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Articles on this Page
- 11/24/12--09:25: _The Inner Rose - Ne...
- 11/27/12--08:11: _The Grey Satin Lady
- 11/30/12--09:37: _Callahan
- 12/02/12--05:59: _Lighter Than Air -...
- 12/07/12--10:15: _Brubeck
- 01/04/13--04:51: _Pollock and Abstrac...
- 01/04/13--18:28: _Keep Trying
- 01/16/13--11:33: _Gould / Sibelius - ...
- 01/20/13--10:18: _Late Carver
- 01/21/13--00:46: _The New Push for Nu...
- 01/30/13--04:09: _People Who Died: An...
- 02/01/13--05:43: _The Delta Queen for...
- 02/05/13--08:01: _A Precise Moment of...
- 02/07/13--10:28: _Ciao, bene, one sho...
- 02/08/13--18:13: _Aurora Rarotonga
- 02/09/13--10:09: _Joe Ceravolo Once a...
- 02/13/13--11:33: _Objectivism Begins ...
- 02/19/13--07:30: _Mom's Apple Pie - A...
- 02/19/13--13:10: _Going Unshaven
- 02/22/13--14:23: _Welcome to Thibaud ...
- 11/24/12--09:25: The Inner Rose - New Cocktail
- 11/27/12--08:11: The Grey Satin Lady
- 11/30/12--09:37: Callahan
- 12/02/12--05:59: Lighter Than Air - New Cocktail
- 12/07/12--10:15: Brubeck
- 01/04/13--04:51: Pollock and Abstraction
- 01/04/13--18:28: Keep Trying
- 01/16/13--11:33: Gould / Sibelius - in Deep Winter
- 01/20/13--10:18: Late Carver
- 01/21/13--00:46: The New Push for Nuclear
- 01/30/13--04:09: People Who Died: Anselm Hollo 1934-2013
- 02/01/13--05:43: The Delta Queen for Superbowl Sunday
- 02/05/13--08:01: A Precise Moment of History
- 02/07/13--10:28: Ciao, bene, one shot per favore
- 02/08/13--18:13: Aurora Rarotonga
- 02/09/13--10:09: Joe Ceravolo Once and Forever
- 02/13/13--11:33: Objectivism Begins - 1929
- 02/19/13--07:30: Mom's Apple Pie - A New Drink
- 02/19/13--13:10: Going Unshaven
- 02/22/13--14:23: Welcome to Thibaud Street - Part I
A rose is a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. They who feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose. He arose at break of day to see the last dew drops upon the petals of the roses. Google your mind and what turns up?
Roses on stems have the look of knowing they are being looked at. They pose in such a way as if to say. Self-consciousness in nature makes wild feelings domestic. The music of their arrival reminded them of sounds, of scents, of memories of conversations.
The smell a rose makes comes from the sap inside the stems, which draw moisture up from the roots in the ground, designed (along with brilliant pastel coloration) to attract pollinating insects, in order to promote reproduction. In other words, a flower's beauty and scent are survival techniques.
We don't need alcoholic drinks to survive, but the human sense of taste is quite sophisticated, and our ability to give names (nomenclature) to the variations in flavor is one mark of our refinement as a species. A mildly intoxicating sensation is what some people feel in the presence of roses, in a rose garden. What does an insect feel as it descends into the center of a flower to gorge itself on nectar? Probably is in a state of heightened consciousness, as we used to say back in the 1960's.
Cocktails usually don't make me feel as if I were in a "heightened state" of consciousness, but this concoction comes close. Mix one and see what you think. This recipe is for a single drink.
Mixing cocktails is nothing more than cooking without heat, though there are a few "hot" drinks you can make. There are even alcohol-free concoctions, for those who can't (or won't) tolerate the sauce. And there are as many different kinds of bar-snacks as there are drinks. But most people aren't adventurous enough--they know only a half-dozen cocktails, and always order those, instead of considering alternatives. This one's a charmer, take my word.
For one drink--
2 1/2 parts Tanqueray #10 gin
1/2 part Violette liqueuer
2 shakes Pernod
2 shakes Peach Bitters
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
--served up in a cocktail glass chilled to a frosty white.
Lift up your skirts, ladies, we're passing through hell.
Harry Callahan [1912-1999] was an important 20th Century American photographer whose career spanned the entire post-WWII period. He began photographing seriously in the late 1930's, but his career really didn't get going until after the war. Self-taught, he went on to teach photography for many years, first at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and later at the Rhode Island School of Design (until 1977). Though he was associated early in his career with the work of Aaron Siskind, his work always showed a strong individual vision. He was always one of the least derivative artists in his métier, and in each phase of his work he blazed new paths for development.
Callahan was famous, if not notorious, for not furnishing aesthetic explanations or programs for his own work. Though entirely devoted to his art--he photographed almost every day--what he may have thought about his approach to subject matter, and the process he went through to attain his desired ends he preferred to keep to himself, despite the implied pedagogical obligation his teaching position implied. He was quoted as saying that a serious photographer should be able to make an interesting picture of anything, no matter where one was, and that one needn't go further than a few paces from where one sat or stood to find a good vantage point. This kind of reductive minimalist approach to the meaning of content seems to me quintessentially American. When Callahan visited Europe on a grant, he complained that it was "too photogenic"--that he "couldn't find pictures" to make. The notion of an unfinished or unripe visual reality is specific to the American mind, which thinks of an unsettled and undeveloped frontier as the crucial inspiring ground for exploitation. Europeans, in the era of exploration, may have felt something similar, but they didn't have cameras to record what they found and saw in the strange new lands they found. The idea of exploring reality as a given abstraction, without the associations assigned to it by society, history, aesthetic discipline, is a particularly American endeavor, and one reason for the revolutionary quality of so much successful American art in the 20th Century.
I like to think of Callahan's photographs as exhibiting a quality of controlled passivity, creating a kind of tension between the impulse to respond in a certain way to an image, and an apparent laxity (or relaxation) which the very quiet mood of his work permits. An apparent stasis or balance between viewer and scene, between opposing dimensions of the picture frame, creates a provisional unification of intention. Time stands still, in order that we may contemplate the poised impression of a specific bit (or frame) of reality. This original simplicity characterizes much of Callahan's best early work.
At first glance, a work like this early study of high contrast reflections on a water surface might seem like doctrinaire Abstract Expressionist work. But in the milieu of Callahan's other work, it stands out as a specific discovery amidst a series of unique moments. But unlike the elusive, fleeting "moment" as expressed in the work, say, of Cartier-Bresson (and/or other generic photo-journalists), this one doesn't stand on the candid delight of an elusive intention; it's chosen out of the great wealth of similar moments and stands as an example of a deliberate found instant--ethically neutral--a democratic particular chosen from the unlimited record of all such instants, none more value-laden than any other. An image type-cast from the Platonic array of possible form(s). Photography's great potential is to be able to imply and capture all this meaning in an otherwise inert visual template. Callahan's refusal to bridge the gap between the weight of his images, and the viewer's hunger for pretext, leaves a void which can only be filled with after-market critical additions.
Man's earliest attempts at flight look silly to us now. Inventors and tinkerers looked at birds and insects and thought they could imitate aspects of the mechanisms which enable them to take wing, but they didn't look closely enough. Their study of flight was incomplete and naive, not respecting the simplest aspects of the physics of gravity, propulsion, stress and stability. The mechanics of flight aren't simple, when you get into their finer points, but it should have been obvious to the crackpots who tried out their preposterous contraptions that their amazing machines had no chance of escaping the limits of land-bound existence.
If they had really studied how birds fly, for instance, they would have realized that birds have a finely adapted motion made possible by an incredibly light and agile wing, which would require a device as intricate and flexible and subject to subtle command as a mammal's limb. The stages men went through to attain flight were a series of false leads and dead ends. The first manned flights weren't really flights, but floats--by way of hot-air balloons. It would be a long time before they were able to understand the principle of fixed wing passage through air, and how the shape of the wing permits the lift which makes true flight possible. Today, we seem to have reached a plateau, with our supersonic jets and delta wing craft. We can't change the essential limits of our atmospheric medium, and we haven't discovered how to neutralize gravity, so we're pretty much limited to what we can engineer through the air.
