression of an attitude (which justifies Mehrotra's occasional use of anachronistic terms; not only do they add to the pungent sense of the poems, anachronism is in a way part of the living tradition of Kabir).

12 November 2015

Cappella SF sings Songs for the Earth

Last Saturday night there were quite a few concerts to choose from – among them Ensemble Intercontemporain at Cal Performances at 8:00, Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner at San Francisco Performances at 7:30, and Ragnar Bohlin leading Cappella SF at the Mission Dolores Basilica at 7:00 – so I went with the earliest start time and found myself walking around the basilica's block several times, waiting for the doors to open, which they did not do until 6:45. A considerable crowd had gathered in the chilly dark by then, so I waited off to the side until the line was what I considered manageable, with the result that the front part of the church was full by the time I made it in. The usher was having such a wonderful time teasing someone in front of me that he was unable either to hand me a program or even let me pass. I managed to grab a program while he was mid-josh and semi-shove my way through, as politely as I could. Given the late hour at which they opened the doors, I wasn't really up for tomfoolery. I was also in even less of a mood than usual for sitting in a crowd, so I kept moving back as latecomers wandered in (as they continued to do even after the concert started), until finally I found myself almost all the way in the back of the nave, with a safe number of pews between me and anyone else.

This turned out to be an excellent spot from which to hear the chorus. The last time I heard Cappella SF was also in Mission Dolores Basilica, only I was much closer, off to the side near the transept, and the sound arrived there a bit muddied. From where I sat on Saturday the sound came through in clear and well-shaped form.

The theme of the concert, presented in collaboration with Food & Water Watch, was Songs for the Earth: Music and Reflections on Protecting Nature. It did occur to me fairly late in the game that the "reflections" mentioned in the subtitle would take the form of readings during the performance, and indeed between each number a member of Food & Water Watch would read a brief comment. These were mostly well chosen, though personally I would have preferred more in the way of philosophy and poetry rather than politicians (more Thoreau and Wordsworth, fewer congressional representatives, in other words). I guess the idea was to remind us that political solutions are essential for some of the larger problems, but by concert's end, when I saw several people rudely holding up their glowing phones to get a shaky and inadequate video of the group singing, which reminded me of an article I read recently pointing out that Steve Jobs's major contribution to our world will most likely be piles of toxic waste dumps full of instantly outmoded phones, I wondered how deeply the message of ecological urgency is penetrating to any of us. Given Big Tech's clout around these parts, and the adulation that industry tends to receive, I wonder how many people concerned with things like unfair working conditions, the surveillance state, income disparity, and strip-mining the earth for products we dump after a year would be willing to resist the latest "innovation," or at least hang on to their instantly outmoded phones for a cycle or two. I suppose all of us end up having to deal with our own preferences and ironies when it comes to our individual attempts to solve a massive world-wide problem.

The music itself was more abstract than the readings, tending towards contemplation and celebration of nature and natural cycles. The first piece was by Jan Sandström, a contemporary Swedish composer, who adapted a traditional Sami (Laplander) song to the wind. Tenor soloist Ben Jones sang and the chorus followed, with a drum beating softly with the murmuring sounds. That was followed by the world premiere of Madrigals for the Season by David Conte. There will be a song for each season, but on Saturday we heard two, Summer and Autumn (I couldn't quite tell from the program note if Winter and Spring had been composed yet). Summer was a setting of Dickinson's A Summer's Day and Autumn was John Clare's Autumn (The summer-flower has run to seed). Both settings were very appealing but, especially given the composer's note on his vivid memories of sharply differentiated seasons during his Midwestern childhood, they were a bit too much alike. Dickinson and Clare both write about Nature but don't really sound in the same world. I did feel that the concert as a whole could have used a few more radical contrasts. So the third piece, Monteverdi's setting of Tasso's Ecco mormorar l'onde (Now the waves murmur) offered a welcome tang.

