Tuesday, May 24, 2016

This Is The End?

Jan Dismas Zelenka, "The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet," ZWV 53

Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford (a Frank Bascombe novel)

The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn

Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, Donald J. Trump

The great Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka composed his "Lamentations" in the 1720's. They showcase Zelenka's remarkable contrapuntal talents--think Smetana or Dvořák, two musicians influened by Zelenka's complex harmonic style. The "Lamentations" possess a rich, introspective feeling, slow orchestral cadences, haunting oboe solos, voices that modulate across layered textures of sound--here the brass uplifts, now the viola darkens the mood. The power of the work, as in the prophet's, is in its melancholy, a text and music that meditates on what might have been, distraught, perplexed by the human foibles that have brought us to this, to the Kingdom of Babylon:

     ...Raise the wail and lamentation for the mountains,
     the dirge for the desert pastures,
     for they have been burned, no one passes there,
     the sound of the flocks is heard no more,
     birds of the sky and all animals
     all have fled, all are gone.
     I mean to make Jerusalem a heap of ruins. (Jeremiah, 9 "Lamentations to Zion")

Social catastrophe causes personal catastrophe to be sure, but it is the life of the individual that foretells the future of society, as in the great prophetic books of Jeremiah, Isiah, Ezekiel, and Amos.  In times of chaos, thoughtful and spiritually-inclined individuals--that is, people who are attuned to the subtle connections that bind the world together in counterpoint with the divine--are likely to turn inward, to search for signs that provide a narrative by which they can live.  Such is the prophecy of the Old Testament--an indictment of Israel, but also an affirmation of Yahweh's intentions for his chosen people. So too do we find in the rich spiritual literature of the late Middle Ages--another chaotic and unsettled era--a profound engagement with the mystical, rendered first in visions and then in the language of subjectivity, an inwardness that adumbrated the Protestant focus on silent engagement with the Word. Aside from their psychological and pathological implications, the visions of the mystics don't much interest me, but their writings are rich with Blakean symbols. Teresa of Avila is perhaps the most eloquent proponent of unity with the Divine:

      "As far as can be understood, the soul, I mean the spirit of this soul, is made one with God who is himself a spirit, and who has been pleased to show certain persons how far his love for us extends in order that we may praise his greatness. He has thus deigned to unite himself with His creature. He has bound himself to her as firmly as any two human beings are joined in wedlock, and will never separate himself from her."

(McGinn, Christian Mysticism, p. 456; every library should include a copy of this book. McGinn, the finest scholar of medieval religiosity, provides a generous selection of mystical writings, moving for the atheist as well as for the devout.)

We yearn to believe in something--it can't be denied--God works for many, but for others there is art and beauty, politics and power, love and friendship, and for those full of "passionate intensity" there is money and what it buys. Or the glorified Self, the one Frank Bascombe, at (a mere!) sixty-eight, finds not only ephemeral but ludicrous. The baggage of ego permeates all of the four Bascombe novels, but none so much as this most recent. The Self: the roller coaster at Seaside Heights, half-submerged, a wreck, a mockery of amusement.

Richard Ford, among the finest stylists writing in English--his stories rank, in my view, with Alice Munro's for their artistry and deftness at creating character--has, since 1988, followed the career of Frank Bascombe, failed-novelist, sportswriter, divorced person, real estate agent and philosopher of the everyday--the sort of phenomenologist Husserl had in mind when he described the profound ways in which we can come to know the world by simply paying attention. And Frank pays very close attention. Ford's Bascombe (the autobiographical elements in his novels and stories are unmistakable), like Updike's Rabbit or Roth's Nathan Zuckerman, travels through the landscape of post-Reagan, post-Bush I and II, post-Clinton America not unlike the way in which Jeremiah wandered through the deserts of Palestine, in search of what thoughtful human beings are in search of--not "truth", that squib of meaning, but coherence, as in, what is going on here?

