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Ruminations on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits &c.

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    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. 

    What they shared they shared in private. The symbol of their longing was a petal torn from time. They turned inward towards a silence, quieter now than before. All things approached thus, were closer. Arranged to make a scene.   

    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.  

    2 parts white rum
    1/2 part coconut syrup
    1/2 part spiced rum
    1/2 part Aperol
    1/2 part white (oro blanco) grapefruit 
    1/2 part lemon juice

    To describe this recipe as heavenly is an understatement. I don't know what the magic ingredient is--if there is one--but perhaps the coconut syrup is the secret. 'Tis the season to be merry--between Thanksgiving and Christmas--so there's excuse enough. 

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  • 11/27/12--08:11: The Grey Satin Lady

  • I don't know why cocktails are associated with ladies. A lot of them are named "ladies" as if an alcoholic drink could be considered an intoxicating abstraction. Perhaps it has to do with the tradition of attempting to seduce a lady by getting her tipsy. Or perhaps, more innocently, it refers to the sense of style or panache which going out with a lady dressed in her sexiest outfit inspires. Jazz pieces, by Ellington, say, are named as if they were cocktails--e.g., "Sophisticated Lady." In the 1920's, the heyday of the cocktail, drinking and jazz were closely associated. The music was naughty in the same way that the illegal drinking was. And maybe the sex was considered just as naughty. In a more permissive society, such forbidden pleasure doesn't carry quite the same caché, which may be why cocktails aren't as exciting as they were once.     

    I'm not a big fan of Violette liqueur, but in the right proportion, and with the right accompaniments it can be a winner. As a flavoring agent, it combines nicely with other fruit hints, and in gin drinks it can be very subtle, though its intense purple color may turn a drink grey (instead of merely violet).   

    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.  

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  • 11/30/12--09:37: Callahan

  • 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. 

    Like William Carlos Williams, one often has the feeling, looking at a Callahan print, that he is like Robinson Crusoe walking along the beach and seeing another human footprint for the first time after being marooned. Each fact, each event, each discovery acquires a significance far beyond its measure in a world fully occupied by humankind. There's a loneliness and isolation in most of Callahan's images, which enables the visionary eye to see things in their original wonder and simplicity, shorn of extraneous associations and habitual contexts. This kind of seeing is both a condition of innocence before nature, and a discipline that is rather like eastern mystical notions of a perfected state of attention and openness. And yet Callahan tells us nothing about any of this, preferring to let us attend to his images without any controlling or suggestive rubric. A critic is both free, and constrained by this lack of a surrounding aesthetic context. The denial of a precedent or methodology allows the image to stand alone, in isolation from history and associations. 

    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.     

    During mid-career, Callahan explored multiple exposures as a way of visualizing time and the meaning of repetition--which occurs most noticeably in mechanical circumstance(s). He manages here to imply all the variations in stepped occurrence possible within a segment (or passage) of an urban street scene. There's a kind of lagging fatigue which resists the drag of all these masses of metal through prostrate space. It's a mindless exhaustion of tedious appointments in eternity--yet it's the world we pass through on our respective numberless errands, so we know it must be real. Though the monotonous look of these vehicles is locked in the obsolescent imagination of 1940's auto design--an industry in which Callahan worked for some years prior to beginning his life as an artist--it speaks the same message to us today. Against the monotony of post-War America and its relentless capitalist expansion, Callahan sees in nature an idealized iconography, but without any of the meubles, or the trappings of erotic or religious baggage. His many and varied images of his wife Eleanor, describe an intimate concentration that amounts to a kind of aesthetic obsession.         

    The mood in these studies is one of abiding intimacy and affection, the nudes are almost religious in their intensity and focus. In the image below, Callahan has made what is known as a contact print. That is, the frame of the negative is entirely filled from the image projected through the lens; there is no "cropping" or adjustment of the frame. In other words, what he composed through the back of the camera is exactly what was printed on the exposed negative in the film holder at the back of the camera. There's an implied directness and completeness in the making of the image, and a total sufficiency to the process. Everything is deliberate; nothing is left out. Nothing is left to chance or later adjustments. This directness is part of Callahan's purified, hygienic approach to image-making. 

    Callahan's intense concentration on the intimate facts of his own family life has no counterpoint in the rest of his published or displayed work. There's a cleanliness about this that is almost Puritan in its nature. There is nothing vicarious about Callahan's work. Seeing his pictures of his wife is like looking through the eyes of Adam in Paradise, as Eve first appeared to him. In one of his canonical images--which has been used in various venues over the years--is this other-worldly picture of Eleanor submerged in the waves of the Great Lakes. The face is striking not just for the iconic, classic lines, but as a result of the closed eyes, and the gently undulating dark tresses of her hair, which partially cover her upper trunk. She's like a mermaid, or a sea nymph rising out of the ocean. Her implied somnolence suggests a birthing, or a trance state. She's like some ancient goddess or symbol of feminine power seducing us into the water, or to some fantastic idyll.     

