Friday, April 15, 2011

Oh, this is so cool, Pa

Is this man rich enough 
to help us crave his place,
worship his style, grasp his

Imagining Querry

Ate Father George's heron for dinner,
but I mistook it for a rabbit.

Graham Greene went to the Congo in 1959, and wrote this down in a journal he kept for possible use in developing his novel about a spiritually exhausted architect, A Burnt-Out Case. Greene had, however, looked on as the heron was shot in flight, from the fantail of a river boat that morning; and this had upset him. When the time came to make a note, did he decide to test his suggestibility, did he decide to revise his experience, did he genuinely attribute the heron's texture and flavour to that default guess of vaguely chick-enlike non-chicken; did he flatly refuse to see the breast as a breast, vastly beyond the scale of a rabbit; did he feel like noting a mistake, not a denial, for the purpose of touching upon exploitive disrespect - indifference? Or was it his taciturn code for accep-tance of harsh providence, and determination to go on?

The reader is interested in the uses one makes of one-self; this I know. I discov-ered Greene in my middle 20s - having seen one's herons shot - and set about reading all of his novels, short stories, and the play. What draws a reader to Greene's travel journals, in which he is far from simply noting things - apart from their acute detail, irony, and recounting of risk - is his recurring evaluation of what is notable by the standard of the question, of what use is it to be a man?

We love stories - almost every evening, I walk through my library, whispering the appeal to be told one - and nobody confesses to an indifference to style; that simply would be unnatural. Greene was the ultimate storyteller in his language in the latter half of the last Century. Even now, for a matured youth, I don't doubt that he still proves an invaluable watershed jolt into adulthood. Childlike as one remains - for lack of any choice - Greene is the fellow who explains to us the energy we identify with being busy, by prying the question: For what?

I know the answer, I've given it. As an infant (the story goes, I was 2), I knew what I was doing on the ground at the north rim of the Grand Canyon. My brother came to ask me what this occupation was, I was so absorbed. I am said to have told him, I'm making rocks. Astounded, he said to me, You cannot make rocks, but somehow, he believed me, and ran to our father to proclaim what I was doing. 

Guys busy themselves, thinking we're surely making things. The United States is living through an epoch out of Herbert Spencer, whose infantile builder is a character in Ayn Rand, an architect who built for himself. Graham Greene had his architect, too, and went to Africa to find him, Querry, at work in a leproserie. 

The question of our use stays close, it is too bracing. It is the extent of the only pleasure we were promised. It can fall into disuse. It doesn't end.

Graham Greene
In Search of a Character
The Bodley Head, 1961
Penguin Books, 1968, 1971©

ii, iii  Mathias Lauridsen

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Notre montagnard

In our Piedmont, the redbud is out. This 'just happened' - as it always does - it's not a gradual process. One day we'll be motoring along our roadways, and the woods will be a blur of gray and taupe and black branches, interspersed with evergreen. On the next, a sudden spray of pale magenta will be loomed into the tweed, and haberdashers everywhere will gasp. On coming to Virginia from bolder climes, this is the most sublime diffusion one can see; it's why it's idle to make a photograph. It sets a vapourcolour, steeped in breathy hues of tea and cardamom, a mid-Atlantic subtling of Jaipur.

The redbud is sometimes privately planted for effect, but this is a hapless displacement, and worse. It has come to be known as a precursor of ostensibly greater éclat. But because of the redbud, to me, its luscious sibling has never meant what it does to garden critics - a euphoric proof of postcard Spring. To me, the dogwood looks as if it had it easy, and didn't have to study Latin to leap right into a Romance language. But no wonder, it's the pride of our resorts: its blooming lasts a few days longer, and is opulent in its massing. And for all its commotion, the dogwood has its derivative charm.

Enter the garrulous dogwood, and there you have it: a hitch-hiker on the overture of the redbud, but not one you'd leave by the side of the road. Possibly, if the dogwood were the first to emerge, we'd never see the redbud, so much more intense and dense is its blossom. Not that there had ever been anything recessive or tentative in the earlier bloom, it had no standard before it to succeed, no mentor to exhibit a principle; and it had to do this alone, without the stimulus of rivalry, before its scale was set. A second blossom knows what he can finesse, owns an easy mark, and counts upon the first to frame his fame. The redbud is his hero.

