Saturday, November 6, 2010

Invasion of the cuttlefish

Resembles life what once was held of light,
Too ample in itself for human sight?
An absolute self? an element ungrounded?
All, that we see, all colours of all shade
     By encroach of darkness made?
Is very life by consciousness unbounded?
And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath
A war-embrace of wrestling life and death?

The poison known as sepia may not be the primary bane of photographers today, but there's no question that the cuttlefish is on the march, and the human skin tone is its primary target. It's the extract of that mollusk which first enabled this grisly fashion to take squidlike hold of images, in watercolour even before photo alchemy. That said, the admonition never to confuse the image for the thing still clangs platonically from despots of abstraction, and compounds regret with humiliation. But the eye's an intractably sentimental organ, and I wonder if it's the purpose of an education to change it, or enable it.

The enablement of the eye is literally a moral question on both sides of the perceptive act. Photographer and viewer negotiate their rapport upon the evidence of art, and that's pretty much that. With computers, both can have their way, although what merriment there is in the alienation of their personalities, others may bother to evaluate. Never before, has the subject been reduced to such a consumable (and there is great risk of loss in that). Still, the manipulation of images feels different from tweaking the tone controls of an audio pre-amplifier, as an act of passing judgment. 
The way out is rather plain. It's to accept the colouration of the field as homologous with mutual intention, artist and viewer accepting their engagement in the same space. If this solution shortens the list of acceptable images, one needs to be prepared to say that is the prerogative of each personality in the first place. I give you a traveller's study of an agrarian staircase in the Veneto, in which a diffusion of hue is unmistakeable. If it seems intrusive - as it does not, to me - then the quality of that intrusion must engage one's judgment as it will.

If, by the same token, the quality of illumination in the field is vitally central to one's opinion, then we're well advised to identify artists who share this intention. I return to this photograph repeatedly, with uneducated, enabled gratitude. I'm acquainted with a hunger for a delight I didn't know I valued. Here I have not only the gift for composition in the staircase drawing (an ostensibly verbatim document), I have luminosity at its most urgently explored and signifyingly distributed.

Moreover, I have a celebration of  effusive responsiveness in silver halide emulsion, which quite supersedes any verisimilitude the despots allege we crave in a photo image, and rescues the implications of everything we see, and things we don't see, in a new language. We identify with this language's gift for delineation, among other things, which is anathema to the cuttlefish.

Travesty lays a poor claim to inviolability, and we suffer no compunction against reclaiming a profile inherently worthy of contemplation, in an expression owing much to being flushed with the expenditure of energy. The cuttlefish cannot give us qualities the figure embodies. We are here to investigate and learn from such things. Film images can assist us in that. 

Isn't that terrible? Yes, it calls for almost too much humility.

What is Life, S.T. Coleridge, 1804
Profile portrait in sepia, web source unknown
Academic project drawing, Douglas Campbell, gift to Laurent
Monochrome photograph, Valéry Lorenzo ©

Friday, November 5, 2010

Saturday commute iv

There's a fair amount of this kind of transit in the Virginia Piedmont - Albemarle, Orange, Fauquier counties primarily - and it is highly impractical, as you might suppose. But that quality, alone, is enough to recommend it to this domain of massive resistance in all things, even if it hadn't legendary antiquity, the flattery of William Makepeace Thackeray's romance (ca 1857, subtitled, A Tale of the Last Century), and the maldistributed wealth of an agrarian economy, still intractably feudal to this day, behind it. 

The Virginia Piedmont's version of bread and circuses reaches a genuinely glossy pinnacle on the first Saturday in November, at a DuPont-built racetrack at the front door of James Madison's DuPont-expunged residence, Montpelier. If you should find yourself in Virginia for a year, this is the 1 day you may be tempted to cite for suspending judgment upon the other 364. It is, rather, the annual feast day of a lingering dark ages.

The Jack Russell Terrier races distinguish the occasion. Horses run pretty much the same, all over the world. But when the de facto State Dog is in play, attention is most passionately paid.

Getting in above the clavicle

for Elizabeth Avedon

Trace an arc to tether 
fact and feeling, 
and find what it may hold.

Man in blue linen 
Leica M-3 
  Ernst Leitz
Danza Alla Tedesca, Op. 130, Ludwig van Beethoven
  Alban Berg Quartet, EMI, 1989©
François Truffaut 
  David Levine, NYRB, 1990©

Thursday, November 4, 2010

City of coffee ii

A tour de force of frames, this portrait hems the city in its balusters and switchplates, picture holders and wainscotting, doorway fenestration and in last, alluring least, snowy squares of pocket cotton. Now permitting gray defends the rating of the page, performing an ellipsis' punctuation.