    And yet it also has a kind of plainness and simplicity which belies all that myth-making. She is just a woman, elevated in our regard to a position of inspired visionary illumination. If woman, in the guise of Eleanor, is the love goddess of pre-history, then nature, or the forms of the universe as we're given to know it, has its own seemingly baffling designs.


    Callahan's nature studies have none of the picturesque qualities ordinarily associated with classic landscape photography. They're nonetheless totally aesthetic, not scientific, not inspirational, not "ideal," and not unique examples. Again, they seem almost random as subject-matter. And it's the tension between the ordinary subject and the photographer's opportunity which gives them their common astonishing quality. When Callahan wandered in nature, it wasn't the striking gnarled tree trunk that caught his attention, or the swirling mass of a thunderhead, but the jumble and chaotic mass of twisted grass stems he saw at his feet. Recognizing immediately how photogenic this composition would appear in black and white, he pointed his camera down. That moment was a metaphysical realization whose implications were greater than any feeling we might have about the heroic character of inspired landscape views. And the form these stems have bears the same relation to the meaning of nature, as a specimen on a slide under a microscope. The formal qualities exhibited in it have the same indelible immanence as an equation--a revealed truth laid bare. 

    And yet the impression you are left with in Callahan's work isn't complexity and contradiction and confusion, but clarity and passive acceptance. Even when the subject may be the harried expressions of commuters on an urban street, the feeling we have is not intrusion, or shock, or dismay, but a sense of random impulsiveness to which we're only casual witnesses. Callahan's range is a good deal more varied than my own partial appreciation might suggest--   

    --but for me, the power of his vision is best expressed where his control over the event within the frame of the moment and the whole picture is most complete. To make something new out of a built scene requires a transformative process that accepts the implications of pre-existing man-made environments, while seeing into or beyond them to an unsuspected vantage. But when he confronts nature, the original purity of his approach is preserved. Within the universe of possible scenes, there is a vast limit. We are both a part of, and apart from, the universe of light to which we belong. The photo above could be of a Mars landscape, and yet if it were, the implication of the thin dark line, compressed by the gradations of wind-blown sand, would be measurably the same. In one sense the picture is "empty"--the sky presses down upon the land, and the dark sea is "squeezed" into a thin strip, barely visible. The earth's spherical curve disappears just beyond our reach. It is like the first view of the sea by a land-bound being, or of a newborn baby turtle "returning" to the sea its ancestors left to deposit its egg.     

    Humans stand in the light of the sun's angle, and are forever held there in a timeless relation to the folded infinity of such moments--possible, realized, or dreamed. Life is fleeting, and transient, and elusive, and unverified without a record. It happens all around us, with or without notice. We are its only witnesses.    

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    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. 

    It may be that one of the hallmarks of a healthy modern society is the interest its ordinary citizens display in making and devising solutions to problems, in investigating and trying to discover answers to simple questions. Are Americans a lazy, passive people, content to follow life as it passes before their television and computer screens, happy to consume and acquire and fritter away their time? I don't know, it's a simple question with a complicated answer. Are there still husbands who amble out to the garage to work on projects in the evenings and on weekends? As a reader of Boy's Life in my childhood, I dreamed of growing up to be a scientist or an inventor, when I wasn't dreaming of being a major league ballplayer or a sailor or a forest ranger or a short story author. Boy's Life was a little like the Saturday Evening Post for boys, with some Popular Mechanics thrown in for good measure. It's been owned by the Boy Scouts of America since near its inception. A lot of the guys I grew up with were heavily into fixing things, as if this were a rite of passage into male maturity. Home workshops were their testing ground, and they reveled in it. It was supposed to teach you to be practical, to solve problems, and to focus your attention and energy on constructive work, instead of getting into mischief and falling into perdition.     

    That world was a fantasy, and everyone sort of knew it. The vision we had of our prosperous life was a residue of the desperation and fear that had left its mark on the lives of our parents, who had lived through the Depression and World War II. Life was getting better all the time, and we were going to build on that dream when we grew up. But in the 1960's, we decided that dream didn't make a lot of sense. At least some of us did. Most of my generation wasn't comprised of rebels and outlaws and nuts. We were mostly pretty well-intentioned. That's what we were taught, and that's what we believed. 

    In my life, I became fascinated with making split bamboo fly-rods, and taking large format photographs, and designing gardens, and writing poems, and composing music, and collecting rare first editions. And I've done all those things, mostly to little effect, but with much investment of time, thought, energy and money. When I grow up, I think I'll put away these childish things and be serious about life, but in the meantime, I'm going to continue to chase my diversions, one of which is making up interesting and irresistible cocktails. This one will make you feel coolly sophisticated as you sip it on the veranda, or the balcony, dressed in your tuxedo beside a stunning brunette wearing a black cocktail dress, or--as I do--leaning against the kitchen counter, munching on salted pistachios, shooting the breeze with my wife of 43 years.  