It is his shield, his shelter as he blooms and his vanguard as he strides. It is his ever-precious entrée to the gaze, the sweet-swept stage of his enhancement. Even then, the redbud shocks as much with its departure, as with any evanescence of its spray. Every Spring, the dogwood sees only the lesser half of this. 

Georg Friderich Händel
Ode for St Cecilia's Day
  From harmony ..
James Gilchrist, tenor
Robert King
The King's Consort
Hyperion, 2004©

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A recurring query, as time goes by

Has one not
worn you before?

Jeremy Young

The breath around us

A friend has just become an uncle, another has just lost one by his own hand. These bits of informa-tion make one chary of the term, breathtaking. Possibly it is the most depleted resource of response we spend, the breathless pace of blogging almost stifling its intent. Now I have two friends who are conscious of the breath we take, and anguish and joy have this in common. They are aware that breath is hope. If one could blog for a purpose, one would blog for that. And to evince some gladness breath is taken, all around us, with interest to know why this is so.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tea Party at Kolonos

It's rather too bad, but the study of history does not work; the past is invoked, never studied, because romance and anxiety have always, first, abdicated inquiry. We have historians, but we have no belief in what they do; and quite frankly, as society, men never will. But if any American is still alive, who watched Richard Nixon seduce the Amer-ican South on the promise of embracing racism and xenophobia, martial hysteria and sectarian paranoia, then the destiny of his Party's stark manipulation of these forces under Reagan, Bush, and Bush as stalking horses of the bourgeois olig-archy it always represented, quite openly, has never been in doubt.

And who was reading The Frogs through all this, but marginal ripples of marginal departments in marginal academies of marginal study, of a marginal form in a defunct tongue. What do they own, but what they know?

CHORUS: And if things don't go well, if these good men
All fail, and Athens comes to grief, why then
Discerning folk will murmur (let us hope):
She's hanged herself - but what a splendid rope.

And how the Athenian assembly panicked in 411 (BC), naming a committee of 30 oligarchs to go off and ruminate on how to mend the social fabric, who then presented their report on Kolonos Hill, a mile distant, in a narrow sanctuary Thucydides deplored for flouting the openness of democracy. We know Kolonos from Sophocles, writing a decade after the eclipse of Athenian democracy, on the blinded Oedipus, himself, before there ever was a George W. Bush. "It was," yet another history says, "to a conventional past that a traumatised people turned to find strength." 

For all the good it will do, Bettany Hughes has told the democratic story engagingly, again. But if there is an American alive who has watched his nation's dance with ignominy since Richard Nixon in 1968, he will read his Aristophanes and his Bob Dylan on facing pages, and know how uncollectible experience ever is.

The Frogs
405 BC

Bob Dylan
Desolation Row
Albert Hall performance, 1966
The Bootleg Series, Volume 4
Columbia/Sony, 1998©

Bettany Hughes
The Hemlock Cup
  Socrates, Athens and the
  Search for the Good Life
Knopf, 2011©

Monday, April 11, 2011

Meeting Monday half way

                           scent of fresh
balsam on a pair 
                         of supple loafers

The riparian temptress and I

Having just passed through a weekend in the mid-Atlantic, when fully half of its daylight hours were conducive to the regional faiblesse, the skinny dip, it is clear that we have reached the time on the annual calendar when the great decision is upon us. I refer, naturally, to the question of whether to tanline, or not to tanline. Of course it is never too soon to be careful, but any day now, on a pleasing walk into our countryside, readers will come face to face with enough solar resolu-tion, to compel their choice on the spot. One spontaneous leap upon the flanks of a riparian temptress - and they are everywhere - is enough to dilute the pristine tanline for a whole season.