Ours is a city of coffee, lacking lines to split aroma from its hue, tasting them together for their worth, substance and infusion tried for candour both at once. A citizen, a city are the same. Who can pretend they’re not, has never heard of Ilium.

The siege dissolves itself in reading it.

Do you love them?

Homer, you well remember, showed

You can do a great deal

of damage to these things

if you can get in above the clavicle.

Javelin, Hedi Slimane

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Psalmist on the evening tide

And thou shalt give them drink of thy pleasures, as out of the river.
Psalm 36
The Book of Common Prayer, 1928

Swept up, free, borne up, to ride the wave --
not slammed down into the shingle, not hauled
under, breathless, struck flat face-first
into the gravel, not dragged no breath yet

still scrambling under churned foam frantic
to break water, gristle in one shoulder snapped,
no gasp, no burst of air yet, yet not drowning,
not yet, no -- to ride the wave, as if forever

free, to breathe, to fill with air this rib cage
made to drink of the river of thy pleasures ...

The Hon. John Lewis,
incorrigible bodysurfer,
won re-election yesterday
in the State of Georgia's 
5th Congressional District.

Tell the young, 
drenched in query.
Make sure they understand.

The Freedom of the Bodysurfer
Brooks Haxton
Uproar: Antiphonies to Psalms
Knopf, 2004©

Pascal on the morning tide

La seule chose qui nous console de nos misères est le divertissement,
et cependant c'est la plus grande de nos misères,
car c'est cela qui nous empêche principalement de songer à nous,
et qui nous fait perdre insensiblement.

Sans cela, 
nous serions dans l'ennui, et cet ennui nous pousserait
à chercher un moyen plus solide d'en sortir. 
Mais le divertissement nous amuse . . 
et nous fait arriver insensiblement à la mort.


This land is your land

In the only reality there is:
this is a tastevin.

In Mr John Boehner's:
it's a cendrier.

Brownshirts, everywhere:

Tiffany & Co.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"One cannot guard .."

The date
that's never 
about anything else.
His birthday.


Only love stays on the brain, and something these people,
These other ones, call life. Singing accurately
So that the notes mount straight up out of the well of
Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers
Growing around the brink of the quarry, encapsulises
The different weights of the things.
                                But it isn't enough
To just go on singing. Orpheus realised this
And didn't mind so much about his reward being in heaven
After the Bacchantes had torn him apart, driven
Half out of their minds by his music, what it was doing to
Some say it was for his treatment of Eurydice.
But probably the music had more to do with it, and
The way music passes, emblematic
Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it
And say it is good or bad. You must
Wait till it's over. "The end crowns all,"
Meaning also that the "tableau"
Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure
That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,
Harsh strokes.

John Ashbery
from Syringa 
Houseboat Days©
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977

Christoph Willibald Gluck
Danse des Ombres from
Orphée et Eurydice
Wilhelm Kempff, DGG©

Monday, November 1, 2010

Horace on intimidation

to a youth of the republic

Why isn't he still with his peers,
testing his mettle as a soldier does,
using his spiked bit to rein in his frenzied Gallic mount?

Why is he now afraid even to touch the yellow Tiber, much less to breathe in it?

Why is he put off by the oil
used to grease the wrestler's body,
as if it were some snake's?

Where are the livid bruises
left by weapons on his own body,
this winner with the discus,

the javelin, who threw so often
so far past the mark? Why does he
hide himself as if he were Thetis' son,

whom she hid in guise of a girl, they say,
seeing the many dead of Troy
and the grief of the still living,

for fear that a manly appearance
might hurry him back
to the Lycian cohorts and the slaughter?

Horace, The Odes, I : 8, 
translation Robert Creeley, 
JD McClatchy, editor,
Princeton, 2002 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Playing fair

for Daniel Mendelsohn 

"To my mind the fierceness of [Housman's] scholarly invective is simply a mutation of the fierce protectiveness he felt for the lads he euologised .. If Stoppard's interest in intellectuals and their lives and passions extended beyond his desire to use them as garnish for his essentially romantic, pop vision - if, for instance, he'd taken more seriously, and investigated more closely, the contexts for and nuances of Housman's utterances about classical learning and the rôle of the scholar - he'd have found many things to admire. (And would have had to write a different play.) Not least of these would have been the very trait which, in [his] play, is too often an object for fun: Housman's insistence on 'scientific' scrupulousness in dealing with ancient texts."

We are not yet so close to Mr Rupert Murdoch's ideal state, freed from language's inherent hunger for adoption by an honest and well tested mind, as this press lord's oppressive hegemony would suggest. He has only avarice on his side.

We have love.

Daniel Mendelsohn
The Tale of Two Housmans
The New York Review of Books
August 10, 2000

On Tom Stoppard's
The Invention of Love

Debated in NYRB
September 21, 2000