Saturday, November 20, 2010

Readings out

Elizabeth Bishop reads a recent poem
by Ivan Terestchenko

Caught - the bubble

in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,

Freed - the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;

and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,


   flying wherever
   it feels like, gay!

Photography and Sculpture Terestchenko

Sonnet, Elizabeth Bishop, 1979
Alice Helen Methfessel, 2008©
Library of America, 2008

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mr Jefferson had two estates

Famously, he fretted over his Albemarle County house, Monticello, on a peak of his father's considerable plantation. But he erected yet another neo-Palladian house in Bedford County, called Poplar Forest. If the former was encumbered by obligations to his ambitions, the latter is almost immaculately the domicile of desire. If anything shows the radical modernity of Thomas Jefferson, his prescient ease among the Romantics of the next generation as well as his mastery of the Classicism of his own, it is his indulgence of both dispositions with unanswerable liberty. Wealth, which was minor in his case, had little to do with it. He was a self-empowered man. 

And unfinished, unreconciled. Much of American history flows conflictingly from his delectation of mirror opposites in himself. What the world suffers from our volatile contradictions, oscillated first as pleasure points in his restless ambivalence. Only in architecture was he consistent, and ultimately coherent.

A single-story villa over an English basement, Poplar Forest is Jefferson's most exquisite design. Even more impressive than the luminosity inherent in his octagonal rooms within an octagonal whole, is the rationality of a plan which enables him the flexibility of direct access to every space by the central hall. The siting of Poplar Forest is inferior to Monticello's - as very little isn't - but here he achieved what he wanted, without pretense or hierarchy. If you could design a nation this open, this plain, it would be a republic of peace.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Shrinking, violent

Living in Dixie, one can't help but notice how prolifically our youth pursue earnest missionary excursions abroad - to the Asian subcontinent, Africa - not merely to substantiate their noblesse in a foreign dalliance without entanglements, racking up foreign credits of portfolio-embellishing good works, and maybe expanding one's palate along the way. There is no presumptive hypocrisy in youth's innate impulse to do good, or even in its learned desire to be seen to be good. Is there a native necessity in the export of these shining motives and gestures?

It seems there can be no unambiguous act in a multi-tasking world - as ours has always been, despite the puff in this neologism. But I think the refrain, Look away, Dixie land contains happier and darker elements than that. I never saw such a habit for exporting Protestant good works beyond one's own neighborhood. I don't think it's because the Gothic horrors of the Southern economy and justice system are dismissed as more intractable, say, than Mumbai's. I think it's because it still isn't accepted as "nice" in Dixie, to embarrass the congregation. I've heard this deference described as "communitarian," as To Kill a Mockingbird turned 50.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union filed this week a Federal class-action lawsuit against the for-profit corporation which runs Mississippi's largest youth correctional facility. The link tells it all; there is no need for reciting redundantly, here, the allegations in the complaint. If there is anything else going on on this planet which exceeds the depravity detailed in that brief, I very much doubt that it will yield to the enterprising mission of an expatriate pro tempore. That every allegation in the lawsuit  attributes itself to an irresponsibly tax-averse society's out-sourcing of its highest duty, goes a very far way toward explaining why Southern children know so much about the Third World. They are expelled.

The adult abdication of the duty of due care, in the remedial incarceration of the young, splits a generation into two faces, exiling them both from each other. How long must this go on, down here? But I stray.
A binge commercial rite called "Thanksgiving" is about to descend upon us, and I grope for some suggestion for enduring it: undergraduates, throughout the South, volunteering to exploit every second of visitation available in that hellhole to check in on one's adopted brother.

Inheritance starts at home. The Walnut Grove Correctional Facility is right down Route 492 from Main Street. At every corner, one's never more than two blocks from Jesus.

Robin Jenkins
A Would-Be Saint
B&W Publishing, 1978©
Rugby, Hulton Deutsch Collection

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Le Carré's descent from Graham Greene grows ever more plain

.. which is only to say, from Ford Madox Ford, Mauriac, and Conrad, too. Le Carré prefaced his last book, A Most Wanted Man, with this aphorism from the aristocratic Edwardian philosopher, Friedrich von Hügel, The golden rule is, to help those we love to escape from us.