Then we heard Stjernespejl (The star rises on the horizon) by contemporary Danish composer Per Nørgård, followed by Swedish composer David Wikander's Kung Liljekonjalje (King Lily-of-the-Valley), and then Estonian composer Veljo Tormis's Sugismaastikud, a setting of seven short movements presenting autumn vignettes. I assume the welcome programming of unfamiliar Danish and Scandinavian composers reflects the interests of artistic director Bohlin. That was followed by Stanford's The Blue Bird and Vaughn Williams's Three Shakespeare Songs. These were all lovely, contemplative numbers, nicely delineated by the chorus. The final two selections were Frank Tichell's Earth Song, to the composer's own text, based on a heartfelt longing for peace amid our misadventures in Iraq, and Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst, which has the chorus snapping their fingers to recreate the sound of falling rain, a sound we have have sadly lost familiarity with during these drought years.

The concert was about ninety minutes with no intermission. The darkened basilica was a nice venue for its contemplative essence, despite the occasional intrusion of glowing screens mentioned earlier. There was a reception afterwards in the parish hall. I slipped in just long enough to grab some cheese-biscuits, say hello to a singer or two that I know, and buy Cappella SF's new Christmas album, Light of Gold, which I may write about if I find the time. Cappella SF's next concert, again at Mission Dolores Basilica, will be a celebration of Russian choral music, on 17 January 2016.

09 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/45

"Is my team ploughing,
     That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
     When I was man alive?"

Ay, the horses trample,
     The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
     The land you used to plough.

"Is football playing
     Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
     Now I stand up no more?"

Ay, the ball is flying,
     The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
     Stands up to keep the goal.

"Is my girl happy,
     That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
     As she lies down at eve?"

Ay, she lies down lightly,
     She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
     Be still, my lad, and sleep.

"Is my friend hearty,
     Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
     A better bed than mine?"

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
     I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
     Never ask me whose.

A E Housman

This poem is from Housman's celebrated collection A Shropshire Lad. Even though it was published in 1896, you can see why it became particularly popular during and after the First World War, which ended 97 years ago this Wednesday, 11 November (celebrated as Veterans Day in the United States). The collection's pervasive and deeply emotional, even erotic, engagement with young men and death struck a chord in a country devastated by the loss (to death or lasting wounds, physical and psychological) of a generation of young men. Although there is not much religious comfort offered, that also suited a generation made cynical about pieties by the war. (This pointed avoidance of the expected Victorian religious uplift may have helped the poems seem modern despite their very traditional form and language.) But the work does suggest some sort of continuity with an after-life, as in this poem, in which a man speaks to the spirit of his dead comrade, though I wouldn't call the conversation consoling.

A Shropshire Lad also offers an ideal view of England: written at the height of the British Empire, we are presented instead with an intensely local, pastoral setting, in which the complications and pains are the ever-lasting ones of loss, death, grief, and betrayal, rather than the complications of, say, modern urban capitalist alienation. (This is not a negative criticism of the collection, in my view; writers write what speaks to them, and that's what produces work of value and interest. But you can see why these poems appeal to some readers as a kind of authentic England, shorn of imperial and industrial complications.) Even when published the poems were considered "old-fashioned" in their style and language; unconnected to the Decadent Movement or to increasingly influential contemporary French poetry or other movements towards the birth of Modernism, Housman's poems speak with a formal purity and concision of language that may strike us not so much as old-fashioned as nearly close to timeless, or as timeless as any human artifact can get. This is less of a problem for later readers than it is for contemporary ones, who are more concerned with what is current and new. Everything changes and it matters less to us, who read later on, where writers fit with the movements of their times. In fact, the great writers create their times for us, no matter how out-of-step or obscure or elitist they seemed in their own day.

This is an England in which the land is still plowed by farmers driving teams of horses. The call-and-response structure of the poem starts with the dead man asking about his team of horses. In four brief lines in the first quatrain, we are told that the speaker is dead (used to drive, but that could imply he's simply moved elsewhere, so we also get When I was man alive), that he is recently dead (it's reasonable for him to think his horses are still at work), and that he was a rural man, a farm-worker. The jingling harnesses are one of those details that bring the scene vividly before us (vividly and, to many readers, picturesquely; this is not the daily life we lead).

