Monday, June 27, 2016

On the Seventh Day of Summer

On the seventh day of Summer, my true love gave to me . . . 

a new cocktail recipe!

Summer is here, and everyone is floating along in oblivious continuity. Going about their business as if nothing had happened, working, sleeping, recreating, marrying, having babies, buying groceries, taking out the garbage, petting dogs, and generally staying out of mischief.

As I near old age, I keep having the rather unpleasant sense that some of the things I've done in the past, and may do again in the future, might be the "last time" I do them. This sense of unrepeatability is disquieting. I like reliable things as much or more than new things, and the thought that my next trip fly-fishing, or my next trip photographing the landscape, might be my last, is one of the liabilities of self-knowledge, or self-consciousness--something we possess that most animals don't. 

They say elephants mourn the loss of one of their tribe, and will even return to a place where one had died, to pay their respects, and share a feeling of grief. Elephants are also said to have long memories--another human trait. As I get older, some of the things I had not thought about for half a century, come back to me, unannounced, evoking feelings of regret or minor joy. More and more, I realize that I am the only surviving keeper of these memories, and that when I go, there will no longer be a surviving witness. 

I remember one day, perhaps 60+ years ago, when my parents and I went picnicking up on the Russian River--to a little place called Cazadero, on Austin Creek. In those days, people simply parked along the road and walked down to the water. On this day, I remember my Step-dad (whom I didn't know was not my "real" father yet) had persuaded my Mom to wear her bathing suit. Mom wasn't the outdoor type, and not the swimming type, and not the exhibitionist type either. I can still recall her tiptoeing across the rock shore, complaining about being cold, the sharp stones hurting her feet, refusing all appeals to come into the water, and generally just shivering and complaining. I can recall the green and white flower material of her suit, and how pale she was. The moment seems emblematic of my parents' relationship--how split their characters were, and how little they shared: Mom the indoors type, quiet, sedentary, Dad the outdoorsman, active, forthright. The thing is, I'm the only one who remembers this, and, like all the other memories locked in my head, it will fade into nothingness when I go. If my Mom were still alive today (she'd be 91 if she were) I'm sure she'd remember that day, just as I have, and it would be something we could share. But she's gone, and there's no one else in the universe who can confirm and tally what I've just described. I don't know why that should trouble me, except that such memories do matter to me. They comprise the pictures I have of my own past, which is not only rapidly receding from me, but from the history of my time. 

But this is the seventh day of Summer, and what better time to evoke memories, or to create new ones, than by toasting them with a novel new libation?!          

2 parts dry vermouth
2 parts white rum
1 part st. germaine 
2/3 part yellow chartreuse
1 part fresh lime juice

Shaken vigorously and poured into well-chilled cocktail glasses (makes 2). 

It's guaranteed to appeal to drinkers and non-drinkers alike, so have no fear of inebriation. One cocktail never killed anyone, though two might be inadvisable without a chauffeur. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Twin Obituaries

We keep losing people.

That's life. 

This last week two poets whom I knew, and had published early in their careers, both died within 48 hours of each other: 

Bill Berkson

Blue Is the Hero

Ted Greenwald

Common Sense

Both native New Yorkers. Both men I would not have had the occasion to know, had it not been for our mutual connections to the world of poetry. 

Bill died at age 76, Ted at 73. 

Ironically, both men suffered from the identical medical condition later in life--lung failure as a result of life-long smoking habit. 

It gives me pause to note that. Both my parents were heavy smokers--both two-pack unfiltered Camel people. Our house smelled strongly of tobacco, and I became inured to the smell, and the bad air, as I grew up. Later, when I went back to visit, I was nearly overpowered by the effect. I never smoked. There was nothing about smoking that I saw in their addiction that would have drawn me to the habit.   Yet neither died of lung disease, my Stepfather Harry dying in an automobile accident at about age 72, and my mom dying at age 84 from heart failure.

Berkson was heavily identified with Frank O'Hara at the beginning of his career. Bill became the official/unofficial keeper of O'Hara's flame over the years, editing his poetry, tending to his legacy, and moving beyond the association that had been so important to the both of them until the older poet's death in 1966. That was almost 50 years ago, hard to believe. Bill would pursue dual careers in poetry and art criticism in his later adult life, both successfully. Sophisticated, cosmopolitan, charming, confident, witty, and generous--an impressive man. 

Ted Greenwald, a confirmed and unashamed devoted New Yorker, was a much less visible cultural figure, without Bill's social connections and background. There was something essentially genuine about his "working clothes" approach to poetry and to his life. I like to think of him as an "urban primitive" who spoke the language of the street, but knew his art inside and out. 

My contact with these men over the years would hardly suggest we were close. But I always felt a kinship with them, and the deeper implications of what their respective artistic investigations and commitments stood for. 

I live in earthquake country, right on top of the fault line, and in the middle of a notorious slide zone. You never know when the earth might just start jiggling and shifting under the your feet. 