If Frank has a default setting it is bemused confusion. Whether he is meeting with an ex-client whose vacation home on the Jersey Shore has been blown to smithereens by Hurricane Sandy ("I'm Here"), listening to a macabre tale of family homicide ("Everything Could Be Worse"), negotiating the delivery of an orthopedic pillow to his ex-wife ("The New Normal"), or spending a some terrible minutes with a dying acquaintance ("Deaths of Others"), Ford's four interlinked stories evoke a quietly apocalyptic landscape, a suburban world ravaged by climate change, political nihilism (the Republican nay-sayers and Tea Party crack-pots), aging (Frank is recovering from the cancer described in excruciating detail in The Lay of the Land), and the daily rub of post-modern, post-meaning, American life. It's the world of Trumpery, where "kicking ass" and "getting rich" and "fixing" a broken American by exiling everyone with dark skin revives, if not our past glory, at least the myth of our past glory. It's a sad fantasy this idea of ours, this lie about a wondrous past of unalloyed glory, but it's the one we want, the one that sells and elects presidents and keeps the machine of greed humming along. Jeremiah would recognize it at once.

Ford writes like an angel. Or like an OT prophet. The cadences of his sentences, the counterpoint of voices--Frank's skeptical inner monologues layered over the voices of those he (reluctantly) has to deal with in real life--have the quality of lamentation. Frank Bascombe was an ironic wag in the Sportswriter, a witty, disillusioned man in Independence Day, but in older age Frank is weary, eager to be left in peace, and yet constantly at the beck and call of others. He reads books to the blind, greets returning Iraq War Vets at Newark Airport, visits his Parkinson-afflicted ex-wife, and fields phone calls and visits from his former real-estate clients; in other words, Frank is enmeshed in a social world not of his own choosing, just as we all are, and much of his inner life is a wry commentary on the illusions of civil life, the tedium of others.  Saul Bellow would imagine that these interruptions served some higher purpose (as in Herzog and Humbolt's Gift), but Ford possesses none of Bellow's faith in higher meanings. He's a here and now guy, a what's-this-signify-right-this-second fellow whose only remaining faith is placed in the facts of decay and death. Time is running out for Frank--he feels the "wing'ed chariot" nipping at his heels at every junction of his ordinary days--and he doesn't wish to waste a minute. What he will do with the time he saves is an open question. Mostly, he tells us, he just wants to sit still.

Where are we headed? Back to greatness, lost because of "stupidity" of our leaders? Should we "trust our guts" as Mr. Trump advises in the most recent of his books, drop a few more bombs, weed out the un-American among us? Frank Bascombe's sensible view of the world precludes such cruelty. A suburban Buddhist, Frank believes in disengagement, in taking a step back, in being agreeable, but without agreeing. His former wife, committed to conspiracies, thinks that Hurricane Sandy (the central trope of the stories) was a personal affront, something aimed at her. Frank meditates on this notion:

   "The Default Self, my answer to all her true thing issues, is an expedient that comes along with nothing more than being sixty-eight--the Default Period of life.
   "Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves, characters we can't do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believed the same. ""...A man should give us a sense of mass..." etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we only have what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else--nothing hard or kernel-like. I've never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I've seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end."

Here is a point that clarifies Jeremiah, a cause for lamentation: we find ourselves divided between the Ann's of this world and the (fewer) Frank's--those for whom Meaning is built into the nature of the world and those for whom only actions and judgements and muddle are real. The third way, the way of the mystics, lifts us up out of this mess altogether, but isn't a path many of us would choose. The terrible thing isn't that we (Americans, humans) are divided between these two incommensurate visions of the possibilities of human life, the tragedy is that they are both wrong, or incomplete. Frank wanders back home to Haddam, to his All-Bran and ESPN and squishy liberal ideas--and his dying--without having learned a single thing from the four encounters that lie at the heart of Let Me Be Frank With You. That's the joke: Frank can only be frank with us, and frankness for Frank is a recitation of confusion and doubt. But, to be frank, I am relieved and pleased that there is nothing more, nothing deeper for me to learn. I too am tired of the essentialists, the truth-mongers, the ideologues, the big talkers. We come to this point eventually, to the moment when we only want to pay attention to the here and now, and to make (as Bascombe does) the world just a little bit better around us, in our own neighborhood. We've learned all the lessons there are to learn. Time, simply, to live.

Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank With You is published by Ecco Press.
Bernard McGinn's The Essential Writings of the Christian Mystics by Modern Library, which has also just published a beautiful edition of the first three Bascombe novels in one book.
Jan Dismas Zelenka's "Lamantions" are, remarkably, here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI-JTx4BJKU
I've used the Jerusalem Bible for Jeremiah because my King James isn't handy; the KJ is, of course, preferable for this, and for all, prophets.

