October 30, 2011 § 2 Comments
I know all you American parents will roll your eyes, but there’s no disputing it: Parisian kids are exceptionally cute. They’re graceful and elfin; they flicker in their bodies and spark in the sunlight. And if you think I’m just seeing things—well, maybe. But there’s no doubt that they’re much more relaxed and spontaneous than NYC kids, more like children in the grand old days of when I was a kid in the suburbs, as well as being disarmingly polite. So an eight year old running down a city street (with no mother shouting anxiously after her) will, if she accidentally brushes against you, sing out, “Pardon, Madame!” and keep running. Ditto if she’s running through a subway car. It made me even happier than looking into a window of jewel-like tarts.
I felt almost instantly at home in Paris. I remembered more French than I thought I would, and the French spoke more English and with far less attitude than when I was last there a quarter of a century ago. If was lost or confused, I asked for help and people were kind and took much more time than they needed to. The men were so gallant I started thinking maybe I was 25 again.
The old gray Paris I remembered is much cleaner and more colorful. Shop signs, awnings, banners, table cloths—bright reds and blues and greens, handsome graphics. And of course more colorful in the other sense, too, a more diverse population, which also made me feel at home.
Highlights: The Munch show at the Pompidou Center; the Seine in sunlight; the middle-class neighborhood we stayed in, where the cafes were full of old men drinking wine at 10 pm; the cheese plate in a café on the Left Bank whose name I don’t remember; The Musee D’Orsay, every bit of it; Manouche (gypsy) music in Samois Sur Seine, while visiting Andree; reading my poems to Andree and getting voice tips; suffering one of the familiar curses of my married life as Charles pushed through the “sortie” door when the metro turnstile refused his ticket and then, as the alarm screeched and wailed, having to pull him onto the closest train, which was luckily going in the right direction. Finally, the woman at the desk in the hotel I stayed in alone, my last two days, who seemed to dance as she spoke, her head, shoulders and hands moving slightly in time to her singsong voice: routine enacted as private pleasure, as a tiny bliss I shared, the kind you feel when a friend idly reaches out to loop your hair behind your ears.
On the plane home, I was surrounded by British schoolboys on a tour, which made my stomach sink, and yes, they did shout across to each other the whole time, but it was made up for by the delight the boy next to me showed when he realized he could have as many Sprites as he wanted, free. He told all his classmates this in a voice as excited as if they were getting booze. And when the stewardesses brought around tiny cups of ice cream—post dessert dessert—he shook his head in incredulity. “And this is economy,” he said under his breath. No, it was Virgin Atlantic.
I want to go back. I can’t even afford to go to see my mother for Christmas, but I’m already dreaming of Paris again, Paris when my fortunes turn, when I write my bestseller about how my cats are really angels, here to impart the knowledge that the universe, against all appearances, is kind and just and very fond of us: if you close your eyes and say, “kitty, kitty, kitty,” three times a day until further notice, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. (Julian of Norwich.)
Actually I think my cats are angels. But like most angels, they have no purpose but to look androgynously beautiful and ignore the sweat and tears of humanity.
Correction: they do not ignore my tears. They take great exception to them. But that’s another story, one I’ve been telling lately in poetry because it’s easier to see the comic side in poems. Liars and sex make good comedy—something I’ve barely begun to explore. But then my ex-lover’s lies still take my breath away. OK, enough. The book will be out soon. Save your pennies.
The Drunken Boat
As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers:
Yelping redskins had taken them as targets
And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.
I was indifferent to all crews,
The bearer of Flemish wheat or English cottons
When with my haulers this uproar stopped
The Rivers let me go where I wanted.
Into the furious lashing of the tides
More heedless than children’s brains the other winter
I ran! And loosened Peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub
The storm blessed my sea vigils
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
That are called eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!
Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook
And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,
Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated
Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks;
Where, suddenly dyeing the blueness, delirium
And slow rhythms under the streaking of daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres,
The bitter redness of love ferments!
I know the skies bursting with lightning, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exalted as a flock of doves
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!