The dialogue proceeds with mounting emotional intensity. After asking about his horses, the dead man asks about his friends, the other young men he played football with. (Football would be what Americans think of as soccer.) After that he asks about his girlfriend, remembering her grief as he was dying. The speaker suggests, as tactfully as you can say such a thing, that she has moved on: she is now well contented (which is gentler than the happy that the dead man used in his question). And at this point the drama increases a bit: for the first time, the living man suggests to the dead one that he should not ask any further questions: Be still, my lad, and sleep. But the dead man persists, asking about the living man himself, his friend. And the answer brings up complicated questions about grief and endurance and moving on in the face of death and pain – or maybe about indifference and a sort of betrayal.

It's interesting that the question about his friend comes after the one about his girlfriend. Partly this is so that the poem can end with the revelation that the living man and the girlfriend are now a couple. But given the increasing emotional charge of the questions, and the reference to sharing a bed, there's pretty clearly an erotic suggestion here as well, even surpassing the one between the man and his girlfriend. The dead man, perhaps with some surviving jealousy, asks if his friend has found a better bed than mine to sleep in. The friend replies that he lie[s] as lads would choose: perhaps the implication there is that the dead man's love, at least in its possibly erotic aspect, was to some extent unrequited. The somewhat odd use of pine (Now I am thin and pine) strengthens this idea: pine, which is used here roughly in the sense of I have pined away, suggests physical and mental decline, particularly as caused by a broken heart; it also suggests to pine, as in to long (unsuccessfully) for someone, usually in a romantic sense. (There may also be a "reference by resonance" to a coffin made of pine wood.)

It's important to note, though, that sharing beds was not uncommon among friends through the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas. It's also important to note that A Shropshire Lad was published the year after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison for "gross indecency" in one of the notorious scandals of the day. Sexual relations between men were criminal in Britain and would remain so until 1967, much too late for Wilde or Housman. Since the collection was self-published, it seems unlikely that Housman would put himself in legal and professional danger: that is, the same-sex elements of the poems could, in the context of the time, be seen either as a deep (but non-physical) friendship between two men, or as an erotic attachment (however one-sided or temporary) between them. Though I am resistant to reducing all male emotions to sexual ones, and resistant to forcing an interpretation on a poem based on what we know, or think we know, about an author's life, it seems to me that at this point it would be foolish to deny that element in this poem, or to deny that it enriches the emotional complexity of this dialogue between the living and the dead. But we should also remember that in a society intensely fearful and contemptuous of gay male relationships, thousands read these poems without suspicion and loved them enough to make them an enduring icon of an ideal England and to use them to mourn their war-time dead. So that element is there in them to the extent that each reader wants to see it. Ultimately we take from poems what we individually find useful.

Given A Shropshire Lad's popularity and cultural standing, it's not surprising that selections from it have been set to music by many English composers. The most famous is perhaps that by George Butterworth, one of the young artists killed during war (he saw action in France). I have heard this song, with its alternation between the living and ghostly voices, sung to devastating effect by artists such as Simon Keenlyside, Ian Bostridge, and Gerald Finley.

There are many editions of A Shropshire Lad, including some very elegant limited editions; I took this from The Collected Poems of A E Housman.

03 November 2015

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

There's kind of an overwhelming number of things going on this month, with a lot of problematic conflicts. But I am glad that at last we have some autumnal weather. What better way to celebrate the beautiful chill in the air than by walking home through it late at night after a wonderful live performance?

Aurora Theater presents The Monster-Builder by Amy Freed, directed by Art Manke. My recollection from the season announcement is that this is a comic take on Ibsen's Master Builder, though the website doesn't make that clear. Performances start 6 November and run through 6 December. You may buy tickets on the website, but since they don't allow you to pick your own seat you may be better off calling 510-843-4822 from Tuesday through Friday between 1:00 and 5:00.

Incidentally I just saw the Wallace Shawn/Andre Gregory/Jonathan Demme A Master Builder and it's a powerhouse. Shawn did make a significant structural change which I won't give away but I ended up being OK with it, though at first I thought it might simplify things too much. Highly recommended! Or, instead of listening to me, you could listen to the person on Netflix who said, "This was a terrible movie. I won't not waste [sic] my time watching it. I feel all the people in the movie were crazy. It is not worth rating but will give it a one [sic] star."