    Here's the recipe for another very refined mixture, as always, by proportion (this makes two drinks):

    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. 

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  • 12/07/12--10:15: Brubeck

  • Brubeck on Time Magazine cover November 8, 1954

    For people of my generation, the memory of Brubeck's famous hit album, Time Out [1959], with its signature 5/4 time standard Take Five theme, is indelible. Even for those of us raised on classical, or rock, or country, or traditional jazz,  this Columbia LP was iconic. It was a line drawn in the sand between the world Ellington had imagined, and the future we could see forming over the horizon. Brubeck's approach was filled with elegance, and restraint, and fine distinctions. The first side--Blue Rondo a la Turk, Strange Meadow Lark and Take Five--is perhaps the best 20 minutes of original jazz recording of the second half of the 20th Century--pure concentrated statement, confident and fully formed and seamless. Listening to it again, today, a day after Brubeck's death, I'm impressed once more with how good it is. 

    But the nostalgia it evokes brings a lump to my throat too. There was nothing ever really "cool" about Brubeck or his music. He was a warm human being, and the music wears that temperature and affection with all the confirmation of a best friend's handshake. There's never any doubt about it. My favorite is Strange Meadow Lark, which features Paul Desmond in the central section, followed by a return to Brubeck's thematic reiteration. One of the prettiest tunes you'll ever hear, poly-tonal and shifting its time, but with a heart of gold, good and bad times and joy and hurt all recollected in tranquillity, with a conviction in the value of life. 

    The only time I ever heard Brubeck play was at the Mountain Winery venue in Saratoga, back I think in the 1980's, at a point at which one imagined he was on the verge of retirement, but which was not the case at all, as he continued to compose and perform right up through the second decade of the new century. That night he played all the old favorites, albeit with different sidemen, including his son, who contributed on the electric guitar. 

    Brubeck was civilized, and liberal, and dependable--qualities not always found in jazzmen, and that accounts for his longevity, as well as his popularity. Though changing styles made him somewhat irrelevant in later decades, his music was good enough to stand up to the test of time, unlike that of much of the music of the 1950's. It's music for the mind as much as for the soul. Though it could be very declamatory, it was frequently so laid back that you could just let it murmur in the background of whatever you were doing at the moment. That was why they called it "cool" though it was not really reserved or reluctant. Like all good jazz, it felt like improvisation, and conversation, picking up hints and threads and echoes from point to point and transforming them subtly and convincingly into novel versions, the whole process one of cooperation, a mix of difference(s), the blended milieu. 

    Brubeck lived so long he outlived himself. Or, maybe not. Maybe he made it all the way to the end without a skip or a missed beat.    

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  • 01/04/13--04:51: Pollock and Abstraction

  • I was reading recently on another blog about a poet's frustration with the use of "abstraction" in modern and post-modern art, as he argued that all "abstraction" was in effect a kind of obfuscation or diversion from the useful relationship between medium and representation--that non-syntactic writing, for instance, was devoid of useful or definite meaning, or that abstract painting didn't tell one anything about "reality" since it "represented" nothing real, except the physical fact of its materiality.  

    Jackson Pollock Number 32

    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. 

    Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles

    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? 

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  • 01/04/13--18:28: Keep Trying

  •                           Literally at Kitty Hawk

    the exhilaration                        what a


    for the first
    time                                                        beautiful, crude

    on your stomach                                              

    off the                                                  
    edge of                                                                 propeller is

    history                                                                              to empty space

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    I've written about Glenn Gould [1932-1982] before, and I guess it's likely I may again in the future. Today, amidst our seasonal cold snap, I was reminded of his lyrical recorded interpretations of the sublime Sibelius Sonatinas, whose character is so evocative of the Nordic moods of his native Finland. Gould, of course, was Canadian, and his own personality was formed in part by the northern aspect, which comes right through in his versions of these austerely beautiful pieces. They're rather like Grieg, in their good cheer, but more reflective and dour.    

    Though I grew up in California, I spent three years in Iowa in the early 70's, and a year in Northern Japan in the 1980's, so I know well the effect of very cold, snowy conditions. People who live most of their lives in "hard winter" country often retire to tropical or desert regions, as has been traditional in America (to Florida and Arizona or New Mexico). I always think the Protestant taciturnity and gravity derives in part from the Northern European and Scandinavian climate where it originates. These pieces might be like sober meditations during a silent winter night close to the Arctic Circle. Very cold places always make me think about the emptiness and silence of the universe.       

    Listening to these pieces, I imagine Sibelius sitting at his piano in a large room with long planked flooring, with cool northern overcast light--snow light. It is quiet, and "empty." There's a foursquare sensibleness and practicality. Things are in their place. It's a time for reflection. He plays a few notes, tries out a figure, then stops, thinks, broods. A sip of tea. A single bird chirps. Then it's quiet again. The room is itself like (an extension of) the piano, and the resonance is something you can feel under your seat. The notes are like the tuning of the house in the crispness of winter. One dreams of Spring, of women dancing on a Summer night. But that seems faraway now.            