The early flying machines look like feeble monuments to the stupidity of man. They're like parodies of our innocence.
Ordinary men don't seem to dream as much as they used to. We live in an age in which we've ceded the curiosity and creativity and ingenuity to "the experts"--we no longer live in the age of the amateur--everyone must be an expert to make something useful and new. Technology demands expertise, and the untutored or uninitiated need not apply.
There's something touching--indeed there's something delightful about the way these early aeroplanes looked, in the same way the early motorized carriages did. They look like something an amateur mechanic or engineer might cook up in his back garage in his spare time. Men don't read Popular Mechanics anymore. They read computer magazines, if they read anything.
4 Parts Tanqueray #10
2 Parts Aquavit
1 Part Kirsch
1/2 part Almond syrup
1/2 part lime juice
This one is a little like my Grey Satin Lady I created last week--a bit reserved. Perfect for reflecting back on life's little ironies. Looking back now I think, in a sense, I've fulfilled the dreams instilled in me by my parents, growing up to have a family, to pursue a long career, and to have useful interests along the way. I think they would have liked me to do a stint in the armed services, but that would have meant, in my case, going off to Vietnam at the height of the war, something I was sure I didn't want to do, and am glad I didn't. Given the identical circumstances, I think they would have acted much as my generation did.
I wonder what it must have felt like to be the first human to fly, as the Wright Brothers did in Kitty Hawk in 1903. A little like stepping out onto the surface of the moon. We're coming up on the 110the anniversary of the feat this month. As a boy, I used to enjoy making models of airplanes--the kind constructed out of balsawood strips and paper pasted around the fuselage and wings. Those models were designed to fly, but they were too flimsy, and always broke up when you gave them their maiden flight. They solved one problem (lightness), but weren't sturdy enough. Do boys still dream of making balsawood model airplanes? Probably not. They must spend all their time sitting in front of computer screens, playing games and surfing the net.
In a way, I don't disagree with this on a purely factual basis. All abstract art is subjective and suasive (or argumentative). Abstract writing or art can mean what we want it to mean, or what we say it means, or can mean.
Abstract art has conquered our culture. Almost no one seriously questions the value of the Abstract Expressionists, for instance; their work has entered the accepted canon of Western cultural history. Jackson Pollock [1912-1956] will now forever be compared and contrasted to Winslow Homer, and Raphael, and Neal Welliver. This is because he was recognized, and commended, and welcomed into the official art culture.
Experimental writing hasn't fared as well. Stein and Pound and Ashbery and Mac Low aren't considered to be necessary parts of the literary culture, in the same way that Pollock and de Kooning and Sam Francis and Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko and Philip Guston are. If they were, their original printed works would be "priceless"--worth many times what they presently command on the rare book market. The big blockbuster names on the list of collectible modern authors--Fitzgerald's Gatsby, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Eliot's Waste Land, to name a handful--are far and away more in demand than the rival "abstract" literary masters. There seems to be some "resistance" in the culture to abstraction in language, that has been erased or at least made more translucent, for artistic artifacts.
I think this is partly due to the fact that we're "closer" to language than we are to art. Few people have as intimate a mental attachment to artificial visual stimuli, for instance, as they do to language. Language is an intimate mental function, and what we're read (or read to ourselves) as children has a much more dominating influence on our way of thinking about it, than we do about painting. In other words, if you've never sampled the abstract writing of Gertrude Stein, and come to it for the first time as a young adult, you will probably resist it. On the other hand, if you see Jackson Pollock's Number 32 for the first time, after having seen mostly representational art in your life, you may be delighted by its implications. This may be because you don't know "how it's done" and so have a discrete separation from the logic of its production--there's a potential "respectful distance" between yourself and the pretension of its presence. And since we think we know about how writing is "done"--the putting together of words and phrases into recognized, accepted syntactic called sentences--we may tend to discredit language which "breaks the rules" we've come to be taught--if only by example--make it "correct." Or maybe we just don't think of language as "art" in the same way we think the plastic arts are "artistic." We aren't willing to accept abstraction in language to the same degree that we accept it in "art."
I'm speaking generically here--as the voice of the man on the street. I was seduced into abstraction in language long before I came to be very familiar with American Abstract Expressionism. Not that I hadn't seen the paintings, but I had read literary works which challenged my sense of meaning and structure--Joyce's Ulysses, Eliot's The Waste Land, Cummings's poems--before I ever thought seriously about the meaning of a work like Pollock's Blue Poles. Which is partly explained by the inherent "passivity" of "looking at" or regarding art. When you read language, you are running a kind of projector in your mind--reading is a process and a task. But when you stand in a gallery and "look at" a work on the wall, you aren't "doing anything"--you're just apart from it: It's there and you're here, and you're not following the artist's brush strokes or his movements or the fine feathery detail-work involved in its making.
Except that, with Pollock, the making of it literally seems to be a part of our apprehension of the work itself. A work like Number 32 functions as the literal evidence of the physical act of its making, in a way that most representational art doesn't. That record seems to be a primary part of its meaning, of its purpose. When you see the black streaks and blotches and splashes of black paint, you can see them as the result of the throwing or dripping or smearing action of the painter as he put them on the canvas. There's no particular reason why this should be important to the value of a work of art, except perhaps as a demonstration of its vigorous energetic presence. It's busy, it's frenetic, it's confused, it's liberated, it has a quality of wild intensity--none of which has any inherent value except that which we give to it, through our response and judgment. We can call it art, for want of a better description.
And yet most people, people who would recognize a Pollock canvas as a certifiably acceptable "work of art" would almost certainly reject a piece by Gertrude Stein as belonging in the same canon of value and meaning as Henry James novel, or a poem by Robert Frost--even though Pollock doesn't "follow the rules" of representation, in much the same way that Stein doesn't "follow the rules" of syntax and grammar and narrative sequence. The more we know about artists who seriously pursue abstraction, the more we realize how carefully they have thought about what they do. Stein wrote probably as much about "how" she wrote as any modern writer, though a lot of her self-critical meditation (or moderation) exists within the "creative" works themselves, rather than as "external" critical expository prose.
A contemporary abstract literary document has to overcome the same hurdles that Stein did, say, when she published Tender Buttons in 1914. There is nearly as much resistance to a work of prose or poetry that isn't "narrational" and grammatically correct today, as there was then. And yet the general public may visit an exhibition of contemporary abstract art this weekend, and be no more challenged by the meaningless smears of color on a canvas stretcher, than they would about graffiti on a factory wall.
Literature has failed, in other words, to convince the reading public of the value of verbal abstraction as a worthy enterprise. And that resistance--if indeed that process can be described as a campaign or a calling or a purpose--seems as frustratingly stubborn to alteration today, as it did 50 or 75 years ago. It's probably the consequence of the critical community never really "buying" the idea of abstract language, to the degree that it did abstraction in art. Abstract Expressionism "won over" its audience 50 years ago, and never looked back. But abstraction in language still exists apart from its potential public(s), rejected, ignored, spurned. Is it because the works themselves have not been as strong and convincing--as undeniable--as they needed to be? Or is it simply that we're not "allowed" to like them, having been told by a disapproving critical garde that literary abstraction is unworthy of our attention? Are the sort of critical battles that were fought in the 1950's over Abstract Expressionism, to be waged or joined at some point in the future over the value of abstraction in literary works? Are we so intimately involved in language that we may never be able sufficiently to objectify a work of abstract literary composition to the same degree that we can of a painting or a sculpture or a photograph?
Is the work of Jackson Mac Low or Clark Coolidge or Ron Silliman awaiting the triumph of acceptance that once elevated the Abstract Expressionists to fame and fortune? Or will they be confined to the outer orbits of the literary solar system, cold and remote and under-appreciated and critically impoverished?
Literally at Kitty Hawk
the exhilaration what a
for the first
time beautiful, crude
on your stomach
edge of propeller is
history to empty space
Sibelius isn't a difficult composer. What makes his work interesting is the pacing and alternation of moods, qualities I see in a somewhat less subtle form in Bruckner's symphonies. It's dramatic writing, but of a solitary cast. It's moody.
