Saturday, April 22, 2006

 

We’re all home again, physically & emotionally drained but basically okay.



Friday, April 21, 2006

 

Yesterday, while all my psychic energy was being spent,
This blog’s 700,000th visitor came and went.

I really appreciate all the notes of encouragement I received yesterday, both on the comments stream & in my email. Thank you.



Thursday, April 20, 2006

 

One of my boys is in the hospital, so I’m there, not here, today.



Wednesday, April 19, 2006

 

I’ve been mulling over the old question of what Walter Benjamin called aura. During the few days we were down in Virginia, DC & Baltimore last week, I noted that some of my largest adrenalin rushes – of some decidedly different types – came not from seeing the work of Marcel Duchamp or George Grosz at the National Gallery, or even the breathtaking array of artifacts at the National Museum of the American Indian (nor, for that matter, from its architecture, all southwestern on the outside and a direct ripoff of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum on the inside), but from a relatively small woman and two flying machines.

The woman was Sandra Day O’Connor, whom Krishna and I and the boys almost walked right into as she was posing for some photos in front of the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian. She was smaller than I’d imagined & impeccably dressed – she could have gone on television with no further make-up. We stopped so as not to interrupt the photo shoot – the camera man had serious equipment, so I presume he was a professional – and after two or three shots, she climbed into her limo and was driven away.

The flying machines were out next to Dulles Airport in Virginia, where the Smithsonian has taken over a hanger & an old control tower to create an extension of its ultra-popular air & space museum. Basically it’s a huge X-shaped space, large enough so that the Concorde literally gets lost amid all the other airplanes around it. The two machines that made me catch my breath were not necessarily the most interesting aeronautically – that would have been the 1903 Langley Aerodrome, the last attempt at flight by another pilot before the Wright Brothers pulled off their coup at Kittyhawk. In fact, the Aerodrome’s last attempted flight proceeded the Wrights’ successful flight by just nine days. It’s a giant wood & linen contraption – Langley had made smaller models of this fly and simply presumed that a more powerful engine and expanded size would enable it to carry a human, only to discover that the same material that was sturdy enough when you could hold the plane in your hand was not sufficiently hardy when expanded out to a wingspan of 48 feet, 5 inches. That was fun to see, but it generated no emotion as such.

One of the two machines that did cause an immediate visceral reaction from me was the Enterprise, an early “test” version of the U.S. space shuttle. It’s huge, tho it’s scale here is a function as much of presentation as it is of size. The shuttle, after all, was designed to sit atop the back of a 747 jumbo jet.

The other is the Enola Gay. Pictured above as it sits in the Air & Space museum, this is the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, killing somewhere between 66,000 and 200,000 people.

All of these sightings involve complex emotions. Sandra Day O’Connor was a rightwing politician, both before and on the U.S. Supreme Court. She is the reason that George W. Bush became president of the United States, even though both law and the vote count would have seemed to dictate otherwise. However, in assuring the preservation of Roe v. Wade, O’Connor saved the lives of thousands of women during her tenure on the court.

The space shuttle evoked pure awe in me – its scale feels so large and the project of making such a complex human object is so daunting, especially when the slightest error in an o-ring or bit of foam sends astronauts to instant death, that you can’t look at it without sensing the scope of human ambition it represents. There certainly are times when I think that space exploration is the one legitimate use of our military, even tho NASA itself is curiously positioned astraddle the military-civilian line. But it’s not an accident that the first thing we did when we got to the museum was sit through an IMAX movie on Roving Mars, featuring footage from robots doing exactly that.

But the most complicated – conflicted – response I had came to the Enola Gay. From a distance, this B-29 Superfortress doesn’t stand out in a space that contains the Shuttle, the Concorde, a Stealth Bomber, several racing jets from the 1920s & ‘30s, some very early helicopters, even a FedEx airplane. By World War 2 standards, however, a B-29 is huge – 99 feet front to back with a wingspan of more than 141 feet. The name Enola Gay carries with it so much terrible history, tho it is worth noting that the devastation unleashed upon Hiroshima was an escalation of scale after the carpet bombing of Tokyo & Dresden, attacks clearly aimed at civilians. At the time it was dropped, just one day short of a year before I was born, radiation was not yet recognized as a side effect of the bomb.