    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

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  • 01/20/13--10:18: Late Carver

  • 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.

    Raymond Carver in 1984

    But it isn't Carver's stories I want to talk about here. It's his poems. Carver's poems are so much like his stories, in the way they work--so much so, that it hardly suffices to describe the formal "techniques" of his verse. Indeed, he hardly seems to have a formal syntactical or grammatical poetics at all. The poems are really just very very short stories, usually small autobiographical events that inspire a thought or moral observation.

    One of my favorite Carver poems is The Net, from his last (posthumous) collection A New Path to the Waterfall [1989].

                          The Net

    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. 

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  • 01/21/13--00:46: The New Push for Nuclear

  • It may seem untimely to raise the issue of the advisability of expanding America's investment in nuclear power generation. Indeed, with the recent memory of the Fukushima meltdown (or has it moved far enough back into our consciousness even to qualify yet as "memory"?) fresh in mind, it might sound absurd to point out that there are serious, perfectly devoted advocates once again pressing the case of an expanded "nuclear option" to be "put back on the table" for discussion of our future energy needs. 

    I was reminded of this recently when I happened to watch a re-telecast of a local KQED produced segment of QUEST--a science, nature and environmental television series. Given KQED's growing financial difficulties, it's been troubling to see the station capitulate to necessity, not just through actual commercial message slots (as for automobiles and petroleum corporations), as well as paid programming such as financial advice, health & fitness gurus, and even religious-oriented material, but apparently now also for private energy development. 

    The airing of the program in question--"What's Next for Nuclear?"--initially televised on September 18, 2012--featured interviews and testimony by Per Peterson, a member of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant's Independent Safety Committee, and an instructor at UC Berkeley's Department of Nuclear Engineering. It would be hard to imagine anyone more likely to present a partisan view of the issues and concerns surrounding the need for nuclear power than Peterson, who is busily at work devising new ways to handle the problems associated with the uncontrolled heat that is generated in the reactor cores of operating plants. He's clearly invested in the future of this technology. The program was clearly intended to lend unconditional support to a resumption of commitment to more nuclear energy power generation (to the licensing of more American nuclear plants); and to "soften" the objections of a public increasingly suspicious of reassurances from energy corporations about the safety of such plants in the future.      

    American nuclear waste

    As anyone who has studied the science knows, nuclear power generation presents several intractable problems. Radioactive substances require extremely careful handling, and the processes by which they produce the fission heat that generates power are very dangerous. Radioactive material is expensive to mine, expensive to transport, expensive to store, and expensive to handle. Once the radioactive fuel rods are "spent," they have to be stored. Since their radioactive "life"--as dangerously poisonous contamination--takes hundreds of years to "decay," they impose an incredible burden upon society in the future, to maintain whatever kinds of safekeeping may be employed to keep them away from humans (not to speak of other living things). 

    It has become perfectly obvious that though our science has progressed to the point that we can successfully generate some power through the use of radioactive fuel rods, the plants themselves do not last very long, and are very expensive to design and build. Further, plans for deposition of the growing pile of nuclear waste generated from existing plants have not materialized; and this burgeoning load of radioactive waste is not being effectively addressed by state and federal agencies established to deal with the problem. The plain fact is that there is no practical, safe way to "dispose" of it, and the government, and the power companies know this. Even the public knows it.          

    German nuclear waste

    Proponents of  nuclear power generation point to the problems associated with tradition carbon generation, which include global warming, and the considerable health affects tied to air, water and ground contamination. The effects of carbon waste are well-documented. As the world's use of carbon burning ramps up, so do its effects.

    What seems clear is that our growing global hunger for more energy is quickly outstripping our ability to supply it, at least in ways that are not so "dirty" or dangerous that the problems associated with their use do not outweigh the advantages. Global warming has finally provided the overwhelming argument against the mindless expansion of carbon burning (coal, gas, wood etc.). Indeed, the underlying realization finally seems to have awakened us to the undeniable fact that humankind is quickly reaching the limits of its ability to "use up" available sources of energy in a "cost effective" way, particularly when the problems associated with that exploitation are factored into the equation.     

    Given KQED's "public interest" mandate, and the American public's overwhelming resistance to more nuclear plants--which is well-documented--it struck me as incredible, and indeed intolerable, that a program, produced for public television, purporting to present a balanced view of developments in the "science" of nuclear power engineering, should take such an unequivocally positive view. The presentation included allusions to the health and safety issues associated with the Chernobyl Plant in the Soviet Union, and briefly mentioned the recent disaster at Fukushima, but it passed over these as if they were minor matters. 

