Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vacation - Long Overdue - Fisherman's Luck

The color picture above was taken at Silver Creek, Idaho, not far from Sun Valley. Literary types will recognize this as Hemingway's last residence, where he committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a shotgun. Hemingway loved to fish Silver Creek, and his son John Hemingway (the "Bumby" of EH's early years in Paris), who lived nearby in his later years, was instrumental in getting the Nature Conservancy to acquire the property bordering the stream, in order to preserve it for fishermen for perpetuity. 
Silver Creek is beautiful in a specific way. Located among hayfields, in dry country, almost semi-desert. The air is clear, and the sky is operatic, with big cloud formations, and dramatic sunsets. I've fished here half a dozen times over the last 30 years, and never was disappointed.
Once, on a lonely late Summer night, I stubbornly refused to pack it in, and kept casting and casting into pitch dark, just under the downstream side of the little bridge which crosses the stream near the public access point. Big browns were rising excitedly, as they often do just at the end of the evening hatch, when they usually also seem most selective. Suddenly, a huge lunker grabbed my second to last cast. Rising dramatically out of the water, he flew through the air, landing with a great "flop" against the steel brace on the side of the bridge, falling back with a splash into the water, throwing the hook, and summoning an astonished "whooh" out loud from me.  
I'm leaving the Bay Area this weekend for two weeks of fishing in Idaho--a long postponed respite from the chores of editing the Collected Eigner, knocking out semi-daily blog essays,  and selling rare books on the internet. I'll resume sometime after the second weekend in June. 

Wish me luck! 

Aftermath of Gulf Oil Spill - Confirmations

Now, one month and a week after the British Petroleum Gulf Oil Disaster, the company--and the Federal response agencies--still appear to have no clue how to repair the damaged well-head which continues to spew raw crude oil--from one mile down on the ocean floor--into the Gulf of Mexico, and onto the surrounding shore and tidelands. 
As I surmised in my previous post of May 2nd, 2010 ["Why Offshore Drilling is a Big Mistake"], there is no reliable scientific or engineering precedent for addressing this kind of disaster, and therefore neither the company, nor the governing agencies, has a clue how to solve the problem. 
So-called "assurances" issued by the company's engineers all hinge on the unlikelihood of such an occurrence, in effect saying "this couldn't happen, so we never thought about how to fix it if it ever did." Now that it has happened--as Murphy predicted it would--British Petroleum is scrambling around trying to buy time by making calm, measured, "we're in control of the situation" pronouncements. But it's now a month later, and it seems no closer at this juncture to fixing the problem than it was the day after it occurred.
Oceanic conditions at depth present a number of difficulties. There is the problem of access, the ocean pressure at that depth is great, and the machinery needed to manipulate tools and structures at that level simply doesn't exist. Creating an offshore well in deep water is a difficult proposition to begin with. It's much easier simply to set up a drilling bit, and pump up out of the well, than it is to repair it once it's been broken.
The petroleum community--the corporations, the engineers, the regulators--everyone knew perfectly well that if this ever happened, they'd have to trouble-shoot a solution, because no methodology for addressing it had ever been developed. 
Petroleum mining is a very dirty business, in every sense of that phrase. Oil companies routinely spoil the environments where they work, and the profits they derive from this exploitation insure that the process of oil leasing and permits will rubber-stamp every proposal they present.  
The media politely interviews company executives and spokespeople, and the government overseers, and everyone minces gingerly over the embarrassing facts which are brought to light about the shoddy commitments the industry makes to safety. The public wrings its hands, while the ecosystems of the ocean and gulf coast are devastated. 
The lesson to learn from this is that offshore petroleum mining is a destructive process, and that those who practice it are cavalier about the welfare of the environment. Bottom line, they have no real standards beyond the profit motive. Of course, we all knew that. What we didn't really want to think about, and what the companies are now embarrassed to have to admit publicly, were the consequences of a major, but predictable, failure of the technology. Now that it has happened, and we've seen how they lied to us, we're in a position to reject their phony assurances.
But people are stupid. They don't learn from their mistakes. They hope and pray and play the odds, even when they know the deck is stacked against them. People will gamble even when they know they have almost no chance to win. Eventually, we will license the oil companies to set up rigs all along our coasts, pretending that we've "learned our lesson" and won't make the same mistake twice.  
But the lesson here isn't to keep doing the same damn thing again. The lesson is to stop.  

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New Arizona Law Challenging Ethnic Studies