The death of these two men is a seismic shift in my life. Things will never be the same again. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Elephant Panorama

You'll need a big computer screen to see all of this image. It's uncredited on the internet, but it's so inspiring, I had to put it up. Stretch your window as wide as your screen will go. On my screen it's about 16 inches wide.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Indolence of Decadence - Lowell's Alfred Corning Clark

After initially establishing himself at the beginning of his career as a talented poet with a rhetorical style--marked by a dense, rich dose of metaphysical formalism--Robert Lowell "thawed out" in the 1950's, and produced two books leavened with autobiographical detail, and a relaxed manner, which belied the obligations implied in earlier efforts. 

Among the poems in the second of those two volumes of verse (Life Studies, 1959 and For the Union Dead, 1964), is this little elegy, notable for its brevity and seeming simplicity. Without knowing more about its subject than what we learn in the poem itself, any reader might suppose that Clark was likely a public figure whom the author had once known in adolescence, one seen rather from afar. The poem's justification, then, would derive either from the depth of grief which the speaker feels, or from the keenness of detail which he uses to evoke his subject, or both.   

Alfred Corning Clark (1916-1961)

You read the New York Times
every day at recess,
but in its dry
obituary, a list
of your wives, nothing is news,
except the ninety-five
thousand dollar engagement ring
you gave the sixth.
Poor rich boy,
you were unseasonably adult
at taking your time,
and died at forty-five.
Poor Al Clark
behind your enlarged,
hardly recognizable photograph,
I feel the pain.
You were alive. You are dead.
You wore bow-ties and dark
blue coats, and sucked
wintergreen or cinnamon lifesavers
to sweeten your breath.
There must be something –
some one to praise
your triumphant diffidence,
your refusal of exertion,
the intelligence
that pulsed in the sensitive,
pale concavities of your forehead.
You never worked,
and were third in the form.
I owe you something –
I was befogged,
and you were too bored,
quick and cool to laugh.
You are dear to me, Alfred;
our reluctant souls united
in our unconventional
illegal games of chess
on the St Mark’s quadrangle.
You usually won –
as a lizard in the sun.

This poem has always resonated for me. Though I was raised on the West Coast, not among the Boston Brahmin culture that was Lowell's birthright, I can still feel the generic sense of loss at hearing of the death of comrades known in youth. The people we had known in childhood, or adolescence, are a select group whose fates are involuntarily bound to ours. There is usually no reason to suppose that we should regard them either as special, or as important, simply on account of the circumstance of our shared ages or condition or proximity. People who become famous may be remembered by those who knew them "when they were unknown" though in the case of very rich, or very talented, individuals, it may become obvious early on, that we will have a reason to remember them eventually

In the case of Lowell, and Clark, there is the underlying social presumption of privilege. Though Alfred Corning Clark is easily identified, as the grandson (and namesake) of the co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, there is little detail that I can locate online to flesh out the character Lowell describes in the poem. As scion of one of the great industrial giants' fortunes passed down from the latter half of the 19th Century, Clark's inheritance would have meant he would never have to work, and would bear the burden of that privilege according to his nature.

Formally, the poem employs a simple rough three beat line, essentially prose chopped according to the natural rhythms of phraseology. It's an "easy" poem in that sense, which seems to ask very little in the way of complex comprehension, its ironies held in delicate suspension between simple description and the tantalizing suggestions of ambiguity. Lowell, as an adult, looks both forward from childhood, and back, through the lens of his vicarious adolescent gaze, and his later adult cynicism. 

The details we're given--what Clark wore, the bare lineaments of his character,  the games of chess that form(ed) the basis of their interaction--would suggest they weren't intimate. Indeed, it is precisely Clark's diffident character ("triumphant"), his refusal of exertion, and an intelligence that "pulsed" in the "pale concavities of [his] forehead . . . too bored, quick and cool to laugh," that the speaker recalls. It is precisely Clark's cool remoteness, his "reluctance" to "unite" even while playing an "unconventional illegal" game of chess, that attracts Lowell. Lowell, the powerfully precocious young poet-to-become, admires Clark's unflappability, his serene assumption of disengagement, without responsibilities, without obligation, without embarrassing passions. Or at least that is how Lowell wishes us to think he feels. It's a strategic choice, one that puts Clark in the cross-hairs of the ironies Lowell can't help expressing. 

The details--the wintergreen lifesavers--the "pale concavities"--the "cool" laugh--and that denouement, "motionless as a lizard in the sun"--all suggest a chill, clear as ice, all the controlled reservations of upper class superiority, barren, impotent, remote, selfish, streamlined, decadent, dry, enervated, dull. Yet it's just this emotionally impoverished sterility which inspires the poem. 

Elegies may be the occasion for an outpouring of grief, or of amusement, or of rancor.  We can't change the past, especially our childhoods, which were the given context of the lives we were born to. We may sense a shared bond that is irresistible, or inescapable, or best ignored and forgotten. In this case, we may feel that Lowell's embrace of his own past, filled with all the complexities of ambiguous affection, embarrassment and pride, is merely symbolized by his eulogy for a childhood companion. We can tell from the way Lowell describes him, that Clark was almost certainly NOT the warm companion we associate with friendship, or shared exploits. The Clark of the poem is someone seen from a little distance, with the same cool detachment that is the central significance of his character.  How might Clark have felt about Lowell's version of him?