    "The public health and environmental consequences of using fossil fuels are so enormous that they dwarf even the consequences of nuclear accidents," said Per Peterson. "That said, we need to be moving towards new nuclear energy technologies that do not have the potential to release radiocative materials into the environment." Waiving aside Chernobyl and Fukushima (and Three Mile Island), Peterson smiled with conviction into the camera as he demonstrated his big plastic toy model of a reactor, showing little colored balls circulating around a network of tubes, like a little Pachinko arcade game. I felt as if I were being treated to a replay of my childhood program Science in Action. Shades of the optimistic 1950's! Didn't we all have our little science kits, erector sets, chemistry labs and old issues of Popular Science? Better living through chemistry! 

    The general public has known for some time that nuclear power generation--a technology which is yet in its infancy--is an impractical alternative to other kinds of power generation, both because the considerable costs and risks of building and running nuclear power plants, and because we don't yet have the science to deal with the growing pile of poisonous wastes they produce. 

    The primary problem facing humanity is its uncontrolled growth, which is the primary driver of environmental exploitation. Accepting that growth as inevitable creates intolerable requirements which our present science and resources will be unable to fulfill. Accepting that the needs for food, energy, space and occupation are limited is the first step in addressing the question of Global Warming. Those who refuse to address the root cause of the over-exploitation and unwise use of resource, are offering only short-term, and ineffective solutions. 
    British nuclear waste

    We know now that Global Warming is inevitable, that it is just a matter of time before its effects will be felt around the globe. And we know that there is nothing that can be done to avert it, because the growing population of the earth insures that the overwhelming needs associated with that uncontrolled population will overcome any pathetic resistance to exploitation. As the world population grows, our technology will advance to service it, whatever the consequences. 

    Science has solved many of mankind's problems, and it may well be that the science of nuclear power may proceed to the extent that its he present problems may eventually be fixed, in a century or two. But the pressures of demand are much greater than any prudent cautions that are raised against hurrying forward before we're ready. In capitalistic terms, the motivation to exploit the market for energy consumption is probably ten times greater than our apprehensions about the probable costs of Global Warming.   

    Yet why should our present society (and environment) be endangered (and heavily contaminated), while scientists scramble to catch up? It is often said that need drives discovery, that the best crucible for experiment is live testing. That's one of the ways science proceeds, through the testing of a premise, with progressively expanded sampling, to achieve levels of confirmation and probability. But with nuclear power, simply building more power plants, before we know for certain how to design them to be completely safe, and before we've figured out how to deal with the huge pile of radioactive waste, means subjecting humanity (and the environment) to intolerable risks. It means using human society--and the whole environment--as a kind of guinea-pig. 

    Those risks have been examined and considered at some length already, and people in this country seem unwilling to proceed, given the enormity of the problems we see in the nuclear "accidents" around the world. We've tended to think of the degree of energy usage as a measure of the progress and sophistication of a society. Indeed, the whole idea of "progress" seems based on an Industrial Age model in which more technology, more mechanization, more automation, and more energy consumption are seen as forms of advancement. But the rapid rise of this kind of "progress" has brought with it vastly expanded "markets" for exploitation, which we seem powerless to control or channel. 

    President Obama has even announced that his official policy is to encourage the licensing of more nuclear power plants around the country. But if I have anything to say about it, I will vote against permitting any nuclear power plants, or nuclear waste dumps, to be located within 500 miles of my residence, which I consider to be a minimum "safe distance" from the risks of accident. I regard that as merely prudent. If everyone took that position, what could the proponents of new nuclear facilities say? Where on God's earth could we put these very dangerous contraptions? Who will be willing to risk contamination?

    One thing we know from geology is that the earth is not a stable surface. The earth's crust is a shifting, wrinkling jelly, permeated with escape valves for the hot molten interior which is just beneath the thin surface. No one can say for sure that any place on the planet is stable enough to accept the burden of a material as long-lived and insidious as hot nuclear waste. Until we have the technology to address the problem of how to eliminate the waste it creates, nuclear power should be shelved--at least for the time being. How long might it take for the science to "catch up" with our desire to exploit nuclear energy? I have no idea, but I don't have much faith in humanity. More plants will be built, and there will be more accidents. But the real problems will come later, when the dump sites begin to age, and the terrible messes they create will start happening. I'm glad I won't live to see it.  

    As long as there are people stupid enough, or gullible enough--or who are being paid enough--to front for the utility companies, there will be programs like What's Next for Nuclear? The producers, and the programming division of KQED should be ashamed. Is there anyone with a conscience there anymore?    

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    Anselm Hollo as a young man - at about the time I knew him

    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.     

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    Vintage 19th Century photograph of Mississippi riverboats

    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. 

    Eddie DeBartolo Jr. former owner of the San Francisco 49ers

    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.

    Colin Kaepernick posing in the end-zone after his long TD run

    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. 