Morbidly attractive to the adolescent, this precept has been a consideration in the fiction of John Le Carré at least since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and by the 80th page of his new novel, Our Kind of Traitor, we are fully aware of its liveliness in this one. A distinctively Roman Catholic perspective, its natural place in the structuring of moral suspense is inherent in a real world of patriotism betrayed by cynicism. Just think, Clarence Thomas is the most qualified man I could possibly name to the Supreme Court, and you have the measure of its application. Between governments and gangsters, Le Carré now reminds us again, only God distinguishes one's treachery from the other's.

With the end of the Cold War this writer's genius for transmitting the pain and certitude of that treachery has only deepened, reaching to Alberich's forge beneath the Rhenish surface. In the present book and the last two, he has leant with devastating vigor on the seduction of the young, in what amounts to a brilliant actuarial progress from Smiley to the ground zero of moral crime, youth at the cusp of entitlement. The place in hell where we are going now is too gorgeously contrasted with where we have been, even to be contemplated except with Le Carré's courage. I dare Barack Obama to read this book.

A brilliantly promising tennis jock mountaineer preceptor in literature - straight out of John Buchan, if the truth be known - and his uncannily pretty barrister girlfriend, reminiscent of Amanda Hesser in Cooking for Mr Latte, escape to Antigua to contemplate their mystifying romantic predicament in the wrong place. (Were this the first time for such a migration, Greece would be landlocked). At worst, you'd expect a quiet annulment down the road, but such things are nastier in Le Carré, possibly for the reason that they're never quiet, in the first place.

Greene used to insist on calling such works, entertainments. A man once sued by Shirley Temple for the candour of a film review could well have chosen a less treacherous term for his illuminations. Le Carré's embrace of that tradition is balsam for storylovers everywhere, and nothing less than patriots deserve.

George Herbert Walker Bush
July 1st, 1991

John Le Carré
Our Kind of Traitor
Viking Penguin
David Cornwell, 2010©

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My favourite clothespin

part of an occasional series

the clothespin lends itself to backlighting
best when its materials are translucent, or
when perspective generates an articulate profile.

interior reflection can save the day.

a chorale of static white orthogonals,
suggesting Neutra or Meier, creates an
almost oppressive grid against which
the supple human cloth is rumpled by an
illuminating, underlying torsion.

Photo Jendrejewski
Umschau Verlag, 1984©


The Farnese Diadumenos
Collection British Museum

Examine the stone. 
The files have been selected to enable that inspection. I walk with Whit, and I sometimes stand still for what truly does seem like hours, as he investigates a simple frond. I wonder if James was too fastidious, in The Tragic Muse, in his recounting of how a family acquaints itself with art, or if we are all exasperated at the same pace.

Has my eye been destroyed: to be astute, without the gift for learning? Or is there some other word for what my dog does, to acquire and to understand?

The Louvre torso is the greatest find. What a tactile opportunity it is, with wear and tear of empires crossing, this way and that, and fortunes bartering, bidding, thieving, to open up its warmth of pure conception. Here, the Polykleitos original, quite contemporary with Bacchylides, is well evoked and strengthened for traversing 25 centuries. Inherit it. 

Diadumenos, we know you.

        . .  war is not all
death it turns out war is what 
thing you hold on to refugeed and far from home . .
     . . I'm here oh I'm here.

Then, schooled by a corps of youth
Who gentle the golden grove of Zeus
With softening songs of praise,
I learned that whoever would root out Hate 
must celebrate the brave.

The New York Times
Clipping, February, 1999©

Paul Monette, Here
West of Yesterday, East of Summer
St. Martin's Press, 1994©

Encomium for Hiero of Syracuse, 450 BC
Robert Fagles, translation
Foreword by Sir Maurice Bowra
Yale University Press, 1961©

Monday, November 15, 2010

Horace at Tivoli

Michaelmas Term

Neither should one, Licinius, beat forever
For the open sea, nor from a fear of gales
Become too cautious, and too closely hug
The jagged shore.

Clare College
Ode, II, 10
Richard Wilbur, translation
J.D. McClatchy, editor
Princeton University Press, 2002©

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hey, Mister ..

 .. you wanna hear a song?

CD booklet photo, The Witmark Demos 1962-1964

1961, Greenwich Village.

Before there were the recordings,
there were already the words.
How would they sound?

You tell me. You sing them.

Now the mate of Aglaus' sister
Stirs this seaborne bee
To build with his clear song
A work for the deathless Muse,
A joy in common to men . .

Isthmian Ode for Aglaus of Athens, 450 BC
Robert Fagles, translation
Sir Maurice Bowra, foreword
Yale University Press, 1961©