Friday, January 30, 2009

Object & Image

In the Cantor Museum of Art at Stanford there are some wonderful rooms devoted to the Stanford family and the founding of the museum collection. There are, for instance, the ears of the horse that Muybridge photographed for Leland Stanford, to settle the question once and for all of whether all four of a horse's hooves leave the ground while running. Muybridge invented stop-motion photography in order to solve the problem, and in the process discovered the working method of the motion picture, which you can see in action in a marvelous reconstructed machine -- something like a very early movie projector -- call a zoopraxiscope.

Stanford's son Leland Jr began an eclectic collection of natural objects (stuffed hummingbirds, curiosities, the snowy owl flattened into a shadowbox frame above), and then became interested in antiquities. When he died of typhus in Florence at the age of 15, his parents' grief caused them to memorialize the boy by founding a university in his memory. Early in the twentieth century, the new institution hit hard times, and in order to raise funds, Mrs. Stanford decided to sell her jewels. Since she was attached to them, she commissioned a portrait painter from San Jose to represent them first; above is his representation of the gems, spread on a red cloth, each one numbered. (It's a big painting, so in this little photo it looks more like trompe l'oeil that it actually does "in the flesh.") As it turned out, only one piece of jewelry was actually sold, so now her diamond-encrusted pocketwatch sits beside the painting. The third picture above is the precious timepiece, and the final one its painted double.

Goethe is supposed to have said, looking at a lavish still life by the Dutch painter Willem Kalf, that he would rather have the painting of the golden vessel than the vessel itself; he would prefer the representation to the thing to the splendid and valuable object itself. I'm inclined to agree, but there's a strange pleasure in going from the fancy watch itself to its painted image. It's partly that objects have a funny quality of timelessness -- there's the watch, in the room with me, in late January of 2009. A painting is an object, too, but you can't look at without being aware of when it was made; art always has a style, it carries with it the history of looking, the way of seeing and representing of its moment. Strangely, the object seems current (and not especially interesting, for all its value), but the picture has a sweet, dated charm to it, and it makes a sort of museum of this woman's jewelry, numbered and catalogued, and thus it seems to speak to the loss of these things, of treasuring what she imagined she'd lose. What did she think of the painting, I wonder, later, when she still had the sparkly stuff it depicted?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pacific Sublime

I've been thinking about Robinson Jeffers, surely the great California poet of the twentieth century, and the cold vigor of his response to the coastal landscape, the world of rocks and tide, fog and hawks and seals. A few days after posting the photo below of sea lions floating off the pier at Santa Cruz, I came across Jeffers' poem "Animals." It's an odd poem, in the way that it moves from an evocation of the marine creatures in their cold element to consider the hot colors of sunlight, and to suggest that the sun is also alive with burning creatures. Jeffers often wants to put human life in its place, in a long, geological perspective, and that impulse must have to do with the sublimity and scale of the Pacific Coast. This poem's unexpected final sentence considers the world's many lives, and chemical processes entirely unlike our own. Weird, given where this poem started out, that it ends on "amino-acids."

The painting above is an Arthur Dove, from the Cantor Museum at Stanford, and roughly contemporaneous with the Jeffers poem. It feels like it's also interested in the dynamism of natural processes, of bringing the conceptual vocabulary of science into art.


At dawn a knot of sea-lions lies off the shore
In the slow swell between the rock and the cliff,
Sharp flippers lifted, or great-eyed heads, as they roll in the sea,
Bigger than draft-horses, and barking like dogs
Their all-night song. It makes me wonder a little
That life near kind to human, intelligent, hot-blooded, idle and singing,
      can float at ease
In the ice-cold winter water. Then, yellow dawn
Colors the south, I think about the rapid and furious lives in the sun:
They have little to do with ours; they have nothing to do with oxygen
      and salted water; the would look monstrous
If we could see them: the beautiful passionate bodies of living flame,
      batlike flapping and screaming,
Tortured with burning lust and acute awareness, that ride
      the storm-tides
Of the great fire-globe. They are animals, as we are. There are many
      other chemistries of animal life
Beside the slow oxidation of carbohydrates and amino acids.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

California Light

Something about this image -- an Andre Derain from the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco -- makes me think about the light here, the way each individual thing seems to stand out, in a kind of relief, especially as you get closer to the coast, when the sun's shining. Which it has been quite a bit lately, gift of heaven, unlikely thing.