I have seen the low sun spotted with mystic horrors,
Lighting up, with long violet clots,
Resembling actors of very ancient dramas,
The waves rolling far off their quivering of shutters!
I have dreamed of the green night with dazzled snows
A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of unknown saps,
And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous!
I followed during pregnant months the swell,
Like hysterical cows, in its assault on the reefs,
Without dreaming that the luminous feet of the Marys
Could constrain the snout of the wheezing Oceans!
I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers panthers’ eyes and human
Skin! Rainbows stretched like bridal reins
Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!
I have seen enormous swamps ferment, fish-traps
Where a whole Leviathan rots in the rushes!
Avalanches of water in the midst of a calm,
And the distances cataracting toward the abyss!
Glaciers, suns of silver, nacreous waves, skies of embers!
Hideous strands at the end of brown gulfs
Where giant serpents devoured by bedbugs
Fall down from gnarled trees with black scent!
I should have liked to show children those sunfish
Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.
—Foam of flowers rocked my drifting
And ineffable winds winged me at times.
At times a martyr weary of poles and zones,
The sea, whose sob created my gentle roll,
Brought up to me her dark flowers with yellow suckers
And I remained, like a woman on her knees…
Resembling an island tossing on my sides the quarrels
And droppings of noisy birds with yellow eyes
And I sailed on, when through my fragile ropes
Drowned men sank backward to sleep!
Now I, a boat lost in the foliage of caves,
Thrown by the storm into the birdless air
I whose water-drunk carcass would not have been rescued
By the Monitors and the Hanseatic sailboats;
Free, smoking, topped with violet fog,
I who pierced the reddening sky like a wall,
Bearing, delicious jam for good poets
Lichens of sunlight and mucus of azure,
Who ran, spotted with small electric moons,
A wild plank, escorted by black seahorses,
When Julys beat down with blows of cudgels
The ultramarine skies with burning funnels;
I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off
The moaning of the Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms,
Eternal spinner of the blue immobility
I miss Europe with its ancient parapets!
I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands
Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:
—Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Million golden birds, o future Vigor? –
But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.
Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor
O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!
If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
No longer can I, bathed in your languor, o waves,
Follow in the wake of the cotton boats,
Nor cross through the pride of flags and flames,
Nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.
Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Wallace Fowlie
October 13, 2011 § 4 Comments
The other night I watched a group of amazing actors (Alan Coates, Kevin Collins, Christian Conn, Michael Early, Dana Ivey, Anthony Newfield, Bruce Pinkham and Cat Walleck) read/perform an edited version of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad at the Cathedral. It’s an excellent translation—crisp, muscular, clean; every word sounded exactly right. I was very happy to hear it, especially with such voices, and enjoyed leaving those echoes of human folly and carnage behind me as I exited the Cathedral through the Council of Pronghorn, which I’ll write about another time. ( A wonderful, mysterious piece of art. You can just imagine it for now.)
The Iliad. I just can’t seem to like that poem. Agamemnon’s a creep, Achilles a sulky thug, Hector’s too perfect, and the gods are like 7 year olds on a sugar high. Helen’s okay, but boring. Priam has way too many sons. It reminds of that time-tested writing advice: create characters your audience will care about. Obviously The Iliad does it for some people, but not me. I admire the descriptions and there are certain moments—Andromache pleading with Hector; Agamemnon being pissy; Achilles dragging Hector’s body, face in the dust, the gods not allowing any harm to come to the beautiful dead visage; Hermes leading Priam invisibly through the city—all of those are powerful, but there are too many bodies piling up, and for no good reason (which is the point, I know).
I far prefer The Odyssey with its variety of monsters, its crafty and complicated women, its hero second to none in my heart. Here’s a passage about the nymph Calypso’s island. Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner for 7 years, lavishing him with pleasure until he was cleansed of the horrors of war and could go home.
Thick, luxuriant woods grew round the cave, alders, and black poplars, pungent cypress too, and there, birds roosted, folding their long wings, owls and hawks and the spread beaked ravens of the sea, black skimmers who make their living off the waves. And round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes. Four springs in a row, bubbling clear and cold, running side-by-side, took channels left and right. Soft meadows spreading round were starred with violets, lush with beds of parsley. Why, even a deathless god who came upon that place would gaze in wonder, heart entranced with pleasure.
Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation
Yet The Iliad, at this point, seems more real. Life is bloody and stupid. Mostly you stay in the same place, beseiging the city, and know that somewhere something–let’s call it Olympus–is pulling the strings.
I used to know all of Greek mythology. I read it so many times, in so many versions. But now I have only partial access to my brain. Past knowledge is stored, but the librarian can’t remember the system. New information fares even worse. Things go in and fall out, like money from a torn pocket. It may be the anti-depressants, or just getting older. Lisa said the other day, “It makes so much difference when you remember we’re all going to die.” She meant in regard to compassion, tolerance, seeing the other’s person’s point of view. I said, “How can you not think of it at this age?” My body and brain are preparing for death quite vocally.
That’s why its presence in art has such an effect on me, as it never did before. Of course I think of it as an escape hatch sometimes, which makes a difference. Still, I believe that even if I learned happiness like a new language—I do know some of its best words—I would never forget death was coming. Nor would I, or will I, fear it as I once did. Like Achilles who keeps being told by his mother Thetis that his death fast approaches, and is supremely unconcerned, I feel unbothered by the prospect of my demise.
Yours, on the other hand, is not allowed. None of you. Don’t go running into glorious battle in your fancy god-forged armor. Sail home on your ship, tied to the mast if need be, and greet the frail elderly dog who loves you.
I found the following poem by searching “Calypso” at poets.org. It has nothing to do with my post, but I love it.
INSECT LIFE OF FLORIDA
In those days I thought their endless thrum
was the great wheel that turned the days, the nights.
In the throats of hibiscus and oleander
I’d see them clustered yellow, blue, their shells
enamelled hard as the sky before rain.
All that summer, my second, from city
to city my young father drove the black coupe
through humid mornings I’d wake to like fever
parcelled between luggage and sample goods.
Afternoons, showers drummed the roof,
my parents silent for hours. Even then I knew
something of love was cruel, was distant.
Mother leaned over the seat to me, the orchid
Father’d pinned in her hair shrivelled
to a purple fist. A necklace of shells
coiled her throat, moving a little as she
murmured of alligators that float the rivers
able to swallow a child whole, of mosquitoes
whose bite would make you sleep a thousand years.
And always the trance of blacktop shimmering
through swamps with names like incantations—
Okeefenokee, where Father held my hand
and pointed to an egret’s flight unfolding
white above swamp reeds that sang with insects
net over the sea, its lesson
of desire and repetition. Lizards flashed
over his shoes, over the rail
until I was lost, until I was part
of the singing, their thousand wings gauze
on my body, tattooing my skin.
father rocked me later by the water,
on the motel balcony, singing calypso
above the Jamaican radio. The lyrics
here the citronella burned, merging our
shadows—Father’s face floating over mine
in the black changing sound
night, the enormous Florida night,
metallic with cicadas, musical
and dangerous as the human heart.
October 7, 2011 § 3 Comments
Wednesday night Lisa and I went to The Threepenny Opera at BAM, by the Berliner Ensemble (in German with supertitles), directed by Robert Wilson. It was stunning and creepy, decadent as in “decay,” not artisanal dark chocolate and free trade silk pajamas. All those rousing, sexy Kurt Weill songs are sung by leering mannequin-like actors in white face, lips and eyes outlined in black (think Uncle Fester in Weimar Germany) speaking and singing in a gutteral German that I found thrilling but not in the way Kurt Weill usually thrills me. Opting for corpse-glam, Wilson ensured there was no lust for the dashing, evil Macheath, no sneaky affection for the daring thug-thieves. It was all spectacle and dark music and the memory of emotions that once carried meaning—hope, desire—now frozen into a hellish diorama.
There were many places where the actors simply stopped and screamed, the scream going beyond an expression of whatever disturbing event they were experiencing: they screamed because in their world, words will never, could never, be enough. Mrs. Peacham (Traute Hoess) was especially good at these raw vocalizations, as well as doing a marvelously demented hiccup routine to signal drunkenness. She was a really scary wind-up toy, something out of Stephen King at his most inspired.