Restored, literally glistening as if it just came off the Boeing assembly line, the Kelly green leather seats of its cockpit thoroughly polished, the Enola Gay is a bizarre monument to find in a museum that celebrates the potential of flight, as if to remind us of its worst possible consequences as well (there are some missiles & drones alongside the Shuttle in the next wing, tho next to it they look like toothpicks). The Enola Gay fills you – or fills me anyway – with wave after wave of emotion, ranging from the most abstract – numbers, images from documentaries – to others very personal (the fact that when I was born, my parents lived in Navy housing constructed for the Manhattan Project, or that my father was sent to Nagasaki a month after the bombing there, bringing in aid to a now captive nation).

Benjamin associates the object’s aura with presence, a kind of immanence, but I’m not so certain. What separates Sandra Day O’Connor from the next white-haired lady I pass on the street is what I know about her, even if the impeccable presentation, the perfect hair & royal blue dress suitable for meeting heads of state, separates her out visually from her immediate surroundings. It is also true that what I know about the Enola Gay is what separates it from any other vintage aircraft. Only the scale of the space shuttle, itself something of an optical illusion – there’s no 747 here, the Concorde’s half-hidden in the next bay by other aircraft, you first see the shuttle nose pointing directly at you – really creates that visceral sense I think of as recognition combined with presence.

It’s thoroughly arguable, of course, that my reactions prove Benjamin’s point in the first place. Aura, as Benjamin outlines it in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is something much closer to a Zen experience: be here now with this humble stone, petal, spider, whatever. Of all cities in America, this is hardest to get at in Washington, D.C., an ersatz metropolis carved from a swamp, in which every square foot betwixt the Capitol & White House is invested with layers of history. Even the perpetually dying lawn of the Mall carries it – this is the space where hundreds of thousands heard Martin Luther King give the greatest speech in his short life one day in 1963. Those steps are where how many presidents have been inaugurated, etc. Living with symbolic history up the wazoo, objects here are relatively seldom what they claim to be. The ones that jump out are all defined by how much meaning I bring to them. Without its terrible history, the Enola Gay is just another old aircraft brought to an ersatz life in a museum whose lunchroom is a Macdonald’s joined by “the largest McCafé in America.” The argument would be that aura has been drained from everyday objects, so that only these over-determined ones would retain a residual or simulacrum of that capacity. In this sense, celebrity trumps authenticity. One does not get to the thing-in-itself precisely because there is this layer of discourse between us and it, whether it is a brand – O’Connor, Enterprise, Enola Gay – or merely the immediate discursive environment, like the sizing system at Starbucks that renders Tall as the smallest hot drink you can order.

Perhaps this is what Larry Fagin is getting at when he argues that it would be good for poems to be published anonymously, in that it would erase that discursive layer. You couldn’t tell whether a poem were by Jim Behrle or Curtis Faville. But my experience, both in Virginia & DC last week & here when I confront a poem on the web or on paper is that these layers, even tho they may be discursive, are not extraneous. History is integral to experience. The rose is itself a product of history, the Mayans turned corn from something akin to a foxtail or bur into the great grain crop of Mexico using the exact same techniques of genetic selection. It was men who introduced the eucalyptus into the coastal forests of California – you can’t smell a forest there without experiencing history. Nature is almost never devoid of nurture & it is foolish to think otherwise. That is the unspoken other half of the flower sermon.