Gould was also of course a moody guy. He could be eccentric and unpredictable and even wacky at times, but there is a stream of somberness in his sensibility that seems perfectly suited to the subtle grey and blue tones of Sibelius's inspiration. Here are the YouTube links to Gould's Sibelius Sonatinas:
Sonatine in f-sharp minor Op. 67 no. 1
Sonatine in E major Op. 67 no. 2
Sonatine in b-flat minor Op. 67 no. 3
I came to an appreciation of Raymond Carver's work late in his career (and life). Born in 1938, growing up in a lower middle (working-) class family in the Pacific Northwest, Carver struggled during the first decade and a half of his adult life with addiction, depression, marital and financial problems, and the obscurity of being unknown and unappreciated as a writer. But through his work, he overcame all these obstacles to become one of the best-known and loved writers of his generation; finally dying at the too early age of 50, from cancer.
The one impression Carver's stories and poems leave me with is its improbability. Here is a man whose work--in subject and method--is both unassuming and modest. It is almost totally without pretense in the literary sense, but as anyone knows, the least degree of apparent artificiality is often the result of the greatest art, or artifice. To appear to be unpretentious often requires considerable effort. Carver's stories are often about the smallest event or detail. People move through a typical short space of time and condition, and suddenly an unexpected revelation unfolds, as if by magic. Like Chekhov, Carver is full of suprises.
One of my favorite Carver poems is The Net, from his last (posthumous) collection A New Path to the Waterfall .
Toward evening the wind changes. Boats
still out on the bay
head for shore. A man with one arm
sits on the keel of a rotting-away
vessel, working on a glimmering net.
He raises his eyes. Pulls at something
with his teeth, and bites hard.
I go past without a word.
Reduced to confusion
by the variableness of the weather,
the importunities of my heart. I keep
going. When I turn back to look
I'm far enough away
to see that man caught in a net.
Like most Carver poems, it's an observed event, not particularly important in itself, but augmented by a subtle conceptual frame that permits us to perceive its meaning or significance from an unsuspected angle. It isn't "difficult" or interposed with complex verbal prestidigitation. The poem seems to have no "showing off" or vanity of display. It wants to tell you something in the most straightforward manner possible. It will work, if as a reader you have no sense of selection or strategic manipulation, if you aren't moved to question how it proceeds. It could simply be this guy Raymond Carver talking to you over coffee, or during a walk across town. It's that absence of caution, the dropping of one's guard which is almost a condition of the appreciation which leads one to accept the terms of a Carver poem or story. Sometimes the subtlest apprehensions we derive from experience require a release--that suspension of disbelief--which characterizes our response to the greatest dramatic portrayals in all art. In the quotidian world in which most people live, that suspension involves our faith in the possibility of discovery or revelation in the meanest of circumstances--that we can find redemption or joy or confirming recognition in the most ordinary situations. Though it is true that the kings and queens and heroes and heroines of dramatic art suffer the same slings and arrows everyone is susceptible to, one of the great changes that has occurred over the last two centuries (in literature and drama) has been the portrayal of human feeling and example in people of any station of life or society.
Carver's people are ordinary. They are unremarkable. They're not rich, or especially talented or destined for greatness. They don't suffer great tragic events. In his poems, though, it's usually Carver himself who is the human presence, and that presence has a certain dependable quality. His voice, the voice of his poems, is relaxed, but interested, paying attention to small details, recording, noting. As in a casual notebook. What happened today. What did the mailman do? Were the clouds blue, or grey, or silver? It almost hardly seems to matter, since in every event there are the seeds of some small secret waiting to be revealed. Maybe not even a small secret, perhaps a big one. We must be open to experience, we have to be prepared to be led, drawn in, seduced, rewarded, even betrayed by our credulity. Even our credulity may hurt us.
You can talk about poetic strategies in terms of the naturalness or ease of their manner, but I suspect that there's a poetic cunning involved in the kind of poetry Carver writes. You can never guess what a Carver poem is going to say, what its message will be. And yet you know there always will be one, which you didn't expect. That's what I mean by cunning, that it's bound to surprise you. They don't always work, these Carver poems, because what he's attempting is extraordinarily difficult. If you don't believe it, try writing one in imitation. Artlessness, successful manipulation, is almost impossible, and sometimes you get to the end and feel let down.
The net is a very traditional poetic trope. What's caught in the fisherman's net? We accept the narrative of the poet walking down along the docks, where fishermen are found tinkering with their equipment. Telling detail is a cliché of poetic technique, so we have a one-armed fisherman sitting in a picturesquely rotting old boat, mending a net. Using his teeth to tie a knot or sever a splice. The poet's lack of focus--"reduced to confusion . . . the importunities of [his] heart"--is vague, his mind is clouded by distraction, considerations outside the poem. All we need to know is that he's not initially clear about what life, or this segment of his experience, is supposed to mean. It's casual, accidental, opportunistic. The poet is fishing for experience, fishing for a meaning, he's casting his net about to see what might turn up. The sea is like our unconscious life, or like the chaotic mass of experience, out of which we may catch or dredge up something unsuspected, strange. But he keeps walking. Nothing but the detail of a single one-armed man tying knots in a net.
But then he turns back, looks at the scene from a distance. Sees the man within the larger context of the docks, the shore, the sky, the town expanding away from the water's edge, the bay, and everything suddenly resolves into a relaxed acknowledgment: the man with the net is inside the larger net of everything. The net of our sustenance, our daily needs, our life-work, the industry of human getting and spending, of going down to the sea in ships, of the society of men and women, and finally the web of matter and energy and enormous complexity of which we're all a part. Each caught in the web of matter and meaning and motion. Caught in our fates. In the moment. Stuck with what we have, with the accidents and choices and conditions which govern our fate(s).
The Carver of poems.
Note: Based on our experience here over the last four+ years, we've decided to discourage further Anonymous comments. So seldom do people fronting as "anonymous" have anything useful to say, that it hardly serves any purpose to tolerate them. Therefore, from this date forward, if you don't post with your internet identity, we won't publish ("moderate") your comment through. I've said previously that we thought not allowing all comments was undemocratic and not in the spirit of debate; but the obscene and commercial and just plain nasty comments have outnumbered the civilized ones at least 29 out of 30, so we're closing commentary to them.
Ted Berrigan wrote a poem once called "People Who Died"--which you can read in his Collected Poems, and even hear him read via the PennSound link. Berrigan had at least two sides to his nature--one very weirdly insincere and playful, and one very emotional and occasionally sad. I was reminded of it yesterday when I received word that Anselm Hollo, who had been my first poet-instructor at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1969, had died yesterday morning in Colorado, surrounded by friends and family, following a long and exhausting illness. And again just now, when the spam-box of my email just received an advertisement for "Life Insurance." What a funny concept, when you think about it, life insurance. There isn't any such thing as life insurance; no one, nothing can insure you against death. We're all uninsurable! And yet the business stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the fact, playing off our fears and apprehensions about the consequences of mortality. It's very important, apparently, to make elaborate and fail-safe plans against the possibility of dying messily, as if one of our most crucial responsibilities, in life, or most important tasks, for those who are left behind, was to relieve them of the problems, the loose ends, created by our departure.
Since I began writing this blog, I've written about quite a few writers, many of whom are dead, some of whom died after I wrote about them. Several of the subject pieces were written on the occasion of their deaths. Growing up in a family of exiles, I was not raised to pay much attention to death, or to mark its occasion with much fanfare. My parents had both left the Midwest, to find a new life on the West Coast, during WWII. They tended not to say very much about the people, or the life, they'd left behind, the people they had known who died, including their parents. Their exile was a form of alienation, not uncommon in this restless mobile land of the free. I've never been a church-goer, as an adult, so attending funerals isn't something I do. Sometimes I think that not marking death's occurrence in a formal way helps to keep the idea of it, its presence, at bay. However, I do think about death, and increasingly now in my mid-60's. For some reason, it surprises me to realize I have reached this stage in my life, though I always knew I was destined for it. It seems to have snuck up on me, as it does to most people, while I was just minding my business, attending to my plans and expectations for the present and future.