      Bourbon Street in the rain
    I've been to New Orleans, but never during Mardi Gras or Super Bowl. Rain in season (as above) can dampen sentiments, but bar-hopping isn't really an outdoor sport. I've even watched a game in the Super Dome, one in which our Steve Young and company dismantled the then pitiful Saints that day, 31-0.  

    New Orleans Super Dome at sunset

    Eating and drinking in New Orleans is almost a way of living, a devotion to indulgence pure and simple. If you like seafood, rich sauces, and seductive cocktails, this is your oyster. So, in honor of the 49ers, who will be playing in their sixth Super Bowl to date, a toast!   

    Recipe for the Delta Queen, if you please, with (as usual) the ingredients by proportion:

    3 Parts Buffalo Trace Bourbon
    2 Parts Myers Dark Rum
    1 Part Praline liqueur
    1 Part Amaro liqueur
    1.5 Parts fresh lemon juice

    --garnish with lemon peel as desired. Shaken and served up in my preferred fashion. 

    The best book I know about the Mississippi riverboat culture is Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. It's been dramatized, and they made a much under-rated movie of it in 1980 featuring Robert Lansing in the Horace Bixby part. Twain, who grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, loved steamboating, and Life on the Mississippi is his paean to the dream of piloting a real paddle-wheeler. Today, tourists can book passage on big imitation paddle-wheel steamers plying their way up and down the river, but it's nothing like the 19th Century days when it represented the real commerce of the mid-way, and riverboat gamblers rubbed shoulders with rich planters and the fleecy ladies of the day. Gambling, and living well, and the national diversion. All our fun nowadays seems to be vicarious. But I'm not sure I'd really want to be in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, even with the home team playing in it. It's much more relaxing to watch it on television, in a tavern, or with friends in your living room. What's more, you can mix your own cocktails!  

    Go Niners!

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  • 02/05/13--08:01: A Precise Moment of History

  • The 49ers lost the SuperBowl 34 to 31. It was a game for the ages--dire beginning, unbelievable comeback, crucial failure at the end.

    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!     

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    The first thing to know about the word espresso, is that it isn't pronounced "ex-PRESS-oh" but "es-PRESS-oh." There's nothing "express" about espresso coffee drinks. Espresso means literally to press out or extrude--which is what making espresso coffee drinks involves. The word is Italian in origin, deriving from the Latin word exprimere

    Espresso machines were invented in Italy, and in 1905 the patent for the earliest design dedicated to the immediate preparation of served espresso coffee drinks was bought by Desiderio Pavoni, who began manufacturing them in Milan. 

    Espresso coffee is made by forcing very hot (steaming) water through a densely packed finely ground dark roast powder, which produces a coffee concentrate much stronger and more flavorful than is produced through drip or French press methods. 

    In Italy, the consumption of espresso drinks at bars encouraged the habit of standing up while drinking it. Espresso drinks proliferated throughout Europe and the Americas in the 20th Century, developing into variations such as capuccino, latte, etc., with the inclusion of milk products and flavorings (sweeteners etc.). 

    Modern espresso machines are still marketed under the Pavoni name. They come with a steam spout which feeds off the same heating reservoir that provides the steaming water, which is used to steam the milk for the making of lattes or cappuccinos. Everyone has seen the larger models used by restaurants, but the principle is the same, except that the pumping (or pressurization) action can be automated.               

    Marketer's photo of a modern Pavoni espresso machine (circa 1980's)

    Like most people who crave coffee, I eventually discovered the attractions of espresso. When espresso is made, the liquid produces a kind of head or foam on top, known as the crema. This is sort of the créme de la créme, if you will, of the essence of the coffee bean. People have told me that the crema is too bitter, that the real flavor is in the liquid underneath. But this is apocryphal. The crema is in fact the desirable alembic of the brew, and the connoisseur's delight. In France and America, there developed the "au lait" combination, in which steamed whole milk is mixed with freshly brewed espresso. The joining of the crema with the milk foam produces a distinctly refined combination of the natural sugar in milk and the bitter, cocoa-like flavors of the coffee.         

    Photo of my brass and copper Pavoni espresso machine (acquired about 25 years ago)

    Due to the intensity of the espresso flavor, and its high caffeine content, very little espresso can or should be consumed at one time. Indeed, its fragility and evanescence demand that it be consumed within a minute or two of its brewing, since it tends to go "flat" and to cool very rapidly. Whereas regular (or Americano) coffee can be kept warm and relatively fresh for perhaps an hour or more, espresso is only at its best in the first moments after being served, in little demitasse cups small enough for a doll's party. 

    When in Italy, you will see men in business-suits standing at little open air bars, brief-case in hand, downing an espresso in 15 seconds, then hurrying on to work. You don't see this in America, though there was a little place on Market Street in San Francisco, across from where I worked there in the 1980's, where I used to get a shot or two during my mid-morning break. 