San Francisco Playhouse presents Stage Kiss, a back-stage drama by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Susi Damilano. That runs 17 November to 9 January 2016.

At Shotgun Players, Aphra Behn's The Rover continues until 15 November (and just as I posted this, I received the message that the show has been extended to 21 November). And as part of their reading series, on 9 - 10 November they present The Mechanics of Love by Dipika Guha, directed by Beth Wilmurt. This is a switch from the play previously scheduled for this slot, Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike, which is now being done as a full-scale production next season. (Honestly, though: to me, The Mechanics of Love sounds like a more interesting play. I think a lot about how upcoming shows are presented to us, and what makes some appealing to me and others not. It's all such a strange and shifting thing. Obviously everything is meant to sound enticing, but more often than not I'll read a description and think nope. Sometimes it's just that everything is laid out in a line or two and I know just what to expect – for instance anytime a character is described as being "not what she seems" – possibly she's not, but too often she's exactly what I expect. . . Enticing people is a tricky art, prone to inevitable failure. This may be especially true for me because I'm not really big on "plot" or "social issues" and that's often what people go for. Years ago I attempted to describe to a friend the "plot", such as it is, of The Magic Flute, and he finally said, "Patrick, you're not really selling me on this." I was mildly stunned, because it had never occurred to me that anyone would need to be sold on the Magic Flute – I mean, it's Mozart, right? – and if I had realized I had to do that, I would have avoided the plot almost altogether.)

Speaking of readings, Cutting Ball Theater's Hidden Classics Reading Series presents Racine's Phèdre, directed by Ariel Craft, on 8 November at 1:00. You may get a ticket here. Like the San Francisco Opera, Cutting Ball has a new website which has lots of white space and attractive pictures but not so much in the way of easily accessed and useful information. If there's a way to find the Hidden Classics series on the website, I couldn't find it, and I wouldn't have known about the reading if they hadn't sent out an e-mail.

The Douglas Morrisson Theater in Hayward presents Love's Labor's Lost, a musical by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers, based on the play by Shakespeare, directed by Lisa Tromovitch. It runs 5 to 29 November.

The sixth season of the SF Olympians Festival runs 4 - 21 November (Wednesdays through Sundays) at the Exit Theater. Each night features a brand-new play (or plays) based on a theme from Greek mythology; the theme this year is The Wine-Dark Sea. You can check out the full schedule here. Every year I vow to make it to this festival and every year I miss it (I tend to be already booked on weekends and increasingly reluctant to go to week night shows that don't even start until 8:00.) I'm hoping this will be the year the stars align for me and the Olympians.

Cal Performances presents the Rude Mechs in Stop Hitting Yourself, 19 -22 November in the Zellerbach Playhouse.

Mummenschanz returns to Cal Performances on 27 - 29 November (all performances are matinees) in Zellerbach Hall.

Here's a great way to celebrate Veterans Day (11 November): head to the War Memorial Veterans Building in Civic Center and attend the Heroes' Voices Veterans Concert. Heroes' Voices is an organization that uses music to help returning vets handle the multiple physical and psychological stresses from their service and their re-entry into civilian life. Performers include Pete Escovedo and his Latin Ensemble, OSA Vocal Rush, and the Heroes' Voices Bluegrass Band. The concert is free for vets, who may request vouchers on or before 8 November here. Others may buy tickets here.

Paul Flight conducts Chora Nova in two works by Haydn: the Lord Nelson Mass and the Autumn section of The Seasons. The soloists will be soprano Jennifer Paulino, alto Gabriela Estephanie Solis, and baritone Jeff Fields. That's 21 November at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley (at the corner of Dana and Channing).

Volti presents new choral music, featuring works by composer Amy Beth Kirsten as well as Forrest Pierce, Stacy Garrop, and Žibuoklė MartinaitytėThat's 7 November at the Piedmont Center for the Arts and 8 November at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

Ragnar Bohlin leads Cappella SF in Songs for the Earth, music celebrating and exploring our relation to the natural world. That's 7 November at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco.