George Ovitt (May 24, 2016)

Experience taught me a few things. One is to listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper. The second is that you're generally better off sticking with what you know. And the third is that sometimes your best investments are the ones you don't make.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/donaldtrum153799.html


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Leda In My Kitchen

Some Girls by Janet McNally

The myth of Leda is an old and beloved one, especially for writers and artists. Leda was a Greek princess, daughter of the king of Aetolia, Thestius. She was the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. When Zeus saw her he fell in love with her. Transforming himself into a swan he raped her. Earlier that same night she had also lain with her husband. As a result, she was impregnated by both. From two eggs, two sets of twins were born; the first was Helen and Clytemnestra, the second Castor and Pollux. 

While undoubtedly many people know the outlines of the story, it is surely through Yeats’ famous poem “Leda and the Swan” that the story is now best known.   

Now here is McNally; admire the tender twist she has given this tale:

Leda in My Kitchen

With her fingers flat on the table, her hands
feathered like a pair of wings, tips pointed,
a silvery shade of white I recognized
from somewhere else. Alabaster, or the concrete
spread of sidewalk soaking in moonlight. The idea
of a cloud in childhood, more insinuation
than weather. Book-ended, always,
by wakefulness and sleep.

She closed her eyes and said, What bothers me most
is that I can’t remember. She held the curve
of her belly and I saw her fingers
were bone and skin again, pressed together
like a prayer. For a moment, we pretended
the egg in front of us had lost its terrible promise,
cradled no life in its calcium shell. 

The warp and weft of “Leda In My Kitchen” is hardly the exception in this smart and graceful collection in which—to quote the poet Paula Meehan—“the grammar of myth and fairytale is real.” Indeed such names as Circe, Eurydice, and Penelope abound in these poems, charging the prosaic if mighty struggles of contemporary women and girls with the force and radiance of the mythical, mystical past.

Here are two more poems from the collection:

Persephone Has a Secret

Everything’s about to pop. The pollen
shakes like confetti form the long, red throats

of trumpet flowers. The air burns gold.
In this version, Hades is bayou Louisiana,

and the underworld drips
with rainwater and dew. She’s the one

who’s done it, loosed this place
from its ashen dusk the minute that child

started swirling beneath her rib cage, pulsing
like a flock of juncos winging in the trees.

Tonight, Luna moths gather on the screens, their chartreuse
wingspread fragile as rice paper. The have

no mouths, no stomachs, and will live a week
and die. You’ve come to the right place,

she tells them. Here, you can go right on breathing
after you’re dead. Not that she plans on staying.

For now, she’s naming the flowers
as they sprout: pink stars of seashore

mallow, white jasmine trailing leaves
in brackish water. Hibiscus so red it slows

the amnesia flutter in her blood, lets her remember
the single bloom that stole her soul in the first place:

narcissus, pinwheel blossom, sepals
and petals both crushed in her astonished grasp.

From the turntable, Nina Simone sings
“Lilac Wine.” Another flower she’ll show

her baby, another word she’ll spell
when they step out of this place stone free.

Hecuba and Gravity

When she was young, she saw Hokusai’s prints of Mt. Fuji,
its peak a gentle slope in red ink and gray. Snow-pink
spring trees, diamond-sharp kites on fine black strings.
She wanted to unfasten the clouds, peel the whirling birds
away from their updraft spins. She couldn’t quite love
two dimensions. so she folded squares of paper
into animals—here, a pointed shoulder, there,
a triangle of ear—and set them on a windowsill.
Sometimes the wind made them flutter to the floor.

Which is to say, she always knew what would happen,
if only in her sleep. In her dreams, the baby falls
like the cherry blossoms she’s never seen.

Writes poet Eavan Boland, “These poems chart with a rare grace and lyric skill the traffic between the plainspoken, ordinary moment and the visionary one.” I encourage you to read them for yourself.

Janet McNally is a poet and novelist who teaches creative writing at Canisius College. She has a Master of Fine Arts in fiction form the University of Notre Dame and has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Some Girls is published by White Pine Press.

Peter Adam Nash