Close on the heels of the Arizona legislation authorizing police departments in that state to detain and check those individuals suspected of being illegal foreign nationals, the State of Arizona signed into law a new measure prohibiting the teaching of "ethnic studies" programs which tell students (Latinos) that they are a people oppressed by white people. 
Students in the Tucson Unified School District have been offered courses in African-American, Mexican-American and Native-American studies which focus on the history and literature of specific ethnic groups. The conceptual basis for these programs is that these persecuted minorities require remedial ethical and social support, in order to function normally within the greater society of which they are a part.  
What this means in practical terms is that the children of Mexicans--both legal and illegal--get special attention--targeted historical and cultural curricula designed to foster separate ethnic and racial dignity and pride. In the natural course of things, this has led to a de facto ghetto-ization and hardening of the sense of difference and separation among Hispanic school-children. These children are taught Mexican history, Mexican literature, Mexican folkways. 
But these children are citizens of America, not Mexico. They aren't going to live in Mexico. As Americans, they're being taught to think of themselves as nationals of another nation, as "spiritual" citizens of Mexico. 
What is the purpose of trying to segregate racial/ethnic groups into separate entities, to focus on their difference, and celebrate and define their identity apart from the greater society to which they ostensibly belong? Is it the duty of the state to foster a sense of foreign national, racial and ethnic identity among communities composed largely of foreigners?
Isn't the purpose of assimilation to foster a sense of inclusion, of common purpose and entitlement? If I, for instance, were to decide to emigrate to Scotland, I would certainly expect that I, and my children, would be required to swear allegiance to that nation, to learn about its history, to participate in its political life, and to blend in with the cultural life of that society. 
But Mexicans apparently believe that they should not have to assimilate. They believe that they're entitled to all the privileges of American society and law, but have no obligation to integrate themselves into American life. They would prefer to be allowed to continue to speak Spanish, to be allowed to conduct all their business--official and otherwise--in Spanish, to have their children be taught, and to speak, Spanish, in school. They want the media to be available in Spanish. In short, they want to create a Mexican society in which to live, to transport all the characteristics of Mexican society to America, while deriving all the benefits of American life, including the rule of law, and economic prosperity.
This isn't assimilation.
The real issues surrounding the ascendancy of the Mexican-Latino influx currently in progress really have nothing to do with tolerance, equality, racial or ethnic diversity, or any of that nonsense. Ultimately, it's all about political and economic power.
Why? Because in America, as elsewhere in the world, the power to control government and business determines who gets what, how the favors and privileges are doled out. These conflicts used to occur among earlier immigrant American communities, Irish and Italian, German and Polish, Black and White, and rich and poor. But the previous waves of American immigration were legal. The great influx which occurred at the end of the 19th and the early 20th Centuries was a deliberate accommodation. A new continent stood empty, tending westward. Settlement proceeded, and growth took place.  
Wherever large numbers of immigrants hemorrhage across borders, there are profound problems, not just for those who move, but for those who are being invaded. This is true even where both populations are closely allied in traditions and life-style. Anyone who pretends this is not so--that the stresses and resentments and rivalries and frictions that occur with uncontrolled and unwelcome invasion--is either dangerously naive, or entirely dishonest. 
In America, the history of the political power struggle has always involved competing groups. The current attempt to forge a new political movement around the Latino population in America, is nothing more, or less, than an attempt to manipulate racial resentment and envy, to coordinate and project these racist, separatist sentiments into a dominant regional hegemony. 
Fifty years ago, the thought that Latino voting numbers might be a significant factor in domestic political considerations would have been irrelevant. Had Mexican (and Central American) immigration been governed by the statutory limits and guidelines established to control it, it would not be an issue today. But illegal immigration has created a political opportunity for those wishing to exploit it. Catering to the "needs" and "desires" of the newly arrived Latino "communities" throughout the American Southwest, these apologists and modern-day carpet-bagging politicos seek to advocate on behalf of a huge, growing refugee class. They are not interested in the interests and welfare of American citizens; they regard America as a kind of promised land, a paradise from which they were driven by history, and which they are entitled now to seize and occupy, by any means available. 
The current "multi-cultural" claim for the new waves of unwelcome immigrants is designed to create a sense of historical precedent, and to incite a sense of guilt and obligation in the resident population. We are told we must "embrace" "difference" by inviting millions of poor, hungry, rapacious foreigners into our midst--that our tradition requires that we acknowledge these new illegal arrivistes as later versions of ourselves. We are being asked to relinquish our sovereignty in favor of a colossal give-away to a whole population of foreign nationals, who have no legal claim upon us. 
Ironically, as the political influence of the Latino population in this country grows, so does its influence over our immigration and naturalization policies. Polls show that there's overwhelming resistance in this country to amnesty, open borders, and the continued tolerance of illegals living in disregard for our laws. Yet the media, and most of our politicians, advocate a conciliatory tolerance towards the arrogant new Latino coalition. 
Those with liberal pretensions are being seduced into the belief that a grand accommodation, envisioned by the Mexican government, and its people, is an obligation and an act of altruistic charity. Those with a conservative position are being attacked as racist, insular and selfish. 
From the apologist's point of view, If you believe in the rule of law, it must only apply to those who petition for your generosity and tolerance; turning it around, to apply the rule of law against those who flaunt your laws, must be inhumane and fascist. Bottom line, immigrants will use the law in whatever way works for them, without regard for boundaries. Once you've jumped the fence, and are living in secrecy and fear of discovery by the authorities, the notion that laws (and authorities) exist to be broken (or avoided) becomes second-nature. Gaming the system becomes a way of life.
The opinion on this blog has always been, and continues to be, that the first priority for any political entity on the planet, is to control its population. That means both moderating increase through reproduction, as well as not allowing excessive immigration. Put simply, America doesn't "need" more population. There are certainly other countries in the world which have worse, or much worse, population problems than America has ever had. Mexico has a population that is completely out of control, given its resources and economy. 
America is at a crossroads at present. The prosperity it has enjoyed seems, for the first time in two generations, to be genuinely threatened. There are many causes for this, but illegal immigration is almost certainly not a causal factor. Nevertheless, uncontrolled immigration does have significant real costs, both to society at large, and to our government budgets. It is another additional burden placed upon our country, at a time when our prospects are beginning to turn downward. 
But in the larger context of population control, we need to establish a zero population growth policy, and immigration, particularly illegal immigration, needs to be severely reduced, now. This is a perfectly selfish and self-interested initiative. We have no control over what the nation of Mexico may do, or how it addresses its social or economic problems. We can hardly allow ourselves to be blackmailed into adopting Mexico as a diplomatic stepchild. Indeed, the likelihood is that the more we indulge Mexico, or serve as its pressure-valve for its economic refugees, the longer we will prolong the day of reckoning for a Mexican solution.              