Modern/New Music
The Ensemble Intercontemporain visits Cal Performances on 6 - 7 November, with a different program each night.

If you want to get an early start on Christmas, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is offering an evening of new Christmas carols by American composers, in conjunction with the release of a new CD, December Celebration. Composers include Mark Adamo, Jake Heggie, Joan Morris & William Bolcom, David Garner, and Gordon Getty; and performers include soprano Lisa Delan, baritone Bruce Rameker, Volti, members of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and pianist Steven Bailey. The concert is 20 November and it's free but reservations are required, and you can get them here.

See also Volti's concert under Choral and Jennifer Koh/Shai Wosner under Chamber Music. And as always you can find lots of intriguing stuff listed at the Center for New Music.

San Francisco Opera has a revamped website. I do not feel it is an improvement on the old one, unless you've been longing for fewer words and bigger pictures that all load very slowly. My immediate impression is that it's more difficult to find information that might actually be useful, like what is playing when and who's in it. Anyway: the big item this month is Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Years ago I read Fr Owen Lee's short book on this opera, and he makes a powerful case for the work, though it has always been my least favorite of Wagner's works. I feel that if I'm going to sit in a theater for over five hours, the end needs to give me something like the Universe burning down rather than a hymn to Holy German Art. The San Francisco cast, though, looks particularly strong, with Greer Grimsley, Brandon Jovanovich, Sasha Cooke, and Alek Shrader, conducted by Mark Elder (since I typed out that sentence, Grimsley has had to drop out for medical reasons and James Rutherford has stepped up as our Hans Sachs). Performances are 18, 21, 24, and 27 November and 2 and 6 (matinee) December. Evening performances start at 6:00 and the matinee at 1:00. I know scheduling can be tricky, but it seems odd to me that there is only one matinee for an opera that is notoriously long.

In conjunction with these performances, the Wagner Society of Northern California is presenting an all-day symposium on Die Meistersinger, featuring Evan Baker, Scott Foglesong, Arthur Colman, and Simon Williams. That will be 21 November at the Jewish Community Center on California Street. The entrance fee includes lunch. The Society's Symposia are always interesting and fun. You can find out more here.

The Magic Flute also continues at SF Opera, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia starts up at the end of the month. Daniela Mack is in Barbiere; I liked her a lot in Partenope last year.

Baroque / Early Music
Richard Egarr leads Philharmonia Baroque in Brandenburg Concertos 1, 3, 4, and 5 on November 12 (San Francisco), 13 (Stanford), 14 and 15 (Berkeley).

I'm sticking this next event under Baroque/Early Music because it always gets referred to as Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet and I think Thomas Tallis deserves at least some of the credit, because the forty-part motet is his massive masterpiece Spem in alium. What Cardiff cleverly did is arrange a recording so that individual voices come out of forty elevated speakers arranged in a circle. On one of my sadly infrequent trips to New York City I was at the Museum of Modern Art and I heard something I never expected to hear there: Renaissance choral music. I thought, that sounds like Spem in alium! and I wandered over and spent some time in the installation. It's pretty remarkable. You can stand right next to each speaker and hear the individual voices, or stand in the middle and hear them all, or walk around and notice which parts rise and fall in prominence. Even if you're lucky enough to attend a live performance you can't do these things, especially the one about standing very close to each singer while he or she is singing. Unfortunately I saw it at MOMA's clunky, sterile renovated building, but our own SF MOMA (no relation) is presenting it at the Fort Mason Center, which is sort of out of the way but in an attractive seafront locale once you get there. Advanced tickets are free and recommended by the museum. You can find out more here.

The San Francisco Early Music Society presents The Baltimore Consort in a Shakespeare-themed concert called The Food of Love, featuring songs from the plays and related music. You can catch them on 20 November in Palo Alto, 21 November at St John's Presbyterian in Berkeley, or 22 November at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

The Oakland Symphony presents Lost Romantics on 13 November at the Paramount. The program features Stokowski's arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto 1 with soloist Llewelyn Sanchez-Werner, arias by Offenbach and Lehar with tenor Brent Turner, and Danish composer Victor Bendix's Symphony No 3 from 1895. Nice to see some of the less-explored corners of the symphonic repertory getting an airing.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas leads two works by Sibelius – The Swan of Tuonela and the Violin Concerto with soloist Leonidas Kavakos – along with Schumann's Rhenish Symphony, on 13 - 15 November. Tilson Thomas also conducts Schumann's Spring Symphony, along with Richard Strauss's Serenade and Brentano Lieder (with soloist Laura Claycomb) on 19 - 22 November.