Since I began this blog in January 2009, I've written posts about Donald Justice, John Updike, Ronald Johnson, Louis Zukofsky, MFK Fisher, Harold Pinter, Larry Eigner, Robert Creeley, Marianne Moore, Ian Hamilton Finlay, George Oppen, Joe Brainard, Ed Dorn, Philip Whalen, Louis Simpson, Robert Frost, Paul Blackburn, Patrick Schnoor, E.B. White, Max Beerbohm, H.L. Mencken, J.D. Salinger, Gertrude Stein, Wright Morris, John Wieners, William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, Jack Gilbert, Matthew Arnold, Anthony Hecht, Philip Levine, Ernest Hemingway, Stewart Ogden Smith, Jon Anderson, James Wright, James Schuyler, Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Koch, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Truman Capote, Joe Ceravolo, Dylan Thomas, James Welch, Darrell Gray, Christopher Isherwood, Cid Corman, Walker Percy, Frank O'Hara, Ambrose Bierce, Weldon Kees, Gore Vidal, Beatrix Potter, David Goodis, and Raymond Carver.
What all these names have in common is that they're all dead people. Some of them died after I wrote about them: Louis Simpson, Jack Gilbert. I wrote a handful about a few when they died.
My only son died in 1996, in an automobile accident. His death was premature, certainly, but he had been an early-onset diabetic since the age of 4, so his longevity-expectation was not as remote as most. I will certainly never "get over" that tragedy; it will be with me always, along with the certain knowledge that I will not be survived by any descendants. Not that that part bothers me very much. Once in a great while, I think of my maternal great-grandmother, a woman who had been very beautiful in her youth, whom I know only through old sepia photos taken before the end of the 19th century. But I doubt she would have been much interested to know that I was coming down the road; she was very Victorian and formal and dismissive, by all accounts. Does anything of what she was survive in me? Who knows?
During the years I attended the Iowa Workshop, Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo were great friends. When Berrigan and Alice Notley had their two sons, they named one Anselm in his honor. Anselm went on to teach at other places, and eventually joined Naropa University as a member of the permanent faculty, where he taught for the last 25 years of his life. When I first knew Anselm, he was just living in America with a "Green Card"--worried about being refused permanent residence and/or American citizenship. A fact not often cited was that Anselm had lived in Iowa City as an "exchange student" while still in high school, traveling from his native Finland in the early 1950's. Later, after periods of living in Germany, and then Britain, he came to America. He actually seemed rather British in his manner, when I knew him, though he was a complex man, of many influences.
Anselm was a brilliant, and very well-educated man, but he hid his shrewdness and his erudition--at least in the time I knew him--under a veneer of almost continuous amusement and self-deprecation. This was partly a gentlemanly courtliness, but partly a self-effacing shyness. Anselm probably thought of me as a pretty square fellow, but he was always considerate and respectful and indulgent of my immature writing.
Anselm was a realist. His poems were about real things, and the voice he cultivated as a writer was his own voice, a voice that reflected how he actually thought, without pretense or equivocation. Just being around him was a demonstration of the honesty he projected as an artist. Anselm the man, though, had some difficulties maintaining the various personae of his life: teacher, husband, father, poet, friend. I suppose he managed to come to terms with his various demons in the years after I knew him.
The thing about Anselm was that his mind floated over the facts and conditions of his existence with a sort of equipoise. A speaker and a reader in several languages, he seemed to perceive life (and history, and literature) in layers. This sense of being above events and somehow apart from them gave his conversation, and his work, a sense of objectivity. He maintained the air of an amused skeptic, always ready to find delight and absurdity in the baffling events of the larger world. He never seemed to take himself so seriously that he couldn't see irony or vanity in his own life.
Though our paths never crossed again after I left Iowa in 1973, I remember Anselm Hollo as a felt presence in my life. He left an impression, in a way that most of the other teachers or friends I've had, didn't. An impression of kindness, gentleness, delicacy, and penetrating perspicacity. By the time I learned that he was dying, it was too late to tell him these things.
But Anselm was not the fellow to accept open praise--that kind of formality was not something he seemed to wear comfortably. Nevertheless, I'm moved to tell him, though he will never hear or read these words. What we say about people we loved or admired, after they've died, is important to us, the living. It is our way of saying what we feel. It's a formal act, almost religious in its implication.
Bless you, Anselm, for your words and your work. Your memory lives on.
The last time I commemorated the Super Bowl with a new cocktail was in February 2010, when the victors that year were New Orleans own Saints. In the intervening two years, the Saints have fallen from grace, and our own 49ers have risen again from the ashes of a decade of mediocrity, and will vie this Sunday, February 3rd, in Super Bowl XLVII. The history of the 49ers previous Super Bowl appearances is now a storied legend of the game. Under the ownership of Eddie DeBartolo Jr. beginning in 1977, the Niners won five NFL championships, never having lost a Super Bowl appearance.
Fans and non-fans alike will recall that Eddie lost control of his beloved franchise in 2000 as a result of his being involved in a corruption pay-off scheme with Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards to obtain a riverboat gaming license. After Eddie gave it up, the 49ers passed to his sister Marie Denise DeBartolo York. The Yorks pretty much made a mess of things with the team, and it wasn't until they handed the reigns of the management of the franchise to their son (Eddie's nephew) Jed York, that things began to turn around. The Niners lost the NFC Championship (the precursor to the Super Bowl) last year on a fluke, when a San Francisco kick returner had the ball stripped from his grip as he raced upfield, the ensuing fumble recovery leading to the New York Giants victory in the closing seconds. That was a bitter pill to swallow. But this year, the team was right back in the running.
As readers of this blog will recall, I was never a fan of the 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. I've written several times about his failures, and my firm belief that he will never bring real success to the team. Last year, I was basically proved wrong, when Smith led the team to a 13-3 record, redeeming himself in the eyes of coaches and players and fans around the league. But life has a way of overturning expectations. This year, almost out of nowhere, the 49ers 2nd round draft pick, Colin Kaepernick, took over for an injured Smith in game #8, and never looked back. Kaepernick has been a revelation, with his power passing, and superior mobility and speed, going 6-2-1, and leading the team into the playoffs, defeating the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons to get to the upcoming contest for all the marbles. Had this feat been achieved by Smith, I would (reluctantly) have admitted that he deserved our undiminished praise. But with the arrival of Kaepernick, this will be moot; Smith is obviously going to leave the team in the off-season, either as a free-agent, or through a trade (he is still under contract through next year).
The Niners are favored over the opposing team the Baltimore Ravens by 3 1/2 points, largely as a result of Kaepernick's extraordinary skills at running the quarterback option, in which he either hands off to Frank Gore, keeps the ball and runs, or throws a pass. His success with this maneuver--once a staple of traditional college teams, before the era of the "pocket passer" strategy of the modern NFL--has heralded a new era in quarterbacking, characterized by great mobility combined with an ability to make split-second decisions. There have been great mobile quarterbacks in the past, but the new style seems to be evolving out of the necessity to keep defenses from settling into classic zone configurations. Kaepernick's elusiveness and speed make catching him a difficult proposition, and with his rocket arm, the potential for his future as a passer seems almost unlimited. It's early days, for sure, but who knows what the kid will do?
Right now, we're in the Super Bowl, and the excitement is building. The media party has been in progress now for over a week, with many of the star players conducting interviews and generally basking in the glow of the notoriety that accompanies the nation's largest single sports event. Bourbon Street in New Orleans will be hopping again, as pre- and post-game celebrations get into full swing.
In the movie Patton, the screenplay for which was co-authored by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, George C. Scott and his adjutant stride out onto a field of a bloody battle, which the night before had come down to hand-to-hand fighting. He kisses the solder leaning against a tank, and says to his aide, "God, how I love it so . . . I had a dream last night. In my dream it came to me that right now the German Reich is mine for the taking. Think . . . I was nearly sent home in disgrace. Now, I have precisely the right instrument, at precisely the right moment in history, in exactly the right place . . . This too will change very quickly, like a planet spinning off into the universe . . . A moment like this will not come again for a thousand years . . . All I need is a few miserable gallons of gasoline . . . Right now the weakness is here . . . In ten days we could be in Berlin!"
The sense of the passing of a moment of opportunity was so keen at the end of the game. The Niners had fallen far behind (28-6), and all seemed lost. Then after a long delay to restart the stadium lights which had mysteriously failed just after half-time, they began a dramatic comeback which brought them to within 5 points of Baltimore, with just two minutes to play. They were on the Ravens 7 yard line, with a first down. Four downs to score and a SuperBowl victory!