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On a Poem by James Wright

Look at the photo of the poet James Wright [1927-1980] pictured below. As in most of the portraits published of him, he looks pained, and inconsolable--as if some deep sadness or frustration, born beyond endurance, had overwhelmed his sensibility.
This was often the mood that Wright's poems evoked, a deep desperation or longing for an escape from some claustrophobic circumstance of life. It is the sentiment that dominated his poetry, especially those poems for which he became famous, collected in the volumes The Branch Will Not Break [Wesleyan, 1963], and Shall We Gather at the River [Wesleyan, 1967]. It may be difficult now to understand the excitement which accompanied the appearance of these two books--published at the height of Wright's career, in the middle of the 1960's. They symbolized a departure not only for Wright himself, a process of grieving and healing following a failed marriage from the 1950's, but for American poetry, and American society, in general. They were like talismans of an emerging liberation, carrying all the impatience of a submerged spirit finally set free.     
Having begun in the early 1950's writing carefully crafted academic verse (The Green Wall [Yale University Press, 1957], and Saint Judas [Wesleyan, 1959]), Wright, along with his confederate Robert Bly, came under the influence of the European and South American Surrealists, and began to write in a stripped-down, elliptical style, filled with "deep imagery" employing confessionalist personae. These aspects of poetry were perfectly melded into a growing sympathy for the dispossessed, and an increasingly "liberated" point of view. The pressure under which this transformation occurred drove the emotional motive-force of the work, resulting in dozens of memorable poems, mostly in an elegiac mood. 
Out of the despair of his personal disappointments and regrets came a stream of bitterly wrought, frequently ultimate-sounding pronouncements (poems). Halting declarations and admissions were earned, however, through the delicacy and earnestness of a style at once direct, and metaphorical.              

One of the best is the concluding poem from The Branch Will Not Break--
A Dream of Burial
Nothing was left of me
But my right foot
And my left shoulder.
They lay white as the skein of a spider floating
In a field of snow toward a dark building
Tilted and strained by wind.
Inside the dream, I dreamed on.
A parade of old women
Sang softly above me,
Faint mosquitoes near still water.
So I waited, in my corridor.
I listened for the sea
To call me.
I knew that, somewhere outside, the horse
Stood sadled, browsing in grass,
Waiting for me.
In its way, this poem exhibits most of the hallmarks of the "deep image" style for which Wright (and his colleague Bly) became noteworthy: The use of "dark" imagery (the "dark building");the use of generic nouns to evoke basic concepts and relationships; irrational or supernatural "surreal" events--in this case perceived after the death of the speaker, the mood of anguish or mournfulness common to the traditional Keatsian ode. Wright is a romantic in a post-Romantic world, a world of apocalypse and shame, demeaning condescension and raw violence. The poems bear all the scars and wounds of an embarrassed and debased innocence, and ask us to share in the speaker's self-pity and despondency, his poetically inspired pilgrimage through the purgatorial nightmare of his search for redemptive love and acceptance.                

Wright's poems have a loneliness about them which is often endearing and attractive, especially to those who may share, or be seduced by, the aesthetically comforting approach. The forsaken or "given up for dead" mood of much of his work is like a prayer, relinquishing sensual or intellectual pleasures for the hard edge of denial, resignation and acceptance of oblivion. This
saintly aspect of Wright's work is both its strength, and its potential weakness. We must accept the fact of the speaker's desperation and determination not to be deterred by any consolation, or by the presumption of a pain that exonerates the speaker from any charge of trivial, indulgent devotion. If one is willing to accept that the speaker in a Wright poem deserves to feel as hopeless or angry at his life, or at the world, as he appears to be, then the probing, grim atmosphere of his poetic landscape is perfectly appropriate. 
The function of such poetry is the degree to which it can convince us of the intensity, or justice its pity. In the famous lines by Wilfred Owen, "the Poetry is in the pity." "Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory." "Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War." 
Wright was only 53 when he died of cancer. The pitiable fate which had been the underlying subject of much of his best work, ironically was fulfilled. Is Wright's best work the record of an overwhelming sadness unredeemed by a visionary salvation? Or does he attain that state of illumination or super-awareness which yields insight into the deeper meanings of existence?
Poised on the edge of his mortality, salving his emotional wounds with strange short spells or incantations, Wright offers us honest feelings and sensations: a spider's white skein floating towards a barn through snow; the hum of mosquitoes near still water; the faithful horse waiting for his rider. Even in death, these bits of data, impressions, memories float up out of the unconscious like vestiges of a previous, lost existence. They are what we do have, and what we will have, for eternity. Wright's poetry is both an argument for, and a proof of, the value of such feelings and experiences. They are raised out of the mundane into the miraculous by the pressure of the moment.                        

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Callahan - The Mystic Guru of Post-Modern Photography

Harry Callahan [1912-1999], occupies a unique position in the history of post-War American photography. A pedagogue who spent much of his career teaching, he nevertheless refrained from making aesthetic pronouncements, and wrote essentially nothing about his art, leaving his imagery to speak for itself. Each of Callahan's images is unique. Rather than repeat himself, he insisted on making each image a solitary, iconic statement--something, or someone, seen in a self-contained, self-sufficient way. 
In addition, he tended to see subject matter in a very personal manner, as if the photographic act were a kind of prayer, or intimate statement, conceived within the compass of his immediate family. Spiritually, his work defines him as a disciple of Edward Weston's, though the sentiment in his work is much warmer, more affectionate, more personal than EW's.

The most memorable aspect of Callahan's work is the series of images made of his wife and daughter, taken over decades--either nudes, or within larger landscapes, or as multiple exposures. These images constitute a unique record of passionate devotion, classical in its dignity. 