    We tend to like a double espresso shot after a nice dinner; it's a fitting end to the evening repast. It has less to do with the stimulation than the confirmation of a familiar taste. I suspect that people who smoke may have the same feeling about a good cigarette, or a good cigar after a meal. I've never smoked, so that isn't something I can vouch for.   

    Ciao, bene, one shot per favore!

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  • 02/08/13--18:13: Aurora Rarotonga

  • Say the two words together, rather quickly, aurora rarotonga, aurora rarotonga, aurora rarotonga, and see if you don't feel the rhythm. Au-RO-ra ra-ro-TONG-ga. Somewhere in the deep memory of the race, your butt begins to jiggle.

    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!


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    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 fish
    brush by us. Oh leg 
    not reaching!

    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


    Leaped at the caribou.
    My son looked at the caribou.
    The kangaroo leaped on the
    fruit tree. I am a white
    man and my children
    are hungry
    which is like paradise.
    The doll is sleeping.
    It lay down to creep into
    the plate.
    It was clean and flying.


    Where you...the axes
    are. Why is this home so
    hard. So much
    like the sent over the
    courses below the home
    having a porch.

    Felt it on my gate in the place
    where caribous jumped
    over. Where geese sons
    and pouches of daughters look at
    me and say "I'm hungry


    Not alone in the
    gastrous desert. We are looking
    at the caribous out in the water
    swimming around. We
    want to go in the ocean
    along the dunes.
    Where do we like?
    Like little lice in the sand
    we look into a fruit expanse.
    Oh the sky is so cold.
    We run into the water.
    Lice in heaven.


    My heel. Ten o'clock the class.
    Underwater fish
    brush by us. Oh leg
    not reaching!
    The show is stopping
    at the sky to drive in the
    truck. Tell us where to
    stop and eat. And
    drink which comes to us out
    in the sand is
    at a star.
    My pants are damp.
    Is tonight treating us
    but not reaching through the window.


    Where is that bug going?
    Why are your hips
    rounded as the sand?
    What is jewelry?
    Baby sleeps. Sleeping on
    the cliff is dangerous.
    The television of all voice is
    way far behind.
    Do we flow nothing?
    Where did you follow that bug
    See flying


    Caribou, what have I
    done? See how her
    heart moves like a little
    bug......under my thumb.
    Throw me deeply.
    I am the floes.
    Ho ho ho caribou,
    light brown and wetness
    caribou. I stink and
    I know it.
    "Screw you!'re right."


    Everyone has seen us out
    with the caribou but
    no one has seen us out in
    the car. You passed
    beyond us.
    We saw your knees
    but the other night we
    couldn't call you.
    You were more far than a
    widow feeling you.
    Nothing has been terrible.
    We are the people who have
    been running with
    More than when we run?


    Tell us where o eat to stop and eat.
    The diner is never gonna come.
    The forest things are passing.
    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.
    Following me
    I love you
    and I fall beyond
    and I eat you like a
    bow and arrow withering in the


    No one should be mean.
    Making affection and all the green
    winters wide awake.
    Blubber is desert. Out on
    the firm lake, o firm
    and aboriginal kiss.
    To dance, to hunt, to sing,
    no one should be mean.
    Not needing these things.


    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

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  • 02/13/13--11:33: Objectivism Begins - 1929

  • It's interesting to go back and browse old literary magazines from the first half of the 20th Century. 19th Century American and British literary magazines now seem impossibly remote, and alien to our sensibility, but it only takes a little imagination to conjure up a sense of what it may have felt like to read periodicals like Poetry (Chicago) Magazine, in the 1920's, which in those days had no internet (electronic) presence, and could only be read in its material text incarnation. There weren't many places that poetry could be published before World War I--nothing like the explosion of academic journals and little magazines which became increasingly common in the succeeding decades, reaching a crescendo in the 1960's with the mimeo revolution

    After an auspicious beginning in 1912, Poetry could boast important appearances by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Moore, Millay, Frost, for instance, in its first decade of existence. By the mid-1920's, however, it had begun to feel a little drab, and the list of contributors now reads like a 3rd rate collection of best-forgotten has-beens: Ernest Walsh, Marion Strobel, Eunice Tietjens, Frances Shaw, Violet Allyn Storey. When was the last time anyone mentioned any of these names? I recall once the critic Richard Kostelanetz saying in a review of a memorial issue of Poetry, how awful its selections had been over the years, and I had to concur. So many bad poems, so many bad poets. 

    Poetry struggled along for many years on a shoestring budget, and it might have folded had it not quite unexpectedly been surprised with a jumbo bequest from the estate of Ruth Lilly, who had years before received a kindly worded declination to a submission she had made to the magazine--a bequest in 2003 totaling some $200, 000, 000!!!  Overnight, the magazine went from a fly-by-night affair, chronically on the verge of bankruptcy, to a major corporate (or foundation) player in the philanthropy-sphere, spawning contests and awards and new buildings, and supporting a professional staff with real salaries. Whether any of this new flush solvency will have a positive influence on the quality of poetry in America is debatable. 