Alice Darr [nee Alicja Kopzynska]

Interestingly, Clark, whose sixth wife inherited his fortune, had only been married to her for 13 days before "dying in his sleep" of "natural causes" at age 45! That sixth wife, born Alicja Kopzynska [aka: Alicia Darr] in Poland in 1935, had been raised in Lodz, but was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in 1950 under the so-called Displaced Persons Act. Soon thereafter, Kopzynska's exploits as a notorious playgirl and fortune hunter commenced. Initially linked to young John F. Kennedy, in 1951, with whom she may have become pregnant, she would later be linked socially (and romantically as well) to British actor Edmund Purdom [a British matinee idol specializing in "sword and sandal" epics], to whom she was married (1957-58)--

Edmund Purdom

--as well as Tyrone Power,  Richard Beymer, Stewart Wallach, Roberto Rossellini, French guitarist Oliver Despax, James Fox,  Omar Sharif, Marco Borghese, Norman Gay (her husband for a time in Nassau), William Holden, Gary Cooper, etc. Following Clark's death, at which point she scored ten million, in addition to a regular $100, 000 annuity pay-out, Darr/Clark would enter the jet set world of European capitols, Caribbean high-life, and engage in numerous affairs and liaisons with the rich and famous, and would make regular notorious mention in the gossip columns of the period. At one point, apparently, J. Edgar Hoover told then Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 that the FBI had information his brother John had paid a $500,000 settlement and had court records sealed in lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed to have been engaged to marry the former President in 1951; allegedly the money was paid to drop the case in 1961; Ms. Darr couldn't be reached for comment. It almost makes one wonder whether Clark's death in 1961 can have been so "natural" after all.  

                        The jet-setter in the Bahamas

Of the previous five wives, I can find nothing online. 

The closing picture of Clark, as a "motionless . . . lizard in the sun" has always stayed with me.  Lizards are cold-blooded reptiles, which is to say they don't preserve their own body heat, and must soak up heat from the sun by resting outdoors during daytimes. 

Lowell's reputation as one of America's best poets has always been somewhat colored by the fact of his presumed "entitlement"--as a function of his having descended from one of the famous "founding families" of New England. It is as if we ought to regard Lowell as having benefited, as an artist, by his associations--male, white, upper class, connected, intellectual, elite, safe, propelled by position and recognition into a natural, if undeserved, advantage. 

But people can't choose their inheritance. This is one of the ironies of our politically correct contemporary literary world, that we should demand that our writers and artists reflect the philosophical and religious and sociological pieties of the moment. Yet there is no evidence that the kind of advantage we identify with privilege should ever guarantee genius, or ability, or the effort required to make the best of one's means. Lowell's early work demonstrated that he was first interested in a religious poetry that expressed the conflicts and dilemmas of a tragic world view. It was only later, after he had suffered some serious personal crises, that he undertook to explore his own life in the crucible of his art. And as his reading public came to know, that life was anything but secure. Beset from the beginning by mental demons, difficulties with his parents, conscientious objection and imprisonment, multiple hospitalizations for bi-polar episodes, broken marriages and affairs, lapsed appointments, radical political resistance,  etc.,  Lowell came to see his own artistic life as a public drama carried on in full view of the literary world. But the accomplishments of his work could not be "excused" or "exonerated" by his life. In large measure, he may be said to have "invented" Confessionalism, the literary trope that played such a large part in the poetry of the Sixties, Seventies, and still exerts a powerful influence today in the work of Frederick Seidel, Sharon Olds, among many others. The notion of addressing the facts of one's personal life in poetry in a frank, uncompromising manner has something of the exhibitionistic about it. Personally, I find poetry which does only that, and nothing more, suffers a poverty of invention. But one could never say that of Lowell's work, even when it veered uncomfortably close. The ode to Clark is one example of how a direct response to real personal events, or connections, can be managed, without recourse to mawkish obsequy, or vicarious prurient revelation. I can share Lowell's sadness, at a certain moment in time, without in any way sharing the nature of his grief, no matter how ambiguous it may have been, or how conflicted his expression of it would be. Is wealth or privilege in the possessor prima facie evidence of decadence? 

What Lowell seems to be implying is that the qualities which privilege bestows, may be aesthetically inspiring, but still be arid in themselves.  The vanity or nonchalant negligence implied by cycling through six marriages may simply be a reflection of individual temperament, rather than an expression of class arrogance. Yet Lowell is able to have it both ways, since the tone of the poem is clearly not slavish, but measured, and deeply ironic in its regard. The speaker is fully implicated in the world he describes, which is what we want from writers. Not the easy condemnation of the smug ideologue, nor pathetic apologetics, but compassion mixed with rueful modesty.