Though prolific in his investigations and restless search for imagery--he left 10,000 negatives in his archive at death--he was extremely selective in choosing which images to show--determined to limit the possible range of meaning(s) which his work might suggest. If the images which a photographer chooses are what we know of the process by which he "sees," photographic art was, for Callahan, a kind of deliberate memory-making, in which the mind of the artist controls what is known and understood of his vision.   

Callahan's work is characterized not just by a highly unique vision, but a highly eclectic range of modes of image-making. Starting out as a traditional, large-format, view camera perfectionist, whose prints have a gorgeous finish and solidly grounded composition, he would eventually move on to make candid imagery caught in busy cities (reminiscent of Walker Evans), nervous multiple-image overlays, intense abstractions of naturalistic detail, busy collage constructions, and reductive existential studies of wires, grass, and sky. 

I read once that a critic thought that Callahan was like a naive mute who worked with complete intuitive consciousness, hardly aware of the potential power and deep meaning of his work. I suppose this might be possible, but my suspicion is that Callahan belongs to that quiet tribe of artists for whom words--argument, speculation and extended ratiocination--serve no immediate purpose. Such artists need only the materials of their craft to produce their work. 

Ultimately, no artist should be required to justify his/her work through aesthetic statements or defenses. Their work should speak for itself; let the critics decide what it means, or whether it qualifies as serious or successful effort.
Photography is, for the most part, a non-verbal art form. Attempts are often made to combine poetry, or prose, with photographic imagery. In my previous post on the work of Wright Morris, I noted a successful exception to the rule that photographs and narrative--like oil and water--don't easily mix. 
I also recall reading an interview of Callahan, in which he remarked that when he went to Europe, on a traveling fellowship, he was stymied, because, as he said, "[He] couldn't find any subject-matter--everything was perfectly organized and "photogenic"--there was nothing left for [him]!" This strikes me as a quintessentially American reaction. Callahan's dry, arid studies imply the overpowering emptiness of American spaces, and the clarity and directness of original visions of space. Charles Olson felt the defining characteristic of the American consciousness was space, that American poets and artists [and playwrights and architects and composers, one might add] confronted their media in a fresh way, seen as if for the first time, without the furniture of traditional stage-craft.               


Looking at any typical Callahan image, I think immediately of the work of Robert Creeley, a narrow apprehension of the possibility of any given occasion, an insistence upon the fewest elaborations or clutter, a concentration upon the simplest fact being considered. 
Looking at the image of the leaf on the ice snow (above) one is aware that though the leaf implies the tree, and the snow a whole landscape covered in white, it is the singularity of this moment, of this one leaf, its perfectly crisp clarity, a material immanence, held, saved, insisted upon, that Callahan's eye sees.      


Bernard Maybeck and his First Church of Christ Scientist [Part I]

Bernard Maybeck [1862-1957] was one of the pioneer architects of the San Francisco Bay Area. A long-time resident of Berkeley [from 1892], he designed a series of projects which brought him world wide fame, and a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1951. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he eventually designed residential and commercial buildings in a wide variety of styles, often mixing symbolic and structural details and techniques in the same project. This eclecticism became one of his signatures. Among those of his buildings which still stand, 50-100 years later, is the First Church of Christ Scientist, at 2619 Dwight Way in Berkeley, dating from 1910. In the decades since, as the University of California campus expansion has continued to grow up around it, it remains one of the area's choicest vintage buildings, and is worth a pilgrimage all by itself. As residents of the East Bay, we get to appreciate it on a regular basis, since it's on a cross street one block east of Telegraph Avenue and its bookstores. The draping wisteria which festoons its western facade is one of the great joys of the season, as its pale violet blooms appear in early spring.  

Not being a churchgoer, my only opportunity to see the interior is on scheduled tours. I first saw the inside in the early 1970's. In America, middle-class hubris has usually insisted that our churches be as tall and imposing and "vertical" as we can afford. Maybeck--true to his vision--designed a church which is totally unlike this, with low gently canted, cascading roof-lines, multi-paned "industrial"-type glazing, softening arbor-trellis-work, and "medieval" window framing. Concrete is used very creatively in the columns and external wall treatments, with subtle decorative inlays. Inside, redwood and integral interior lamp fixtures, etc.     
Maybeck, though trained in the classical orders and the Beaux Arts approach to design of buildings, came to early maturity during the Arts & Crafts (or "Craftsman") period, which lasted roughly from 1880 to 1910, and influenced artists, writers, architects, book designers, furniture makers, and those in the decorative arts. In America, this movement was perhaps most influential in the San Francisco Bay Area; Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Coxhead, Polk, Galen Howard. A central aesthetic figure here was Charles Keeler, poet and naturalist, and an important figure in the Hillside Club, an organization in North Berkeley, organized to foster and encourage sensitive development. In 1904, Keeler published The Simple Home, a sort of manifesto of design principles, based on accommodation of style to landscape and site. Keeler, in fact, became Maybeck's first residential client in 1895, after they met one day on the ferry between Berkeley and San Francisco (in the days before the bridges had been built). Keeler and the Hillside Club became the nexus for an emerging Bay Area design style, of which Maybeck was the primary figure.

In practical terms, the Bay Area style was not one thing, but several. In Maybeck's hands, the classical and formal characteristics of European design were combined with aspects of the Arts & Crafts, the Mission Style, the woodsy "bungalow" style, etc.--truly an eclectic mix of differing influences, all joined in a seamless amalgam of tastefully ordered proportions and subtle touches.