    The glowering new foundation quarters of Poetry (Chicago)

    How quaint the old Poetry magazine now appears, when compared to the pristine, confident, streamlined modern version! Of course, many famous poets have published work in Poetry over the years--Yeats, Williams Stevens, Bunting, Rakosi, Cummings, O'Hara, Ginsberg, Joyce, etc. But as Kostelanetz points out, it was invariably not their best work, and frequently was nothing more than a token belated recognition of their accomplishments outside the world which Poetry had come to represent over the years, i.e., an uncomfortable mediocrity. 

    By the mid-1920's, Poetry no longer represented an harbinger of new and daring experimentation, but had become a repository of staid, predictable, safe, reactionary writing. Despite the imprecations of editor Harriet Monroe's redoubtable correspondent, Ezra Pound, the magazine continued to shy away from challenging work, preferring to stick with polite, quiet, sensible poems, with little to recommend them aside from their timid propriety. (I'm not the first person of course to say this, but any magazine which begins with a manifesto to publish "the best" or the "highest standard" without regard to program or vision, is almost certain to select work which is imitative, meretricious, bland, ephemeral, and cheap. Literary movements come and go, but the driving force behind any publication is invariably the eccentric or unusual attitude of its editor(s), and when the energy or functional purpose of that editor is exhausted or complete, there is little pretext for prolongation.) 

    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.         

    Of Dying Beauty

    “Spare us of dying beauty,” cries out Youth,
    “Of marble gods that moulder into dust—
    Wide-eyed and pensive with an ancient truth
    That even gods will go as old things must.”
    Where fading splendor grays to powdered earth,
    And time’s slow movement darkens quiet skies,
    Youth weeps the old, yet gives new beauty birth
    And molds again, though the old beauty dies.
    Time plays an ancient dirge amid old places
    Where ruins are a sign of passing strength,
    As is the weariness of aged faces
    A token of a beauty gone at length.
    Yet youth will always come self-willed and gay—
    A sun-god in a temple of decay.

    Poetry, January 1924

    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
    A Dialogue

    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.                   


    *With the closing down of the communal after the events of WWII, LZ's scope of concern contracted to the familial and intimate. 

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    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.

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  • 02/19/13--13:10: Going Unshaven

  • Back in the 1960's, when women's liberation was just getting going, there was a minor movement for women not to groom their legs, underarms, and other places. Fashion isn't a simple subject, and I don't intend to get into complex areas of the meaning of long hair versus short, or the metaphysical significance of foot-binding, or washing with pumice instead of soap and water. 

    But I have been mystified to understand just what the new tradition of "stubble" is all about, and why it hangs on so stubbornly in our culture. I've known some dark-haired men in my life who've told me their skin is unusually sensitive to razors and friction. Men may sport beards of one kind or another, for reasons of fashion, of religious practice, or simply because they're too lazy to shave regularly. Personally, I've always found that a beard makes me look like an angry bear, a look which never appealed much to me--or to anyone else, I suspect. I have worn a mustache since I was about 27, and now that my hair is turning white, it looks even a little distinguished, I like to imagine. I put blonding agent in my hair, not because I want to appear young, but because I think I look better with lighter hair than the dark brown it naturally has always been, since I was about aged 4. I'm not being vain, just practical.   

    Nevertheless, as I say, I've been trying to understand why otherwise intelligent women might prefer a man who sports a two- or three- or four-day stubble, or even more crazily, find such a man sexy. Is it because men who haven't shaved look a little untamed? Or does it suggest a certain devil-may-care negligence towards their looks, or to the standards of behavior common in our society? Is a man who doesn't shave being attractively "naughty" or rebellious, or aggressively suggestive? Is a three-day stubble a sexual message? And if so, what exactly does it say? "I haven't shaved, so I'm ready to hit the sack. How'bout it?" 

    In a practical sense, beards can get in the way of things, especially short beards. Nothing scratchier than a three-day stubble. Do some women find that scratchiness tantalizing? Is it some kind of talisman of a man's virility, proof that he's male, evidence of his gender? Or are women just capitulating to fashion, in the way people will, despite whatever inconveniences are involved. Ask any woman why wearing high heels isn't pleasant--so men can be just as irrational as women in this respect. In defending his beautiful but very uncomfortably designed chairs, Mies van der Rohe replied that women don't wear heels to be comfortable, and smart people shouldn't object to sitting in uncomfortable furniture, especially if they look better when they do. Fashion avatars take risks, and fashions may come and go within a single season, but the stubble look has been around for a while, and shows no sign of passing away. Young actors like Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe meet crowds on the runway looking as if they woke up from a week of sleep, tired-eyed and unshaven, open-collared, tousle-haired, stooped over and smiling like a hungry alligator. Apparently, this turns women--especially young ones--on. Why?        

    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.  

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    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 [1964], 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 [1972], 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. 

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