This is a cell phone snapshot so it's not the best quality. I was a little startled when I realized that the SF MOMA lets you take pictures, so I could point my iPhone at anything, and be a possessive collector, as if I were stealing color. Now my phone's full of Matisse and Max Beckmann, stuff it would seem immoral to erase.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Starting Today

The poets Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg have a great project going: one hundred poets are writing a poem for the first 100 days of the new administration. You can read them as they're posted at Starting Today: Poems for the First 100 Days.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Yesterday Paul and I spent the day in San Francisco. I'd read that there was an old camera obscura at the Cliff House, but yesterday when Paul and I walked around that marvelous, unlikely place. I assumed that the old optical amusement had bitten the dust, but it turns out we just didn't walk far enough around the building. The small building, which is itself a giant camera, is just around on the south side of the building, and it's on the National Register of Historic Places, so it'll be there when we go back. It was built by a fellow who also designed structures like it at the Garden of the Gods and at Lookout Mountain, though both of those are long gone. The sign above is one I photographed above the beach in Santa Monica; as far as I could tell, the camera itself is shuttered now (forgive the pun), but the sign's still tempting. For a wonderful site with many examples and much info, click here.

Poems of Transformation

In the class I'm teaching this semester we're talking about Whitman, and I asked each of my students to choose a section of Song of Myself that interested them, and then to make something -- a poem, remarks, commentary, whatever -- and to take five minutes to present what they'd made to the group. It's been amazing, their adventurous plunging-in to the text. One man spoke about works of art as engines of transformation; he was most interested, he said, in art that could provoke in its audience a sense of their own connection to the world, something larger than the ego or limited self. How does art wake us up to a broader sense of who we are? I asked the students if they had ever had such an experience, and they began to talk about examples: of standing for an hour in front of Michelangelo's David in Florence, of having their awareness taken over by a painting, or being lifted out of themselves in the theater. It was a moving conversation.

And it led me to think about this extraordinary poem by Marie Howe, from THE KINGDOM OF ORDINARY TIME. It's part of a series of poems based on the life of Mary, but you can just as easily read it as a text of any sort of experience of the transcendent.


Even if I don't see it again -- nor ever feel it
I know it is -- and that if once it hailed me
it ever does --

And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
within myself,

as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn't -- I was blinded like that -- and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I'd die
from being loved like that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Elizabeth's Poem

Earlier today, the Times and other sources posted transcripts of Elizabeth Alexander's beautiful inaugural poem, but I hadn't till just now seen it with its lines and stanzas as the poet intended them. It's a fine example of the way a well-placed line and a shapely stanza energizes and formalizes plain speech; the formal choices here emphasize the clarity,dignity and grace of Alexander's language. Here it is:


Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. A chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day will be published on February 6, 2009.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Apotheosis of Butter

This still life appears in the online edition of the Times today, as part of a slideshow of highlights of the National Gallery. It's called "Mound of Butter" and was painted by Antoine Vollon, ca 187-85, and it's completely startling. The Times' writer, Roberta Smith, thinks it's "perhaps a comment on the excesses of Impressionism." And maybe so, but it seems a multivalent image, inviting us to think about greasy, tactile oiliness, be it butterfat or oil paint. The picture conjures up verbs of oily substances, the way butter and paint are spread, slathered and smeared, how they live in between the liquid and the solid, so that this incredibly wet-looking pile is also capable of holding that knife perfectly upright.