Sadly, many of Maybeck's finest residential designs were lost in the big Berkeley fire of 1923. Which is why those buildings of his which still survive cry out for preservation. As time marches on, architectural styles change, materials go in and out of availability, and the needs of society change. One question which keeps getting asked over and over is whether the monuments of previous generations deserve to occupy space, which might be devoted to more "practical" use. Styles may fall out of favor, or be forgotten through neglect or ignorance. 

Those who forged the Bay Area Style in the early decades of the 20th Century, believed that architecture, along with its allied arts, is the purest expression of a culture: How we live, and the environment we create, are the best evidence of our success in making a fully mature and enriching existence. In almost every respect, the residential architectural tradition, as measured by the work of Maybeck, Morgan, Howard and others of that period, is superior to the styles which have superseded it. 
Maybeck's First Church of Christ Scientist is now almost completely surrounded by ugly high-rise structures--undergraduate dormitories, apartment blocks, and the homeless encampments along the eastern edge of the opposite block on Bowditch Street. This neighborhood was once occupied by residential structures. As the University has continued to expand over the years, engulfing former residential precincts, the character of the city is being progressively degraded. The UC Berkeley campus was originally conceived to accommodate perhaps as many as 12,500 students. Its present undergraduate and graduate population is about 36,000! What this means in real terms is that the UC Berkeley campus is overwhelming the city of which it was originally intended to be a part. Now, rather than fitting in comfortably with its surrounding urban matrix, it's destroying the once-pleasant and -manageable commercial and residential feeling of the city. 
More is not always better. Berkeley--and the Bay Area--is much better off with Maybeck's church intact and preserved. But it now serves as a reminder of a better time, before academic sprawl and uncontrolled growth, and slipshod expedient construction, became the order of the day. Maybeck's church is a reminder of how crass, impatient and apathetic society has become about itself. Poor taste in our environment is rampant. Spiritual values--which once drove our city planning and design philosophy--are no longer of any concern. Houses, churches, classrooms, public facilities--we no longer have the decency and care to discriminate between good and bad, because the quality of our lives has declined. The environment we now create is a perfect expression of our culture: cheap, ugly, regimented, selfish, careless, and dull.    

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Greystone - Because the Lady is a Tramp

As our late California Spring drags on (we had a very straightforward and unambiguous drenching brief rain last Monday morning here in the East Bay), big clouds continue to roll over in pullulating abundance, and the lawns and brick walks are repeatedly dampened with a chilly mist o'morn.
Today, after a pleasant mid-day respite at the county dump rummaging books and cardboard and the odd end or two, we repaired home to prepare an early Sunday supper. 
Black is a definite feeling, no-nonsense and classy and conclusive. Grey, however, may signal ambiguity or coolness, aloof and non-committal. 
Here is a sophisticated grey-green tinted cocktail. Demure. Pat. Overcast.
Ingredients (by proportion)
5 parts white rum
2 parts pineapple liqueur
1 part mandarin liqueur
1 part Romana Sambucca Black liqueur
1.5 parts fresh lime juice
Shaken hard and served up, with a lime twist if desired.

A sophisticated taste, cool, seductive, and dignified. Because the lady is a tramp. Imagine Frank Sinatra singing it, and it makes more sense.              

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Schuyler's Other Flowers - The Iceberg Floats Up

One thing that's always troubled me about reading, reviewing and thinking about poets' collected works, is that by the time these books are published--either toward the end of the poets' lives, or posthumously--we tend to think of these men and women as old. Certainly people do get old, and their poetry may get old, too. But I think it's always important to remember that they were young and energetic and uncertain and hopeful once, that their best work often is the product of their youthful enthusiasm and ambition, and not the guarded, careful summaries of old age. 
How it is that publishers seem not to be aware of the whole collected oeuvres of authors whose work they publish, is not clear to me. Perhaps it is a desire to capitalize on the reputation of writers, now dead or soon to be, while their fans are still around to purchase their books. In any case, this pattern of "uncollected works"--which we have seen in the cases of Frank O'Hara, Jack Spicer, and Charles Olson--neglected or "discovered" among the poets' papers after their death(s)--seems a recurrent phenomenon. 
Schuyler's Collected Poems was published 17 years ago by Farrar Straus & Giroux. At 429 pages in length, there was no practical reason for readers and lovers of Schuyler's work to think that there might be anything else, except perhaps a handful of scattered "lost works" or rejected drafts. In addition, given the sequence of Schuyler's publications during his life, and the logical progression of his style--moving from a cosmopolitan and casual descriptive style in the 1950's, to an increasingly confessional, extended narrative mode--there was no reason to suspect that there might be lurking a whole phalanx of finished, unpublished poems written in an entirely different and novel manner.                    

Like most poets, Schuyler's work began in confusion and diffuseness, and moved towards concision, necessity and wider implication. His first trade collection, Freely Espousing [Doubleday, 1969] was noteworthy for its refreshing, unpretentious, sensually uninhibited, painterly qualities. Slightly camp in its ironies, it offered a conversational tone and a rustic, bumptious spirit--all aspects which placed it squarely within the context of the coterie with which the Author had come to be associated, the First Generation New York School-ers John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara. It was a "late" collection as well, issued when Schuyler was already 45 years old. This was followed by The Crystal Lithium [Random House, 1972]. The advance over the earlier volume (in just three years), was impressive. The title poem, which appeared in the Paris Review, written in a long, Whitmanic style, rhythmic and sharply etched with vivid imagery, was like an epiphany. In three subsequent collections, Hymn to Life [1974], The Morning of the Poem [1980], and A Few Days [1985], he extended his claim on the long, autobiographical narrative poem, with increasingly personal details and candid, flagrant idiomatic turns. 
Despite this flowering, Schuyler had given no hint that he was interested in exploring less traditional modes of expression, or that he was willing to risk a marked departure from the stylistic successes of the 1970's and '80's. 
Schuyler was an unstable personality, frequently falling victim to delusional, bi-polar episodes which led to institutionalizations, and a regimen of regular psycho-active medication. He dealt with these problems openly in his verse, and it often may have seemed to readers that this instability in his character may actually have facilitated the free-floating associations and intense perceptual impressions which made his work so bright and sharp. This frankness, along with a certain colloquial ease, lent his work a liberated character. His work almost seemed to thrive on jeopardy, and uncertainty.                          