But they couldn't do it. Four tries, and on the last play a disputed foul by the Raven's defensive back who held on to Crabtree, keeping him from jumping for the high lob into the corner of the end zone. And suddenly, it was all over. We had precisely the right instrument at precisely the right place on the field, at precisely the right moment, but it just didn't happen.
Clearly, Kaepernick is our quarterback of the future. Which means there may well be more chances down the road. But this one really hurt. We were that close!
What would it be like if women only wore grass skirts, and no underwear? Mr. Christian, I think I catch your drift.
The heat is oppressive, and overwhelming.
Tropical breezes move the palms gently to and fro, as you brush the sand from between your toes.
The picture above is of Rarotonga, major of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. They be atolls, just craggy accidents of volcanic eruption in the scaleless blue Pacific. We went there in the 1990's, and between the occasional violent downpour, performed a magical circumnavigation of the island on a motorscooter--my first attempt at motorized bi-wheeling.
Here's a drink to conjure by. Straight-laced Englishmen set adrift on a sea of forgetfulness, forsaken to pleasure or the emptiness of desire.
Call it the Aurora Rarotonga, and don't tell the children.
By proportion, as usual:
4 parts Bacardi white rum
2 parts Key Lime Liqueur
1 Part Midori Liqueur
1 Part fresh lemon juice
--shaken (or shimmied) and served up in frosted cocktail glasses.
I guarantee this one, without reservation. It will seduce you out of any doldrums, tickle your fancy, feather your ear, and make you feel 22 again. How long ago was that? I won't tell!
I can distinctly remember the moment when I first read Joe Ceravolo's poem "Ho Ho Ho Caribou" in The Paris Review No. 44, Fall 1968. I was a junior at UC Berkeley, and I picked up the issue in a little corner drugstore on Telegraph Avenue, which carried racks of current magazines, and dimestore paperback editions. That kind of market is mostly gone now, places where you could browse serious literary work side-by-side with mass-cult periodicals and low-brow fiction. That was how I first discovered Caterpillar Magazine, and John Fowles's The Magus, and James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime.
I knew by this time who Robert Creeley--the subject of an Art of Poetry #10 interview in the same issue--was, though I couldn't have summarized his work or career accurately. There were poems in that issue, too, by James Koller, David Shapiro, John Thorpe ("Bolinas"), and John Wieners, and a story by Salter.
But who was this guy Joe Ceravolo, and what kind of weird poetry was this???
It didn't scan, it didn't rhyme, it didn't even seem to make any evident sense on first reading. But there were startling effects, almost like magic, which were like messages from an alien sensibility. Did I suspect that maybe the author was on some kind of drug that altered his consciousness, allowing him to perceive reality in a different, perhaps more insightful way? Anything seemed possible.
The poem was not made out of "literary" language, and it wasn't eloquent in the sense that Richard Wilbur or Archibald MacLeish were in their verse. The author clearly wasn't interested in displaying his facility to make convincing or persuasive statements. It seemed more like an investigation into how the mind and body perceive reality, how rational and non-rational mental data are sorted and processed, how sensations and impressions are mixed and scrubbed and weighed, and it seemed to want to turn the raw stuff of apprehension into novel language. "Ho Ho Ho Caribou" seemed almost ecstatic in its awe and delight at inventive ingenuity.
The first stanza is miraculous in its leaps and disjunctions. The lead-in line "Leaped at the caribou" springs right out at you, putting the reader right into the middle of action, before he's had a chance to catch his breath. We know already in a few lines that this is a white man with children and maybe he's taken them to the zoo. Like any father, he feels slightly disconcerted by the responsibility of caring for them. The irony of it's being "like paradise" is not lost on us. Does his daughter have a doll? Is that doll along for a lunch? Then there's that hip sentence "It was clean and flying."
The stanzas are like axes or coordinates of feeling and event, in which emotion and language and observation converge, rub up against each other, producing sparks and slippery motion and resistant hooks. So we have "Where you . . . the axes/are." Coming home, daddy's hand is on the gate.
Would I have spoken in this way then, in my innocence, of poetry as fresh and unassuming as this was? Probably not. I was preoccupied with regurgitating my knowledge and insight into literature in those days. What undergraduate English major isn't? That's the whole bargain of a humanist education in the academy, recapitulating what you've read and heard, in acceptable forms and with the proper respect for the canons of decency and good taste. How might I have mediated between the obvious energy and freshness of language like this, and the real world of academic standards? Eliot and Williams and Wallace Stevens--they were the "new thing" in the 1960's--demonstrating the usual "lag" between performance and recognition common to the humanities in those days.
But is it innocence or sophistication that's behind Ceravolo's studied, surreal inventions? If his work demonstrates a "reading" of any forbears, who would that be? You could posit Gertrude Stein, but Ceravolo's work breathes a different air than her insistent, nested nursery-rhythms. Instead, you might consider it an appropriation of the language of juvenile literature, with its credulous, negligent pieties--
Underwater fishnot reaching!
brush by us. Oh leg
Is this the odd simplicity of Satie, or the coy nonsense of Edward Lear? Is it wit, or naivité?
Ceravolo's Collected Poems has just been published by Wesleyan University Press. This book had to wait 25 years after the author's death to get done. Why? There's neglect, and then there's sheer incomprehension. Was it the obscurity of Ceravolo's life or career that caused this delay, or the relative marginality of its significance?
After publishing two small pamphlets, with "C" Press (Ted Berrigan) in 1965 and then with the highly-regarded Tibor de Nagy Gallery series in 1967, he won the Frank O'Hara Award for Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (Columbia University Press) in 1968, where "Ho Ho Ho Caribou" was included. Though subsequent collections--Transmigration Solo (Toothpaste Press, 1979), and Millennium Dust (Kulchur Foundation, 1982)--would follow, Ceravolo's work failed to attract the attention which such energetic and ground-breaking poetry clearly merited. The reaction which ensued to experimentation in the 1970's and '80's might be the simplest explanation. After Koch's As the Sun Tries to Go On, Kerouac's Mexico City Blues, O'Hara's Second Avenue, Burroughs's Naked Lunch, Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath, Olson's Maximus (II and III), Berrigan's Sonnets, and Jackson Mac Low's Stanzas for Iris Lezak, all completed by the mid-1960's, it may have seemed as if experimentation, as a program, was due for a rest. Whether such historical trend-lines are of any significance to those actually writing at any given moment is perhaps another issue.
Ceravolo, who had studied with Koch at Columbia, was obviously aware of the French and/or German surrealists. His work evidenced an awareness of collage, cut-up, automatic writing, surreal disjunction, cinematic telescoping, atonality, etc., but the over-riding impression one derived from a close reading of his work was an acute originality of expression, unlike almost anything done before.
The same year I first read Ceravolo's poem, I went to the rare book reading room on campus and spent the better part of one afternoon reading a first edition copy of Oppen's Discrete Series, under the watchful eye of the room librarian. Pound had expressed a similar astonishment at the young poet's odd and very unusual style, as I had registered with Ceravolo, some 35 years later.
Though Ceravolo's work clearly falls within the demarcation of the Second Generation New York School, it doesn't exhibit the same quality of speech, that talky facility and archly ironic tone characteristic of his contemparies. David Shapiro could sound like Ashbery, and Berkson could sound like O'Hara crossed with Koch, but Ceravolo was the only figure who seemed to have burst, fully formed and newly minted, from the artistic milieu that had fostered that first wave of avants (Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Guest). You'd probably have to go all the way back to Edwin Denby's unexpected and improbable elaborations of the sonnet form, to find someone as uniquely inspired as Ceravolo was in the late 1960's.
"Ho Ho Ho Caribou" plays flirtingly with a primitivism that is pantheistic.
I did drink my milk
like a mother of wolves.
Wolves on the desert
of ice cold love, of
fireproof breasts and the breast
I took like snow.