And it seems an invitation to indulgence, that mound, an opportunity for complete sensual immersion, its lack of boundary emphasized by the neat containment of the two eggs. But there are only two eggs, for all that butter!

I can't help but connect this painting with my new pleasure of living temporarily in California: the softness of the light, the just-right temperature of the air, the piles of beautiful citrus on the sidewalk this morning on my walk to the bank, the way the cologne of Mr, Bonduk, the banker, strikes a subtle but very vibrant note of physicality -- truly, it's all the experiential equivalent of butter. Though without the immediate prospect of over-indulgence; Palo Alto somehow is about pleasure melded with some seemly degree of restraint. Why do I feel I shouldn't like it so much, I should know better?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Uncharacteristic Poems

I'm working on an essay called "Cavafy's Rooms," a reading of a number of poems of the great Greek/Alexandrian poet's which define spaces of privacy and intimacy. In the process, I've been reading lots of Cavafy, and it's a pleasure to find poems I hadn't known yet. Daniel Mendelsohn's forthcoming translation is a trove of these, and here's one. This is a totally unexpected poem, coming from the dry, worldly, ironic master; were it posted here without a name, I don't think anyone would guess Cavafy. It makes me think of Robinson Jeffers and "The Housedog's Grave (Haig, an English Bulldog)" another poem where animal presence brings forth an unexpectedly sweet-tempered warmth.


I wanted to have a house in the country
with a very large garden -- not so much
for the flowers, the trees, and the greenery
(certainly there will be that, too; it's so lovely)
but for me to have animals. Ah to have animals!
Seven cats at least -- two completely black,
and for contrast, two white as snow.
A parrot, quite substantial, so I can listen to him
saying things with emphasis and conviction.
As for dogs, I do believe that three will be enough.
I should like two horses, too (ponies are nice).
And absolutely, three or four of those remarkable,
those genial animals, donkeys,
to sit around lazily, to rejoice in their well-being.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A report on the T S Eliot Prize reading

Since I wasn't able to be in London last night for the reading of poets shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, a splashy event in the UK poetry world, the terrific poet Nick Laird, from Northern Ireland, filled in for me. Here's an entertaining blogger's report on the evening.

A sad afternote: one of the shortlisted poets, Mick Imlah, died this morning, of a chronic illness. He was 52, and had been nominated for his second collection.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Californian Demonstrates that I Have Become a New Yorker

I've been sidelined a few days with a stomach bug, but I'm well enough now to stir around some. We took a drive to Los Altos, a nearby town, and while we there went into a busy coffee bar, where they were taking a long time to fill orders. The cashier asked for my name; this always gives me a slight desire to lie, to call myself Melchior or Ulysses, but I never have yet. After quite a while, I heard the barista say "Mark" so I claimed my drink, went outside to sit down, took a sip and -- feh, chai! Way too sweet. I took it back, told the young man it was an error, and that perhaps there were two Marks. Nope, he said, he'd called out Bob. Oh well, I said, one syllable name, hard to hear... Then an officious man, clearly the manager, swept in and said to me, Did someone get a chai? and swept away with the drink.

So far so good. But then, as my new coffee is being prepared, the manager sweeps back to the kid again, clearly thinking about blaming him. But then he says, What, did someone who wasn't Bob just take the chai even though you called Bob?

I said, I took the chai, it's a one syllable name, it was hard to hear. And he said, well, that's why we ask for your name, and swept away again. So I said, to his vanishing back, Well, I'm just an idiot. Rather forcefully.

The interesting part of this story is that the woman beside me, politely waiting for her whatever, turned to me and made a gesture with both her hands like smoothing out a mountain, and at the same exhaled, and said, Ex-haaaale, breathe out. Meaning, clearly, let it go.