All of which makes the appearance of Other Flowers [Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010] a complete and unmitigated surprise and mystery. James Meetze, the Editor of this collection, explains in his Editors' Notes, that these poems were simply "waiting" to be discovered among the Author's archived papers in the Special Collections of the University of California at San Diego. If it is true that these poems were, in effect, known at the time of the publication of the 1993 Collected Poems, their neglect strikes one as fairly irresponsible. 
There is the natural conflict between honoring a dead author's desire to exclude works from publication, which he/she may have felt did not warrant inclusion, and acceding to the reading public's desire to see this rejected material. An author may have left these questions unanswered at death, or it may seem that the value and quality of previously unknown work outweighs any contrary wishes of the now-deceased artist. 
In this instance, it isn't clear what Schuyler wanted, since the Editors don't mention any publication issues. It does seem safe to assume, however, at least to a certain degree, that Schuyler's decision not to include these poems in any books during his life, probably means he thought they were either unworthy, in some way, or so unlike the "public" persona he had established, that they simply couldn't be allowed to be seen.    
A favorite critical pastime is noting the contradictory tendencies in an author's work, as evidenced by the contrast between intentional, and unintentional, effects or content. This may be made dramatic in cases where the work withheld during life, comes to light after the poet has been laid to rest. What would we be likely to think of Sylvia Plath's work, had we never have known of Ariel? Or, if, given a different sequence of disclosure, it had been withheld from view for an additional decade or more? Schuyler's Other Flowers strikes me as just such a kind of bombshell, not just because of its impressive mass, but because of the eccentric, challenging style in which it is written. 
Reading the poems in Other Flowers, I'm struck by their similarity--of voice and subject and occasion--to the work we were familiar with before--but also their difference. It's turned up a notch. There's a greater degree of abstraction and density here.
Love's Photograph (or Father and Son)
Detected little things: a peach-pit
basket watch-chain charm, an ivory
cross wound with ivory ivy, a natural
cross. The Tatoosh Mountains, opaque
crater lakes, a knickerbockered boy
who, drowned, smiles for a seeming ever
on ice-skates on ice-skate-scratched
ice, an enlarged scratched snapshot.
Taken, taken. Mad charges corrupt to
madness their sane nurses. Virginia
creeper, Loose Tooth tanned black snake-
skins, shot crows for crow wings for
a black servant's hat, lapped hot milk,
flung mud in a Bible reader's crotch:
"You shouldn't read the Bible nekkid!"
Family opals, selfishness changes hands.
Tatoosh Mountains, opaque crater lakes,
find me the fish skeleton enclosed in
a fish skeleton (fish ate fish) he had.
The Editors offer no information about this poem in their Notes, but place it among the earliest ones in the book, contemporary with work written in the early 1950's. The Tatoosh Mountain area is within the Pinchot National Forest in Washington State. In 1946, Martha Hardy, a "lady lookout" ranger, published an account [Tatoosh, New York: Macmillan] of her time there. It seems likely, to me, that Schuyler must have seen this book, given the date, since he never as far as I know traveled there himself. Tatoosh is a Chinook Indian jargon word meaning breast. I have never seen this book, but I suspect it may contain further hints to the details Schuyler mentions in the poem. What most strikes me about it is its profoundly elliptical concision, of physical properties--textures and surfaces, its adamant stuff--which so often constitute the distillate of a Schuyler poem, overwhelm any programmatic argument one might rationally deduce from it. It's almost like Stein in its suppression of sequence and narration; it's all surface and texture and no manners or philosophy.
This all comes down to us from Williams and Stevens, of course, this tapestry of physical enumeration and energetic/imagistic dynamism. But Schuyler's poems go beyond that, to a state that makes of his poems sculptural objects: They aren't the performance of a protagonist in a dialectic with an imagined audience, but constructions made out of the raw stuff of sensation. In a sense, they are what they describe. In the poems in Other Flowers, Schuyler carries this tendency a step further than we suspected he had in the work previously published.
Schuyler, like Koch and O'Hara, wasn't considered avant garde because of his abstruse language or syntactic exploration(s), but because of his approach to content. But these unpublished poems show us a side of his composition that widens our apprehension of his work, and gives us more than just a glimpse of a newer kind of writing--one more post-avant that we would have given him credit for being.  
Now how who won all know
the game's for the tell-
tale teller. The spice isles
gemmed the ocean groin
nicely, hove to view, slack
sailed. "This dressing's 
to be changed: Bite 
the tube." Pain unfurled
like paper. School of schools
Sargassan, eel us home.
Vixens blunder the bluffs
pink palms shelving moustache
eyebrows: girls girls girls
us await. Yes, oui, us. 
Necessity invented intention,
that without which then
coupling's a loose-lip joiner.
Philosopher's tone, dancer's
prance, sway down the briney.
Tropics. Trance. Pines.
Morgan. Smith. Jones.
The ice-stream phosphor of
sea-beasts, coffin the fathoms.
We abroad no more.
Time shrinks in shell.           
A chantey, of course, is a song sung by sailors to the rhythm of their movements while working. Schuyler had been in the Navy during the war, in the North Atlantic. But this isn't any old seafarer's ballad. It's a a highly abstract, syntactically adventurous work! "Gemmed the ocean groined...eel us home...vixens blunder the bluffs, pink palms shelving moustache/eyebrows...coupling's a loose-lip joiner...the ice-stream phosphor of sea-beasts, coffin the fathoms...time shrinks in shell." These kinds of constructions push the syntactic envelope far beyond the limits which Schuyler had established for himself in his "public" work in the 1970's or '80's. They are, dare one say, almost like "language" poetry?--in their playful semi-referentiality, their playing loose with meaning (what is this thing talking about?). If you're unconvinced, check this one out--
Unnerve me sir, trounced to a boneyard
bedded sheer gulley slide side. The raft
drifts nude space placed, ruddering bags
lousing creek creeper skimmers. Simmer
samovar, juicy steam unlooked love put
upon the put upon. You quarried of me
a nickel worth o' ore, O fool: scummed
water flow full, typhic, highway-viewed.
"Be back come dogwood and jay scream."
Go go go go go...
Reel wheels, roads, whipper, our car, a
way away. Strasse us Phoebus abedward,
nourish soft-shoulder flounce of Pennsy,
Mount Joy valley view. Thoughtfully sewn
of corrupt flesh the fair brittle hair,
willow twig dipt, babble toned, you go.   