This moves so quickly through its iterations that the changes are refreshed by their enjambed suddenness. Contexts shift and slide crosswise to accommodate a short attention span. In what must be one of modern or post-modern poetry's most charming and triumphant moments, Ceravolo rises to a veritable hymn--
Like a flower, little light, you open
and we make believe
we die. We die all around
you like a snake in a
well and we come up out
of the warm well and
are born again out of dry
mammas, nourishing mammas, always
holding you as I
love you and am
revived inside you, but
die in you and am
never born again in
the same place; never
--joining the flower, the snake, motherhood, childhood, sex and death into a single writhing, twisting lyric of joy and confirming pronouncement. It is both a proof of the discoveries he had made in syntax, and an arrival. Nothing had prepared me for work like this in 1968, and I suspect it's no more "familiar" to young readers today, no matter what their training. The line-breaks are literal shifts in gear, placing unsuspecting similes and oppositions in augmented proximity. The language is simple, shrewdly employing familiar speech to link seemingly disparate elements into uncertain intimacy. The last lines are like a veiled manifesto--"always/holding you as I/love you and am/revived inside you, but/die in you and am/never born again in/the same place; never/stop!" Each phrase carries the meaning one iteration further, concluding with the triple implication of "never/stop!" Each engagement is a new possibility, reviving and liberating, but each lives and dies in its time, never to be reborn, except in a new place, always different, each moment, each poem a reincarnation and a birth, a novel consciousness. I guess what I'm trying to suggest here is that though he ostensibly belongs to the Second Generation of The New York School Poets, like most writers or artists with unique, powerful visions, he really is separate and "out of step" with his contemporary milieu. Unlike Berrigan and Padgett--who used cut-up and quotation and cartoons, for instance, to create ambiguous camp contexts--you get the distinct feeling that Ceravolo really saw through his language and invested in its method as a direct form of personal expression, rather than as a Dada-ist object-projection. He made the language his own. He had something to say, and a new way to say it. He is more like Verlaine, say, than Andy Warhol.
Ho Ho Ho Caribou
|by Joseph Ceravolo|
This is as true today, in 2013, as it was in 1924, when Louis Zukofsky published his first poem there, a "stale cream-puff" entitled "Of Dying Beauty." You could with justice have decorated the margins of this poem with Corinthian columned designs, festooned with aesthetically posed curling vines, and peopled with Greek goddesses tricked out in flowing pale broadcloth robes, leaning sideways with languorous attitudes. It was work that mightn't have seemed the least bit modern to the eyes of William Morris (in 1990) or Alfred Tennyson (in 1880). Indeed, the "dying beauty" he described could well have been the rotten state of American poetry, in 1924. Aside from Frost and Eliot and Pound and Stevens and Moore, almost no good poetry was being written by Americans in those years--and much of it was being done abroad, by Americans in Europe.
But something happened between 1924 and 1929, when Zukofsky's next publication in Poetry appeared. It is probably disingenuous to use Poetry as a platform for a comparison of changing literary values during this period, since there were other venues. Gertrude Stein was conducting her salons in Paris. In Russia, strange occurrences were taking place. There were distant rumblings, but they seem not to have reached the ears of Harriet Monroe. Still, some light may have pierced the editorial offices in Chicago, because the June 1929 issue contained an interesting series of poems by young Louis Zukofsky, the same man who'd debuted five years before with that distressingly antediluvian specimen "Of Dying Beauty."
For me, American poetry begins with Zukofsky's poem "Siren and Signal," on page 146 of Poetry Magazine, June 1929, Volume IIIVI, Number 111. The Zukofsky of 1929 has come so far from the author of "Of Dying Beauty" that one wonders how it could be the same person. The poem as published in the magazine is in seven parts, but when he collected his early work in 55 Poems (1923-1935) in 1941, he managed to salvage only the two best sections--numbers IV and V. He dispensed with the title Siren and Signal of the set, keeping IV ("Gleams, a green lamp") and V, and separated them ("Cars once steel"), where they appear in All: The Collected Short Poems, as numbers 5 and 17. As brief, concise lyrics, they are among the earliest examples of what would come be called "Objectivist" poems. Monroe invited Zukofsky to guest-edit the February 1931 issue of Poetry, the "'Objectivist' 1931" number, which included work by Rakosi, Reznikoff, Oppen, Bunting and a section from LZ's own long poem "'A': Seventh Movement: 'There are Different Techniques'" along with key two prose essays--"Program: 'Objectivists' 1931" and "Sincerity and Objectification."
In them, LZ makes several extravagant claims for the kind of poetry he's advocating, which might seem extreme, if not for the sorry state of the art generally during this period. By "sincerity" as LZ uses it we might summarize it by saying it (the object of representation in a poem) refers unflinchingly to the actual social, political and aesthetic context within which it exists; the revolutionary political implications of this are obvious. By "objectification" we might derive that this is a scientific fidelity to observed fact, as opposed to the halo of distraction which tends to blur our apprehension of its actual presence. He is careful to point out that the best poems--of those he cites--may contain elements of both characteristics in unequal measure: Reznikoff, for instance, is more a poet of sincerity than of objectification, his poems record event and character rather that observing and defining. But "accuracy of detail in writing--which is sincerity" links the two concepts as but different aspects of the same quality. What Reznikoff, Williams, Oppen, Rakosi, and Moore have in common, according to LZ is a fidelity to perceived fact (reality) and a method which functions to portray it accurately, to attach immediate feelings to perceived event or object. One could say, with some justice, that Objectivism is Imagismrefined into an intellectual critical principle.
"It is more important for the communal good that individual authors should spend their time recording and objectifying good writing wherever it is found (note the use of quotation in Marianne Moore from Government guide-books, Pound's translations and quotations in the Cantos, Carlos Williams' passages out of Spanish and early American sources in In the American Grain; cf. Reznikoff's The English in Virginia in Pagany IV 1930) than that a plenum of authors should found their fame on all sorts of personal vagueness--often called 'sophistication.'" The evocative, generative and crucial word here is of course "communal."*
"In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness . . . Presented with sincerity, the mind even tends to supply, in further suggestion which does not attain rested totality . . . This rested totality may be called objectification . . . The codifications of the rhetoric . . . may be described as the arrangements, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity--in other words the resolving of words and their ideation into structure . . . Granted that the word combination 'minor units of sincerity" is an ironic index of the degradation of the power of the individual word in a culture which seems hardly to know that each word in itself is an arrangement, it may be said that each word possesses objectification to a powerful degree; but that the facts carried by one word are, in view of the preponderance of facts carried by combinations of words, not sufficiently explicit to warrant a realization of rested totality such as might be designated an art form . . . Yet the objectification which is a poem, or a unit of structural prose, may exist in a very few lines."
Objectivism, as seen by Zukofsky and defined for the purposes of his two guest essays, begins in the work of Reznikoff (1918, Five Groups of Verse), Williams (1923, Spring & All), and Moore (1924, Observations). Though Eliot, Hemingway, McAlmon, Cummings, Pound and Stevens are mentioned, they are not part of the process. Zukofsky himself exhibits the tendency in the poems printed in Poetry in 1929, in the set of verses entitled "Siren and Signal."
"North River Ferry," as I have noted, was later dissected out and presented retitled simply as "Ferry."
Gleams, a green lamp
In the fog;
Murmur, in almost
Siren and signal
Siren to signal.
Parts the shore from the fog.
Rise there, tower on tower,
Signs of stray light
And of power.
Siren to signal.
Siren to signal.
Hour-gongs and green
Of the lamp.
Plash. Night. Plash. Sky.
(The only revision of the poem being the separation of the last line from the previous stanza.) Chosen from among his earliest expressions of a "combination of units" of objectified sincerity, or sincere objectification, the poem stands like a beacon of LZ' vision of new writing circa 1918-1929. Composed in free verse, with no concessions to formal prescription, it adheres to the priority of perceived actual event, and its time and rhythmic motions are apt to the case. It is sincere, but without emotional "sophistications" typical of the contemporary poetry of the time. The verse stands as resistant to distractions which blur or mar our apprehension of actual social, economic, political and aesthetic facts. Clear-eyed seeing, for LZ, was the crucial duty of the artist, to record history as happening in memorably direct form. Concision and commitment (emotion) would follow as a direct consequence of the simplicity of the devotion to objectivity. It was an ideal suited to the moment, a thread of artistic intention that would flourish throughout the 1930's, as the Great Depression fueled unrest, and artists and writers would find themselves in commitments that acknowledged the economic and social facts of the system which had failed.