There was probably a time in my life, back in my old Arizona days, when I'd have thought that was admirable. Ah, let's rise above the fray, let's release tension and rise to a higher plane... Thus the proof that I'm a New Yorker now: I want my coffee made attentively and efficiently, without fuss, if somebody's going to call my name I want them to bark it loudly and clearly, thank you. But somehow the baristas in the city usually don't seem to need your name; they just look right at you and say, Medium Americano... and you're good to go.

And I don't want anyone to tell me to calm down.

I don't think Bob knows I had a sip of his chai.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Death Threats and Mackerel in The New Yorker

A welcome commentary in the New Yorker's blog page about the Seattle threat letters and "A Display of Mackerel."

Idiosyncratic Menagerie

Here are the results from my Poetry Workshop in the Guardian, a wonderful collection of distinctively individual animal poems. Thanks to all who entered! The Guardian chose the top ten poems, and I picked from those my favorite five.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Reader You Don't Want

On my way to school today I got an e-mail from Dan Savage, the brilliant sex columnist who writes for The Stranger in Seattle. It seems that eleven gay bars in Seattle have received threatening letters. Their author claims that he plans to poison at least five people in each of these bars one Saturday evening this month, with ricin; he sent a copy of the letter to The Stranger's obituary desk, informing them to expect 55 deaths. Savage had posted the text of the letter in an online column the paper hosts, and one of his readers recognized that a passage in the letter is lifted, word for word, from my poem "A Display of Mackerel." The quote isn't attributed, so it took a reader with a memory for poetry to catch it.

It's hard for me to describe how horrified I feel by this. On the literal level, my poem describes looking at a group of mackerel on ice in a fish market, and contemplating both their beauty and their apparent absence of individuation. The poem was written in 1994, in the awful latter days of the AIDS crisis here, when there was no hope in sight and the losses just went on and on. I wrote a number of poems then which try on positions toward the fact of mortality -- trying to make it bearable, at least for a little while, the notion that we lose what we love. No poem can do that, really, but the attempt to make meaning out of loss or to seek a way of understanding it is practically as old as poetry itself.

So -- now here are my lines twisted to a new context, and what was intended to suggest consolation is instead bent to an occasion for creating fear.

No writer, of course, has control over what readers do with the work, and that's as it should be. I like that people seem to inhabit poems, make them their own, by applying them to their own experience and needs. I've seen this happen again and again, where people find a meaning I did not exactly imagine but which is perfectly in line with the poem's intent. That's part of the art, this making of a meeting place between the interiority of the writer and that of the reader. I've never had this happen before, though, and it makes me want to -- I don't know, wash the poem clean?

Because the threat is so extreme, I'm hoping it's an ugly hoax.

(A side note: over on TowleRoad you can read the threatening letter itself, and many people have commented. One notes that the letter's prose is "grandiose" and so he's obviously a lunatic. Hey, that's not inflated psychopathic rhetoric, that's lyric poetry!)

Each mortal thing speaks and spells

This enormous oak is next to our rental house in Palo Alto, and it's an imposing presence. It seems unlikely, somehow, to share your street with this immense life form. These trees spread out over a lot of space, with heavy branches hung parallel to the ground. It's much bigger -- maybe twice the size -- of the house beside it.

The first thing I've taken in about this place are plants and trees. Coming from the east coast, it's balm to the spirit to see leaves and flowers, and a pleasure to notice the way the bluejays look entirely different from eastern ones, even a different hue, sort of lighter and more azure. This morning, on my way to the barber shop, an unfamiliar little brown bird hopping in the gutter, with a lustrous black head like a leather hood.

Today's my first class at Stanford, so I will be meeting a new crop of young poets. All this new-ness has me thinking about individuality, so this brings back this splendid stanza from Hopkins.