"typhic" (in line #8) by the way means spell of sickness or malaise

What is immediately apparent, from this and other instances in this book, is that Schuyler's range of expression was much odder and more unusual than we knew. It's possible to see in this the same kind of risible poly-morphic verbalizations which made his "straight" verse so fresh, albeit in a more non-specific setting. Schuyler's imagination was stimulated by the syllabic dance of sound the same way Ashbery had been in his Tennis  Court Oath, though he never was willing to foreground this flavor of his work to the general readership. How would we have thought about him, if he had?
I have said elsewhere, and more than once, that any contemporary notion of the completeness of our own awareness is an illusion. Just as 19th Century contemporaries "knew" nothing of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins in their time, we "knew" nothing about the real James Schuyler--in his particular case, not because he was invisible, but because we knew only half the story. What history unearths are the embarrassing facts we either tended to ignore, or hardly guessed were taking place in our midst. We think we can write our own literary history, but this is a dangerous illusion. We can't predict what posterity is going to make of our time, anymore than we can predict how technology or morality will tend and bend down the road. It's imponderable. In the meantime, we have poems like this--
Blank Regard
Crystal flesh, starry lice,
gilded silver scows, ivory
death-mask fall feathered,
wrists' anemones, eyes' dials,
a viol slashes currant-red
damask love-seats and lapis
spittoons. Riots. Axe's drip
drip, a basket of heads. Of
embassies, of retaliant tunes,
hawkers, harpers, chronicle.
Dusty oxen scamper in hills,
greened, spiked, wheel cut.
Time, bite your tail, hoop
snake the steak-sliced neck.
(Can't find a definition for "retaliant"--perhaps it's a made-up word?) Unusual weeds keep showing up in the garden, transplants or foreigners or volunteers riding in on the air currents. Who knows what chance may bring? Do you think you know who's writing what these days? Not bloody likely. And even if you do, it's doubtful you'll "understand" what it "means" 50 or 100 years from today.     


Early Days: How the Division is Stacking Up

With one-fifth of the season now complete, it's interesting to take stock of the progress of the local heroes, and to estimate their chances for the post-season. Of the six big league divisions, the National League West looks the most competitive--with four teams (San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Colorado) all clearly in the running and capable of winning. 
As expected the Giants' strength has been their pitching, but surprisingly, Zito has replaced Cain as Mr. Reliable. In the fourth year of his monster seven-year contract, Barry seems finally to be yielding returns on the investment. Relying on greater control of his slider and curve, he's been like a reincarnation of his old Cy Young self. Though it's unlikely he'll continue at this pace (he was 5-0 going into last night's debacle against the Padres) for the rest of the season, if he could anchor the staff with a regular good 7 inning stint every five or six days, it would take an enormous load off the other members of the rotation. Cain, a pitcher with a history of hard-luck, has reverted to his old role, still only 2-1 after six starts. With a team ERA of 3.04, it's hard to imagine this team won't win at least 85 games.
After a torrid start, Sandoval has cooled way down, experiencing the longest slump of his career so far. The best news is that during this period, the Giants have been winning anyway, largely on the strength of the hitting of Uribe, Rowand, and Schierholtz. Without a genuine slugger on the team, timely hitting and base-running are the key to an effective offense. Most gratifyingly, Bengie Molina has managed to curb his impulsiveness at the plate, is hitting .337 currently, with only 8 strike-outs (!). Most disheartening has been the performance of Mark DeRose, who repaired wrist gave out again this week, which probably will mean the effective end of his season, if he elects to undergo remedial surgery. Huff has done what had been expected of him. Renteria was hitting well before he went down (again), but his replacement Matt Downs has stepped right in his place. If Sandoval can right himself, and the rest of the squad keep up what they've been doing so far, (4.5 runs per game on average--fully a run-and-a-half-greater than the team's ERA), I see no reason why this team couldn't compete with anyone. 
On paper, the Giants and the Padres are fairly evenly matched. Aside from Gonzalez, the Pads don't have that much greater punch. Their pitching staff has been performing well over their head(s), and is certain to come back down to earth soon, or at least that's the current wisdom. At their current pace (18-13. .722), the Giants would finish the regular season with 116 wins! If the Giants staff could come in with sesason numbers, for example, like these--
Zito                     17-10                  
Lincecum           20-6
Cain                    16-13
Sanchez              15-15
I think there's no question they'd either win the division, or run away with the Wild Card slot.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