Tuesday, April 18, 2006

 

Andi Olsen

 

One of the “problems” of outsider art is its reliance on biography, an “externality” not unlike the referential issues of identity and/or social justice that turn so many political texts into instrumentalist sausage. Is Howard Finster, Henry Darger, Simon Rodia or Grandma Moses half the artist they’re made out to be if, say, they had a degree from Cal Arts or the Rhode Island School of Design? Maybe yes, maybe no – my guess is that it would depend on the artist & that each such case would turn out to be a long discussion with no conclusive resolution to be had at the end of it.¹ It’s an issue I confront, it seems, each time I go to the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore. The last time, just about one year ago, it was the work of Voodou priestess Nancy Josephson, whose work I think is first rate, but who is married to folk violinist-turned-violin maker, David Bromberg, and who is herself a veteran of the music scene. In what sense is one an outsider if one’s son learned to walk on Arlo Guthrie’s tour bus?

The same question comes up again this year first in the obvious personage of Rosie O’Donnell – yes, that Rosie O’Donnell – who has a few works in this year’s show, dedicated to considerations of race/color/gender.² Among other items, O’Donnell has a portrait of her grandmother, and a photo collage of two older women holding hands as they walk out of the ash of devastation on 9/11. O’Donnell’s work is not bad at all and while it may be evident that she had no formal or professional training in the arts, there is no question that she is completely arts-savvy.

But the work that really raised this issue for me was also the most powerful, and perhaps most subtle, in this year’s collection, a short black-&-white video entitled Where the Smiling Ends, filmed by Andi Olsen. The premise of the work is both social & formal, and the two dimensions powerfully reinforce one another. At Trevi Fountain in Rome, Olsen films people who are posing for their photographs. Or, more accurately, she films, over and over, the absolute moment when their portrait has been completed and they then “relax” or “stand down.” Over and over and over, people tend to look down & withdraw, and to look extraordinarily sad or even tired. There are exceptions to this (one woman tosses a coin over her head into the waters of the fountain and breaks out in a huge grin as she turns to see where it has landed), but they are exactly that – exceptions. Few if any seem aware of her filming – it’s mostly done at a distance – and their movements are slowed down so as to give them a more formal, intentional feel. It’s as powerful a meditation on the social function of posing, of being one’s own image, and of being recorded, as I’ve ever seen & Olsen’s own editorializing is kept to a minimum with the augmentation of some soft funereal music. If the museum had chairs in front of this site – it’s right in a corridor – or if I had had more time, I might easily have sat in front of this video for hours.

Andi Olsen not only has a masters in art history from the University of Virginia, she’s taught at numerous schools and collaborated on several occasions with her husband, Lance Olsen, on a variety of literary-art projects, including a film on Kathy Acker that you can download an excerpt on from Olsen’s website. One might categorize Team Olsen as visionary in the sense that they, not unlike Acker, have a natural bent toward monsters, but they certainly aren’t untrained and are outsiders only in the sense that any post-avant artist might be. Lance Olsen is the chair of the board of directors at FC2, as the Fiction Collective is now known.

There are examples in the current AVAM exhibit of professionals whom I would be more willing to place on the far side of that categorical marker, such as Linda St. John, the daughter of a Ph.D. who grew up to become a lawyer, but really a daughter of alcoholic abuse, who, seven years after getting her J.D., turned instead to making elaborate little dolls out of pipe cleaners, clothed in even more elaborate little outfits. And AVAM has, both in its permanent collection and elsewhere in this year’s exhibit, instances of personal or folk art carried out to an extraordinary degree – Ku Shu Lan’s wonderfully complicated paper cuts, which seem even more amazing when you realize that this artist from the Chinese province of Shaanxi who died in 2003 at the age of 84 lived during the early years of her marriage in a cave, a not atypical peasant life registered, if not exactly documented, in these breathtaking patterns. Or Nek Chand, the Indian sculptor from Chandigar, still active at 82, whose rock and debris sculptures of figures is, the AVAM wall text claims, the largest visionary environment in the world and the second largest tourist attraction in India. When the state discovered his hidden garden of these figures tucked away on government property, a vast village of figures made entirely from refuse, it gave him several dozen assistants and now turns over all the junk Chand could possibly need.