LZ's formulation of the movement known as Objectivism occurred publicly in 1931, but for me, it really begins here, in 1929, with "Siren and Signal." It may have seemed, in a humorless cul-de-sac of time, that the call to action led down the path of conflict and rigid opposition. Looking beyond the ferry light towards the skyline of Manhattan rising "tower on tower . . . of power" the poet conjures up a splashing or spattering of light, perhaps caused by reflections in the water, not unlike the illuminated sky over a fire, or explosion, or some other cataclysmic occurrence. It's a phenomenon which seems to have no specific object, an indeterminacy--of more than the language could bear.
It's an old adage that every good boy loves his mother, not least because he remembers her good cooking. Going on 50 years from leaving home, I can still recall my mom's cooking. It may only signify familiarity, since no two mothers cook exactly alike, though food and cooking traditions in post-War America tended towards sameness. It was the Betty Crocker era, the era of frozen foods and additives and the "well-rounded diet." Ethnic restaurants were very much the exception then. Fast Food took America by storm, but there have been counter currents of ethnic diversity, pure ingredients and a focus on flavor combined with health and safety. Fresh is better.
One of the things my mom liked to cook was apple pie. Since leaving home, I've never tasted apple pie that was better, richer, or which looked prettier. She used Crisco, which was a "trans-fat" product, hydrogenated cottonseed oil. Crisco was snowy white, thick and sticky, and it held its shape. As a shortening, it worked wonderfully well, and made pie-crusts that were aesthetically pleasing; they had a true crustiness that would hold up in the oven. We know of course that trans-fats are bad for you, but that wasn't known or acknowledged then. Trans-fats are identified with various health problems, including diabetes.
Nevertheless, mom's apple pies were a wonder, and I'll never forget them, trans-fats notwithstanding. Try making good piecrust with ordinary butter, and you'll see how hard it is!
So, in memory of mom, who passed away in 2008, here's a concoction which comes pretty close to mimicking the flavor of a good apple pie--without any cream or ice-cream or cheese as accompaniment. Goldschlager is a proprietary liqueur, but any similarly flavored cinnamon drink will probably suffice.
Mom wasn't much for cocktails, but she didn't get out much either. She was a homebody. Here's to moms, and home cooking, and all American desserts (mixed in the right proportion, of course).
4 parts golden rum
1 part calvados (apple)
1 part Goldschlager (cinnamon)
1 part lemon juice
1/2 part almond vanilla syrup
--swirled in ice and served up without garnish.
I'm not a woman, but I have it on good authority that a bristly short beard is not pleasant to kiss, nor is it especially pleasant to engage in even more intimate activity with someone sporting a sandpaper face. More ouch than aah.
Maybe it's the contrast between the apparent formality, say of wearing a suit, and the roughness of an unshaven chin? Smooth versus rough? Dressy versus skanky? Sexiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Woe betide the chap who's bold enough to tell women what they should think is sexy, or attractive. I suspect that part of the explanation may lie in our conception of what sex means. Is it comfort, security and safety, or rawness and risk and wildness? Is a guy in a business suit more attractive than a lumber-jack? Is a guy wearing a sweaty white T and a hard-hat more sexy to look at than a guy wearing a tie and a vest? Is clean-shavenness an aspect of care and decency, or proof of one's uptightness, of adherence to artificial standards and uniformity? Does a beard make you seem kinkier, or more cultured?
I dont' have answers to any of these questions (if there are answers). But I do know that I don't understand the "stubble" look, or why it seems to be so persistent these days. If I were a woman--something I've never craved to be, by the way--I think I'd regard men with intentional stubbles--as a fashion statement--as kind of repugnant. Wanting to emulate laziness, or slovenliness, or brazenness, or a sort of adolescent negligence, seems an odd instigation to romance--at least to me.
For those who believe that looking "sharp" is a sign of good breeding, or of a responsible nature, or even a sign of class superiority, one might observe that if you earn enough money, you can pretty much dictate whatever you want to wear, and whether you go out shaved or unshaven, clean or dirty. Privilege does have its advantages.
Once upon a time, being clean shaven meant you had access to clean running water and a sharp razor. When my stepfather was born around the turn of the last century, straight razors were the tool; so-called "safety razors"--that is, metal blades encased in clips with handles--came along during his lifetime, and he was grateful for the new gadgets, particularly since the new blades were disposable and didn't need to be sharpened.
If shaving is such a turn-off for some women, maybe it's a form of sympathy for the indignity of having to disdain their own body hair. In the West, female body hair has gotten to be considered in bad taste; many women in the modern world now routinely have their pubic hair removed. Body hair is undoubtedly a vestige of our anthropomorphic ancestry, when humans (and pre-humans) were as hairy as apes or monkeys. Amount of body hair varies widely among human groups, but hairiness--or "hirsuteness"--is probably more closely identified with the male of the species, than with the female. Perhaps men are, indeed, "wilder"--with their hormonal glands--than women, and a further throwback to our remote ancient forbears?
In the meantime, I'd be interested to know just how women feel about this "stubble" phenomenon. Perhaps I've been missing the boat. Going without shaving for a couple of days always makes me feel a little itchy; when I'm off in the bush for a few days, without services, I always long for a shower and a shave, to "get back to civilization again" as people will say. If I had to choose between being dirty and unshaven and attractive on the one hand, as against being clean and shaved and combed and boring, I'd choose the latter. We didn't come down out of the trees and out of the forest just to prove that we could emulate our primitive ancestors. If the associations are dirty underwear, a reluctance to bathe, or chic muddy jeans, I'll take the high road, thank you very much.
As a footnote, perhaps a three-day growth suggests a weekend marathon of sex, with both parties so engrossed in each other physically (i.e., casual and oblivious) that they've almost grown feral. Women may harbor delicious fantasies of one kind or another, and perhaps men with skanky beards suggest they're more into such illicit fun than buttoned-up types. Psychologists tell us sex is four-fifths mental, and this may be another proof of that principle.
People always think they understand Wayne Thibaud's [1920- ] work. It's straightforward, realistic, familiar, vivid and seemingly passive. It's cool, balanced, poised and settled. It isn't going anywhere. It's confident, certain of its means, and doesn't seem to be trying to convince us of anything. It exists in the world we know, and has made peace with it. It is--in the common parlance of our day--what it is.
Thibaud's work has been associated with Pop, New Realism, but his career--and the meaning and significance of his work--is much broader than those categories. In an arc of development which included time with the Walt Disney Studios, periods as a cartoonist and commercial designer, as well as personal encounters with the Abstract Expressionists de Kooning and Kline in the Fifties, he came around independently, slightly ahead of the curve, to a position of straight representation by 1960, and was poised for the Pop Art movement which exploded in the early Sixties. Though other Pop Art figures, such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, and Wesselmann, saw Pop in terms of conceptual or camp satire and irony, Thibaud's work was a full investment in the traditional qualities of painterly skill, evocation of feeling, and fidelity to the imaginative qualities of material objects. Thibaud didn't distance himself from his subject matter, and this care showed in the lavish indulgence of his technique and his pristine approach to each picture's occasion. The space around a Thibaud subject was charged with all kinds of feelings--desire, obsession, alienation, effulgence, surfeit, nostalgia, celebration, loneliness, and a kind of hypnotic meditative calm--which the objects held in a perfect glow of intensity.
On a very general level, Thibaud's work divides fairly neatly into a few obvious categories:
other (fetish) items i.e., shoes, chalk, ties, etc.
Within this system of objects, he creates a world of brightly lit, intriguing depictions which draw us into a reawakening to the immediate visual, physical presence of material objects which is both an augmentation of the real world, as well as a timeless dream-like transformation of them, adrift in a void of steady energy and light.
What seems immediately apparent in Thibaud's representation is its roots in advertising and commercial promotion. Though gum-ball and pin-ball and candy machines occupy a central place in his oeuvre, it isn't as a critique of their promotional intent, but as a fascination with their object-status, their "thing-ness" that drives Thibaud's interest. Such objects both are, and are not, symbols of the use of color and seductive charm to connect to a consumer society. The enumeration of production-line products from diners and cafeterias and vending machines derives directly from the automated, mass production culture, and the advertising promotional procedures which create demand in consumers. And the influence of cartoons influences his modeling of inanimate things, as well as real people, and like cartoon representation, his subjects are almost always isolated against empty backdrops without context or reference.