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
        Deals out that being indoors each one dwells:
        Selves -- goes itself: myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

The great oak, the jays and the birds and the poetry students I don't know yet, all crying What I do is me; for that I came.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New York at Daybreak

I'm reading an advance copy of THE VEILED SUITE: The Collected Poems of Agha Shahid Ali, which Norton will publish soon. It's a wonderful book, and it brings Shahid back with such directness and vivacity. It seems so long since his death in 2001, and also as if he's just right around the corner, and will suddenly appear, talking and laughing and charming everyone in sight. Among the many ghazals in the book -- he was known, of course, for bringing a deeper understanding of the form into contemporary American poetry -- there's one I particularly like, in which each couplet ends with the word "rain." I'm placing this little passage here tonight because I've just left New York, for the next three months, and sitting here at the kitchen table of a rented house in Palo Alto, Shahid's evocation of a particular kind of New York solitude seems especially poignant:

New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me --
to make this claim Memory's brought even the rain.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Display Lives

This new apartment building in our neighborhood, on 7th Avenue, partakes of the fashion for big walls of glass, which is the thing in new buildings in New York, and feels like an import from Miami or other warmer climes. Since so many city apartments have smaller windows, or face other buildings, or dwell much of the day in shadow, you can see why people would be drawn to big expanses of glass. Not to mention just how interesting it is to look at the city's shifting welter of detail.

But this has the odd effect of creating these lit, open-to-the-street lives. I'm not sure how much you can tell from this photo, but from the street it's easy to watch the television sets in the apartments on the second and third floor, not to mention watch the people: a woman in the kitchen preparing something, a child wriggling out of his pants, a man walking through a room looking for something. I wonder if they feel at all conscious of being looked at; do they enjoy that, or do they edit it out? If I'm walking by at night, I can't take my eyes off the mirror on their living room wall, or the surprise of movement as a person walks through a room, even though it makes me feel like a voyeur. How can you be a voyeur if scrutiny is so invited?

It seems an invitation, from the designer of the building to the dwellers therein: turn your life outward, go about your business spotlit, in the air, just above the street, so that all the world sees your achievement, the accomplishment that is your address. As well as to the casual viewer: this life could, or maybe couldn't, be yours.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Holy Relics

This is the right arm of St. Edmond, who died in the 12th century. It's displayed in an otherwise modern chapel on Enders Island, just off Mystic, CT, at a Catholic retreat center which used to be a novitiate of the Edmondites. It is, in its odd way, beautiful; the skin is like a kind of thin gray translucent leather, and it clothes the longish fingers, outlining the joint of each knuckle very clearly. It rests on a golden pillow, and there's a kind of sleeve which covers the arm itself so that what you see's the hand and a bit of wrist. On the tip of the thumb there's a bright red drop, I guess a long-ago attempt to indicate the holy blood that had coursed here. What makes this object beautiful, obscene and riveting all at once?

One answer might be suggested by the way that Rosamond Purcell (see below) finds fascination in objects in the liminal state of decay, things on their way to not being themselves any more. At what point is, say, a doll no longer a doll? When it's headless or armless, or the eyes or missing, or just when exactly? When does a book that's been ruined by rain or the actions of time cease to be a book? In that way, Edmond's arm raises questions about where the human ends; is this arm far enough away from its source that we wouldn't call it human? Not yet. Is it a thing? Yes and no. It persists in the zone of uncertainty, and if it really IS Edmond's, it's 800 years old, and going nowhere in any hurry.

There's the endlessly intriguing quality of the fragmentation of the body, the stuff of dreams and of anxious fantasy. To be fragmented is, of course, to disappear, but look -- here's this arm, persistent, inexplicably intact, present.

Underneath the vitrine in which the arm rests, there's a second case full of smaller things, lockets, a little monstrance, a collection of baubles. Many of them have windows, transparent chambers inside of which is a bit of hair, a vertabrae, an unidentifiable organic something. I love these. I doubt anyone knows now quite what they are, whose elements are contained there, but they're encased in silver and crystals and hung on silk cords, and all tumbled together.

(The Edmondites, by the way, don't seem to be medieval in the least. They've done pioneer civil rights work, and a group of them took off to Selma in the early 1960s, where, among other things, they founded a home for elderly, indigent African-Americans.)