But ultimately the whole rationale of this museum seems framed most clearly by Olsen, precisely because she seems to be the ringer. What this little film is doing is both important and powerful & it instantly makes you aware of all the other films one might make in a similar mode – e.g., men & women walking down a street aware that they are under the gaze of a camera, people about to do something specific, like walk into a church or doctor’s office or just cross the street or leave a cinema. Perhaps these are films that no longer need to be made because Olsen has shown so deeply what can be done simply by focusing on the smallest of social spaces, that instant when the “official” shutter has closed and the posing is over. The film is not formal in the sense of a Michael Snow film, but rather in its focusing on the form of the filmed event, repeatedly so that you can’t miss that this is the focus of the piece. It’s not obsessive in the way that lifelong federal civil servant Ted Gordon’s drawings, invariably composed of circles upon circles, creating rounded almost three-dimensional characters, are, but rather mimes such obsession rather coolly.

So Olsen is an indirect test of the thesis that good art is good regardless of context, although I’m not at all certain that just any major artist would similarly look credible if his or her work were suddenly dropped into AVAM. The irony at the heart of Jeff Koons’ material, for example, would come across instead as smarmy & condescending there, the worst kind of deliberate shallowness. But artists as diverse as Keinholz and Guston, say, would do just fine. So even would a Warhol, precisely because his works, even in their most pop mode, carry an earnestness within them that would resonate with the likes of Mr. Imagination or the Baltimore Glassman or any of the other more “primitive” artists on display at AVAM. If anything, it is the sincerity at the heart of that, which in Olsen’s video occurs less on the side of the auteur than in the eyes & expressions of the filmed, that joins Where the Smiling Ends with the giant pink poodle boat/car that has become an icon of AVAM’s annual Kinetic Sculpture Race – to be held this year on Saturday, May 6.

Poetry of course has its own equivalents for outsider art, whether it is the writing of psychotics, from Hannah Weiner to John Wieners, the use of dialect from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Linton Kwesi Johnson, or the street lyrics of slam & rap. And all of these same issues apply here as well. Indeed, the instant you see sincerity as the link between Olsen & the other work at AVAM, it’s hard to shake the phrase that technique is the test of sincerity from one’s mind. But, I want to note, it’s not the only such test here. Abstraction is another charged area & it is worth noting where in a place like AVAM one finds it, in obsessive patterning or giant nonsense sculpture’s like the museum’s signature Vollis Simpson whirligig, standing three stories high just a block from Baltimore’s harbor at the base of Federal Hill.

Looking at the smiling headshot of Andi Olsen above (linked over from her own website), I wonder what expression she made next.

 

 

¹ Actually, I think Rodia’s work would survive far better if you learned he had an elite arts education than it would if you concluded that the Watts Towers were, in fact, conceived as “sails” and that the project as a whole was a cartoonish sculpture of a schooner.

² With the work of Andrew Logan, a sometime collaborator of Divine, highly visible in the show, one might almost see the current show as an homage to Baltimore’s most famous queen. Logan’s at-least-life-sized Black Icarus sculpture is the art work that one sees almost instantly on entering the first floor gallery area, descending from the ceiling on a winch. AVAM also has one of Logan’s signature works in its permanent collection, a 15-foot (or thereabouts) sculpture of Divine in full pink drag. There are also several wild sculptures from another former participant in the Alternative World Beauty Contest that Logan & Divine cofounded, sort of what you might expect if John Waters had filmed the famous bar scene from the original Star Wars movie.



Monday, April 17, 2006

 

Margaret Brown’s Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt has been having its theatrical release this past month in Dallas, Houston, Denver, San Francisco, Portland, Baltimore & elsewhere, tho you can already get the documentary on DVD. It’s both a beautiful & sad film about one of the most creative singer-songwriters of the past half century – the author of Pancho & Lefty, White Freightliner Blues, If I Needed You, Tecumseh Valley, Wreck on the Highway and countless other songs that made Van Zandt a model for such other songwriting greats as Nanci Griffith & the late Dave Carter. The film also answers any question an outsider might have about why, if Van Zandt, who died on New Year’s Day 1997 at the age of 52, was the best songwriter since Bob Dylan (or, should you take Steve Earle’s point-of-view, better than Mr. D), if Austin City Limits could dedicate an entire evening to his friends sitting around singing his music after he died, how come he never crossed over into that larger domain of fame that greeted the likes of Emmylou Harris, who had a number one country hit with If I Needed You, or Willie Nelson – who recorded Pancho & Lefty with Merle Haggard – a key co-conspirator of Van Zandt’s in the creation of the Austin music scene as the “hippy/folk” alternative to Nashville some decades back? Hell, everyone has recorded Pancho & Lefty, even Bob Dylan. How do you get to be – at the least –one of the three best songwriters of a generation (I make room for Dylan & Carter both) and never once have an album that sells more than 7,000 copies?