From the Gallery of Heroes: Edward Weston - Pioneer

Edward Weston, New Mexico, 1941 (permission copyright The Ernest Knee Photographic Trust

Edward Weston [1888-1958] is undoubtedly the most important "serious" "fine art" photographer of the 20th Century. Not because all his images rank at the highest level, or because his images are the highest expression of their various subject-matter. But because his career begins at the dawn of photography as a serious art-form--as opposed to a mere curiosity or recording device--and he is in many ways the first to exploit the medium with a purely aesthetic strategy. Weston's adventurous spirit, his willingness to go beyond traditional, popular notions of image-making, enabled him to pioneer photographic endeavor, and his place in the history of light-sensitive materials will always be preeminent.          

Since Weston's images are by now so familiar to the art public, and because so much has been written about them, both from an historical and an aesthetic perspective, there isn't much original observation or comment one might make that would shed new light on his career, or its affect on subsequent developments. 
It does seem clear that the technology (silver emulsion light sensitive process) he used is going away, supplanted by digital processes--and is unlikely to be revived or extended, except by a stubborn few. The simplicity and directness of silver halide emulsion manipulation--which was a method he perfected to his purposes--will not be generally available in the future, if at all. 
When Edward Weston began his career as a professional photographer, the medium had been stalled in a painterly conceptualization referred to as "pictorialism"--which derived much of its impetus from late 19th Century movements in the plastic arts--Impressionism, soft focus imagery, the emphasis upon "mood" as against starkly realistic depictions. Even Stieglitz, whose Camera Work promoted new photographic ideas and techniques, began as a "pictorialist" and did not initially see the potentialities of "straight" clear focus photography. 
It's difficult, now, to imagine what it must have felt like to see some of Weston's early daring pictures, for the first time. Abstraction at the level of Pepper #30 [above] might have seemed a familiar enough approach to those who knew of the work of the Surrealist painters. But for those who tended to think of photography as a merely pictorial medium--for taking still portraits, or for documenting architecture, or landscape, or atmospheric phenomena--such formally powerful shapes may have seemed baffling, even absurd.         

I can remember some years back, at an exhibition of Weston's 8x10 contact prints in San Francisco, two young men viewing a nude study. "He sees the human body the same way he sees vegetables," said one fellow to the other. "Yeah, and with the same disinterested objectivity. Ugly, isn't it?" This "objectivity" is precisely the kind of seeing--of a dispassionate appraisal of form--that Weston's vision consists of. 
In many ways, he was the first to see that a photograph could be seen as an expression of the same principles of design which painters had been thinking about for 100 years earlier. The fact that a photographer might "find" his images in nature, or already pre-existing in the world, did not suggest that the ultimate power and visual tensions could not also be expressed in a photograph, as well as they could in a painting.       

The very same principles of light and shadow, density and depth, texture and shape are exploited in image after image. Nudes, dunes, peppers, lettuce, seashells, bark, water, rock. How natural forms are expressed through the lines and masses of their structure, the weave of their growth, tending and constricting, flattening out or scattered across planes, etc.--this was the ostensible "subject" of most of Weston's prints.
This illumination--an epiphany, really--of Weston's visionary exploration of the power of forms in nature, possesses an originality which was almost unique. Between about 1925 and 1950, almost no one else was making pictures in this way.

Weston's personal life was as inspired as his art. Following his marriage to Flora May Chandler in 1909, he had a series of affairs with models and apprentices, culminating in his relationship with Charis Wilson, a buxom redhead half his age who shared his life during his most creative period. Throughout his adult life, Weston managed to juggle his relationships with his four sons, sharing alternating custody with their mother. Much has been written about Weston's bohemian life-style, and its probable affects on his artistic choices. Were Weston's sexual adventures an alternative expression of his artistic drive? Did his "open" life-style during his middle years, when he was separated from Flora and restlessly moving from place to place, from woman to woman, liberate him to pursue "forbidden" aspects of the world through his art? It seems likely.        

But in the end, none of this matters. What we have are his images, and they demonstrate conclusively that for 25 years, he was the avatar or vanguard of photography as an aesthetic medium. But the fascination we feel at seeing his images has nothing to do, really, with a liberated life-style, or a defiant attitude towards middle-class respectability.    

At their best, Weston's images have a kind of centrifugal, hypnotic power which is both the impact of their novelty--that sense of surprise that immediately catches our attention--as well as a strongly balanced overall composition. His images are always powerfully grounded (gravitas)--they rest solidly, and seem to grow out of their bases organically into the outer reaches of the frame. There often seems to be a kind of integrity derived from a struggle which is held in perfect check by the rationality of the mind (eye). This struggle--or tension--may suggest conditions in the maker (or viewer) for which the image is an analogue. But we need to be careful about imputing narrative or programmatic meanings to such analogies.          

Is the image below hot, or cool? Nervous, or relaxed? Sexy, or intimidating? Under the unforgiving light of the desert sun, the capitulating, undulant masses of crystalline sand cascade in waves of retreating instability. Do the regular increments of striation along the bottom submit to the darker, advancing, more erratic masses from the upper left of the frame? Is there a sense of invasiveness, perhaps even of violation, taking place?      Such psychological interpretations may stretch our credulity to its limits. But Weston's images repeatedly suggest such kinds of muscular struggle--a struggle which he usually seems to resolve. Whether this resolution is purely a command of the medium, or the mastery over his own passions and inclinations, is another question.