Readers may well wonder, that we should selflessly digress again upon a question of maintenance of this kind, on a Monday morning, when the last time we did, a historic exercise in marmsmanship was visited upon us, by one of blogdom's hoarier martinets. Ignoring its inspiration of a sweet adoption tale, to say nothing of the compliment of contempt, it's because the underlying logic of that posting remains incontrovertible: Monday is Everyman's day for self-critical assessments, if only to beat mankind at its punch. That it is also an occasion for naughty Wittgenstein to lay his latest experiment in guyplay athwart the assump-tion of drudgery, is a coincidence upon which we couldn't speculate. We rinse, we repeat.

Moreover, having committed ourself to the defense of sport against the degenerate exploitations of the age, it would be exotically incongruous to launch our practice of inquiry upon any quadrant of the monthly interval without that scorekeeping scruple which many associate with ordinary tidiness. How many holes of golf, for example, does the leader board allow to be shot, without performing its ritual tally? We note, what a blurring follows from tasking ourself to recall how things were, so relatively few strides in the sun ago. And we take care, not to raise ourself above the lot of Everyman.

We take no position on the tanline, for others at least; but it is only fair to warn, the calendar is adamant and the time is now. We hear it averred, in the case of a default in judgment, there is always next year. But we cannot suppose that Mr Dylan would have sung, Every-body's making love, or else expecting rain, if there really were two sides to this question. If we are to give such expression of the sun as the lyric sug-gests, who can be sure he is prepared to allow indifference to be his rhetorician? And need one add, there is little more tragic, than to have made the irreversible choice, euphoric as the sense of liberty may be. We can always dissolve the tanline; but what then, should proclaim the sun?

That said, far be it from us, on this Monday's occasion of self-maintenance, to shrink from multi-tasking along the lines of the first. In evaluating the stability of the colour bar, much can be done with a reliable towel - provided, it is always the same - to assay its circumference. From this, urgently practical and most seasonal consideration, too, a flourishing tradition of self-portraiture by telephone has sprung up, enriching countless social networks before the opening bell has even rung. For those hard-to-appraise reaches of the tan-line, we suppose a likely convenience in texting the data to the Four Hundred for their response. What pos-sible agenda could they pursue, who dismiss the tanline?

Bob Dylan
Desolation Row

iv, Ronan Bertoli

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A beginning, a middle, and an end

A fine wine is a spectacle in narrative coherency and highly articulate originality. The cliché suggested here is that of the first chomp into a vintage Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs, a shock of Granny Smith radiating into ripple upon ripple of umbra and penumbra of the vicissitudes of the cuvée, in Champagne.

And how does it wear? It will shock some to entertain the suggestion, that what a wine's flavours are, is quite secondary to its appreciation, and they are in any case, substantially connoted by its structure, and how that structure behaves. Proportion is anterior to coherency, in any fine wine, as we are likely to reflect upon again. Discover that, and its flavours and aromas fall into place like clock-work, in palate space and in time. Ar-omatics and colour, clarity and tex-ture induce the investigation, and in a fine wine will not default on appli-cation to the palate. Its character is revealed in how these qualities are distributed and sustained.

If we are to ascribe a fault to a wine, it has to be attributable to the wine, not to our preference. This is invariably the most difficult appreciation for the connoisseur to master. A parti pris
drives criticism as sadly in this field as in any other. One can and does fault vanity in the winegrower, for vulgar ambition in the wine. One can fault the year for its manners, although vintage comparisons are often arch and ostentatious; but one cannot fault a wine for a callous where its terroir has laid it. One could and might, complain if it were missing. Who wishes not to know the touch of a strenuous harvest, or the scrape of alluvial experience, is not yet ready for living things.

Tiara at 24

I think heaven is perfect stasis
poised over the realms of desire,

where dreaming and waking men lie
on the grass while wet horses
roam among them, huge fragments

of the music we die into
in the body's paradise.
Sometimes we wake not knowing

how we came to lie here, 
or who has crowned us with these temporary,
precious stones. And given

the world's perfectly turned shoulders,
the deep hollows blued by longing,
given the irreplaceable silk

of horses rippling in orchards,
fruit thundering and chiming down,
given the ordinary marvels of form

and gravity, what could he do,
what could any of us ever do
but ask for it?

Mark Doty
  [final fragment]
  Turtle, Swan
Fire to Fire
  New and selected poems
Harper Collins, 2008©

William D. Walsh photography