Chamber Music
Violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner present the first two of their four Bridge to Beethoven concerts, presented by San Francisco Performances in newly renovated Herbst Theater. They will perform Beethoven's ten sonatas for violin and piano, along with new pieces designed to reflect on or connect with the Beethoven. For the first concert, on 4 November, they will play Beethoven's Op 12, No 1 in D Major and the Kreutzer sonata, followed by Vijay Iyer's Bridgetower Fantasy in conversation with Kreutzer. For the second concert, on 7 November, they will play Beethoven's Op 23 in A Minor; Op 12, No 2 in A Major; and the Spring Sonata, along with Jörg Widmann's Sommersonate. The third and fourth concerts are in March and April; more information may be found here.

Cal Performances presents violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novacek in a program of Falla, Messiaen, Schumann, Erkki-Sven Tuür, and John Adams; that's on 8 November.

The Danish String Quartet visits Cal Performances on 22 November with a program of Adès, Haydn, and Beethoven.

San Francisco Performances presents the second of Anonymous 4's two farewell concerts; this one commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War with a program of American music; that's 15 November at St Mark's Lutheran.

San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony co-present Leif Ove Andsnes, playing works by Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin; that's 18 November in Davies Hall.

Sarah Cahill and violinist Stuart Canin play Brahms, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and other works at Old First Concerts on 13 November.

San Francisco Performances and the Yerba Buena Center present the Akram Khan Company in Kaash, 20 - 21 November at the YBCA Theater.

The Alonzo King LINES Ballet performs in collaboration with singer Lisa Fischer at the Yerba Buena Center from 6 to 15 November.

02 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/44

To the Tune "The Silk Washing Brook"

I cannot permit myself
To give way to too many cups of thick amber wine,
Or I will become so drunk
I will lose control of myself.
The first scattered bells
Are borne on the evening breeze.
Auspicious Dragon incense fades
Like my interrupted dream.
The delicate gold-bird hairpins
Fall from my tangled hair.
I awake
In the empty night
Face to face with a
Guttering red candle.

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

The speaker begins by cautioning herself against the temptation to drink too much wine. She is afraid of losing control; she is acutely aware that she is not as young as she once was, or as carefree, and perhaps that is another reason she craves the giddiness wine brings. She seems caught in a life she is aging out of, but its beauty seems reason enough to cling to it: the glowing wine, the curling incense, the delicate gold-bird hairpins. She seems to be floating through time; we hear about scattered bells on the evening breeze (they're the first scattered bells, which seems to indicate that it's early evening); moments (or a few brief lines) later, she's waking up in the middle of the night. Has there been a party which ended? Does she remember it? Why is her hair tangled? There is a delicate dishevelment to the scene. She refers to her interrupted dream; is this an actual dream she was having, or is it her life? She seems to be alone when she wakes up; she refers to the empty night, but the adjective spreads over the whole scene. She is face to face not with another human but with a guttering candle, a light going out, a symbol of the brevity of youth and pleasure and life itself. The candle is red, which is a traditional good luck color in China. Is this an ironic touch, or a reminder of how fortunate we are even amid a scene of anxiety and solitude?

This is a poem about the passing of time. But the very existence of this poem, written almost nine hundred years ago in China and brought to us by a mid-twentieth century American poet, suggests that Art is an escape from Time. Li Ch'ing-chao's words, evoking a sense of fragility and pain at the rapid passage of life, stand monumental centuries later, available to anyone who wants to read them over.

The poem is from The Complete Poems of Li Ch'ing-chao, translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. The poet's name is sometimes transliterated Li Qingzhao, but I'm using the version Rexroth and Chung used in their book.