But Thibaud's graphic style isn't the "super- or photo-realism" of, say, Robert Bechtle. Thibaud's paintings aren't challenges to photography, or even, for that matter, to reality itself. One of the tendencies in both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, was to draw attention to the artistic materials themselves, the "media" of representation (as subject). From his earliest studies of food and other objects, it was apparent that Thibaud felt a sensual interconnection between the qualities of pigment, and how it is seen on surfaces, and the palpable qualities of the objects themselves--paint both was and was not the cake dough, whipped cream, frosting, syrup, fruit pulp, mayonnaise, lolly-pops and cue balls, lipstick cylinders and mason jars, and all the other "stuff." But the paint in Thibaud's canvases wasn't the active flourish, the energetic athleticism of the Expressionists; it was studied, careful, measured, arranged. The technique was clever, devoted, focused, but never amusing or brash. It has always seemed as if Thibaud cared deeply about everything he chose to depict, that he wanted to give it his undivided, patient attention.
Looking at these Eight Lipsticks , you have the unmistakeable feeling that their lushly imagined colors are a stand-in for the painter's pigments. Rather than an "imitation" of a shape and color, the paint and the lipsticks are united in a perfect marriage of material synergy. Lipstick evokes lips, and taste, and the oily sensation of touch, and kissing. We almost want to eat this "stuff" in the same way that we want to taste and consume the cakes, pies, candy, ice-cream, gum-balls, sundaes, eclairs, and fruit wedges ranked so neatly and tantalizingly before our eyes. This sensual evocation, almost dionysian in spirit, goes well beyond the "Pop" tropes usually associated with a bland regard for the object- and commodity-rich environment of the modern capitalist paradigm. A Warhol Campbell's soup can cannot be claimed to have the same affectionate desirability of a Thibaud subject. Warhol is all about branding and the cross-fertilization of commercial and aesthetic contexts, ultimately making all art into conceptual gamesmanship, a free-floating mélange of desensitized, blasé negligence. But Thibaud is stubbornly present in all his work, insisting on the inalienable integrity of each occasion, a devotion to particulars. In a Thibaud painting, you feel more, not less, about the subject, than you may have brought to it. And though most of his works are clearly "unreal" in some of their augmentations of the visual field--slightly improbable colors, denser shadows, emptier backgrounds--that degree of augmentation is scaled to a sensible limit of distortion.
In a sense, Thibaud's distraction is quite like the distraction which the object world of consumerism presents. We want to "consume" in at least three senses: To have and experience the sweet taste of the food and pretty things which he paints, we want literally to recapture our sensual memories of them, and we want in turn to consume or devour (or own) the painting itself, its sensual presence. A painting can be good enough to eat, to own, and to dream about. When an object enters our consciousness as a positive symbol or image of desire, it templates indelibly, but with a difference. We can look at and appreciate a very beautiful snake, for instance, while still understanding it to be poisonous and dangerous to get near; we can separate the gorgeous color arrangement of scales--of rings and diamonds and ovals and jagged lines--knowing full well that in nature, such brilliant "advertisements" signify jeopardy rather than a good meal or playful toy. We can separate these sense of beautiful surfaces from the underlying meaning of the objects represented in the same way that we keep clear demarcations between real things--like cakes or lolly-pops--and the painterly qualities by which we are able to "copy" them from "nature." Entering a Thibaud painting is a little like having a dream about the subject being portrayed. Objects in a dream may glow and oscillate with an intensity beyond that experienced by a normal, awake mind.
We know without a doubt that the blue shadows in the painting of wedges of lemon or angel-food cake above are unreal. Even in a high intensity ulta-violet fluorescent illumination, that blue would be well off the scale of possibility. But we accept that blue as a meaningful enhancement. It's our bargain with the painter; we allow that this adjustment--half real and half dreamlike--in the interests of his idealization of the vision. We may ask why so much attention and importance should be assigned merely to a row of cut cake wedges, but their omnipresent tastefulness, their sweet succulence is completely absorbing. We know that too many sweets are not good for us, but as sensual indulgences, we are permitted to engage with them vicariously, as an effete mental nourishment; the excess calories and raised blood sugar are merely the residue of an unreal routine. There's no guilt associated with feeling this about a painting, just as there's no danger in gazing at a venomous snake in a cage. Both experiences are safe, and fascinating. In each case, we're at membrane between what we know is possible (or potentially dangerous or unlikely) and what we're at liberty to feel. The parameters and consequences of what we're experiencing are pre-ordained, set.
This link between medium and content reaches a kind of apotheosis for me in the color on paper piece Various Pastels , in which the artist's materials become the subject of their own execution. The pleasure one feels at the rich pastel palette, laid out in random, yet perfectly balanced, disarray, challenges the limits of the given. The distance between what we assume about the probable use of the medium is reduced to a narrow compass of availability. Whereas Warhol could present "paint by numbers" spoofs which poked fun at art as an ennobling process, Thibaud raises the quotidian tool to the highest level, with the playful delight of any unfettered preconception. The same abilities and innovations which can bring a simple landscape to life, raise this very closed study of chalk crayons to a pinnacle of feeling. We want to hold and study these crayons, to have them rub off on our fingers, to jostle with each other and mix their vivid, sticky, powdery-ness against each other. It's almost sexual!
I've mentioned that Thibaud's objects seem to evoke a dream-like state in which things may seem "more real" than reality, that their enhanced visual qualities can mimic our actual sensual memories of the things being depicted. In his landscapes, there is a further dimension, that of the adjustment and distortion of proportion and perspective to express our possible mis-apprehension of the world (of the effective rearrangement and insistence of dreams).
Welcome to Thibaud Street, where real and imagined proportion slide seamlessly against one another. Living adjacent to, or actually in San Francisco, one is party to its weirdly improbable and counter-intuitive disjunctions and intersections and backdrops. What happens to our visual memories of such steep streets, precipitous overhangs and interpolated perspectives in dreams? In dreams, we rearrange and remake real views to suit our preferred versions of them. We move things around, we put them into odd or impossible conjunction. Buildings may seem to perch on precipices. Streets may seem to go straight up or straight down, the fear or disorientation we may feel only subliminally while moving through the city may express itself as exalted contortions which defy gravity and and the laws of physics. And yet, such distortions may actually be pleasurable and fascinating to make.
Landscapes like this resemble the perspectives of traveling on a rollercoaster, but our interest in them as painted examples of a probable familiar memory go deeper than a joyride. There is an awesome acknowledgment that what we're doing through the active reification of imaginary landscapes is to bring our perceived, preferred world into clear focus, allowing us to study our intuitive tendencies with minute attention. The drop-off to the left of the plant at the edge of the street on the lower left of the scene above, for instance, hints at a yawning cavity of space, filled with precarious liability, almost Dante-esque in its suggestiveness of risk. The world may seem like a danger-filled obstacle-course of traps and protuberances and flying hazards, and yet there is always the retreat into the circumscribed precinct of the self--or, maybe not . . . .
There's an unsettling disorientation at work here, which is not in any way mitigated by our placement inside an interior inclosure. Harsh sunlight reveals a yawning, unbalanced vantage over an absurdly improbable boulevard. It might be fun to experience in a dream, but there's a terrifying discomfort as well. Those red-hot window mullions suggest something much darker, perhaps a sense that life might be a dilemma of unimagined dead-ends. As the world rises up to confound us, the very earth under our feet may be shifting, the tectonic plates realigning and adjusting to some grand plan we can only guess at. We live in a world of huge forces, usually experienced at the level of minutely noted shifts, but these are only the tiny increments of the larger picture.
The sense of jeopardy and risk associated with Thibaud's strange landscape depictions is one with the deeper meaning of his earlier object studies. Whereas one wants to possess the sensual object--a piece of pie, or candy, or a beautiful body--you realize that you are forever prevented from this possession by the membrane of the medium. The plate of tantalizing food on the plate on the light bathed table cannot satisfy the crucial hungers which guide our mortal passage. We are driven to crave certain things, though at a deeper level we can see these as ephemeral, as the sustenance for a limited engagement. We're powerless to resist what the visual treat promises, even as we know it's a counterfeit of actual life. The mirror of representation gives us back exactly what we put into it, and we love that process. A perfect balance, poised between our brief lives and the larger forces which govern all motion and event.