The show is a tour de force; I’m glad I saw it. I’d also like to see it again done differently. I can imagine a Threepenny Opera production that would pay full homage to the nihilism of the text, yet still feel alive. In that production, I might have been charmed by Macheath, as all the ladies are. But in this production when Polly Peacham remarks that having so many people murdered just to get her some wedding furniture seems a bit much, I completely agreed with her. I knew it was funny, but it didn’t feel funny. I was numbed to both the revolutionary and the farcical spirit.
The one scene that did work, emotionally, was the one with Macheath in prison while his bride and his lover, both claiming the right to him, parade in front of his jail cell, screaming insults at each other. Lisa nudged me. Yes, I got it. There’s been something like that in my life recently (you don’t want to know). This was the point when the sexlessness of the actor playing Macheath worked, because when women succumb to the red fury of jealousy, the man effectively disappears. He’s just the scrap of meat, the gnawed bone.
For most of the show, after an hour of gorging my senses on the spare and brilliant set—literally as well as metaphorically brilliant—costumes, and choreography, I got the most pleasure when I shut my eyes. I love Brecht’s writing and wanted to read every word, but there were moments in the songs when the chorus repeated and I could go blind, just listening. It was a dissonant, snarly music, like a vast underground conspiracy of rage, like monster trucks racing on the highway at night without drivers, like a whole city of alley cats fucking at the same time. It was New York City, 2011.
Afterwards, Lisa and I had dinner, and she told me, as she has before, that so much of my pain is just ego, and I can let go of ego. She wasn’t implying that this is easy; but perhaps that I’m not trying hard enough. She’s right about that. I have moments when ego disappears, and I look at the theater of my life with a cool dispassion, noting the patterns and possibilities, the poignantly pathetic human drama. I applaud the writer then, the one who keeps throwing obstacles at the balky protagonist clinging to her old, far-too-imperfect self.
I can’t quite want to give up my ego. I’m less afraid of that than I used to be—that it will impair survival—and much less enamored of my stew of passions, but I still hesitate. Ego’s a nice warm place, and winter’s coming.
(When I used to listen to Judy Collins’ version, I believed in the song completely, never realizing it was a whore’s sad fantasy…in those days, I thought we all got a chance at revenge, and would happily take it. )
You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors
And I’m scrubbin’ the floors while you’re gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town
In this crummy old hotel
But you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’.
No. You couldn’t ever guess to who you’re talkin’.
Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you’ll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin’ while I’m scrubbin’
And you say, “What’s she got to grin?”
I’ll tell you.
There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
With a skull on its masthead
Will be coming in
You gentlemen can say, “Hey gal, finish them floors!
Get upstairs! What’s wrong with you! Earn your keep here!
You toss me your tips
And look out to the ships
But I’m counting your heads
As I’m making the beds
Cuz there’s nobody gonna sleep here, tonight
Nobody’s gonna sleep here
Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you say, “Who’s that kicking up a row?”
And ya see me kinda starin’ out the winda
And you say, “What’s she got to stare at now?”
I’ll tell ya.
There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
Turns around in the harbor
Shootin’ guns from her bow
You gentlemen can wipe off that smile off your face
Cause every building in town is a flat one
This whole frickin’ place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, “Why do they spare that one?”
That’s what you say.
“Why do they spare that one?”
All the night through, through the noise and to-do
You wonder who is that person that lives up there?
And you see me stepping out in the morning
Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair
And the ship
The Black Freighter
Runs a flag up it’s masthead
And a cheer rings the air
By noontime the dock
Is a-swarmin’ with men
Comin’ out from the ghostly freighter
They move in the shadows
Where no one can see
And they’re chainin’ up people
And they’re bringin’ em to me
“Kill them NOW, or LATER?”
“Kill them now, or later?”
Noon by the clock
And so still at the dock
You can hear a foghorn miles away
And in that quiet of death
I’ll say, “Right now.
Then they pile up the bodies
And I’ll say,
“That’ll learn ya!”
And the ship
The Black Freighter
Disappears out to sea