Booze. That & quite probably a psychiatric disorder that was badly handled back in the days of electroshock-as-therapy, plus, just here & there, some additional fun with heroin, guns & jumping off of four storey buildings in order see what it felt like. As recounted through film clips & the remembrances of friends and colleagues, Van Zandt was high maintenance even when he was in school but the addition of addictions, primarily to alcohol, gave everything a toxic edge from which no one in his sphere could ever quite escape. Even his death, which I’ve seen described as due to heart failure after hip surgery, is more than a little tinged with booze. Steve Shelley, the drummer of Sonic Youth, wanted to give Van Zandt a more serious recording experience than he’d had before but Van Zandt showed up at the studio in Memphis in a wheel chair, using alcohol to treat the pain of an undiagnosed broken hip. After several days of attempts, Shelley put everything on hold & Van Zandt apparently was driven (the chauffer talks in the film about his arrangement to be paid in weed) back to Texas where he went into the hospital for surgery. His family checked him out, post-op, when it became apparent to them that delirium tremens were even more painful than the hip. They got him home, and got a little bit of food and booze into him when he passed away.

In his biography of Frank O’Hara, Brad Gooch suggests that the poet might have survived his run-in with the dune buggy had only his internal organs not been so compromised by a lifetime of alcohol. One can only wonder what might have happened had Van Zandt stayed in the hospital, but the deeper reality was that the singer spent over 30 years abusing his body in every way possible – the number of references to glue sniffing in his prep school yearbook are eyebrow raising, especially for the class of ’62.

The film is free form and more impressionistic than historical in tone. It proceeds chronologically, but with such a light touch you’re almost not aware of it. We see Townes interviewed outside the trailer that was his home in Austin while a friend fires a rifle repeatedly at unseen targets – we see him explain, in a painfully shy fashion, to a TV host how he dreamt he was performing If I Needed You & then woke up & wrote down the words & tune. We get to watch Guy Clark drink tequila & explain how he always felt that Townes was putting moves on his wife (while she denies this). We see Van Zandt’s second wife Cindy as a fresh-faced hippy barely out of her teens & then, many years later, looking as though she’s lived a hard life indeed. Townes’ oldest son explains how angry he is at his father’s addictions & Steve Earle recount a story of watching Townes play Russian roulette with a loaded pistol, pulling the trigger next to his forehead three times before setting the weapon down. We meet a friend from his stay in the psychiatric ward, explaining the profound impact of electroshock on personalities and lives.

We hear multiple people explain that they thought that Townes was the best song writer they’d ever seen/heard/met. But at no point in Brown’s film does anyone attempt the kind of close reading that one gets, routinely even, with Dylanologists. From my perspective, that’s the weakest point of the picture. We get to hear the songs, sometimes by Townes, other times by Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – we even learn a little about how they feel about them (Harris and Townes’ first wife both say that If I Needed You was written “for” them, an explanation at odds with Van Zandt’s own.) If you look at the actual lyrics –

If I needed you
would you come to me,
would you come to me,
and ease my pain?
If you needed me
I would come to you
I'd swim the seas
for to ease your pain

In the night forlorn
the morning's born
and the morning shines
with the lights of love
You will miss sunrise
if you close your eyes
that would break
my heart in two

The lady's with me now
since I showed her how
to lay her lily
hand in mine
Loop and Lil agree
she's a sight to see
and a treasure for
the poor to find

– they’re quite simple. While they tend toward certain patterns, they’re not at all rigid in their structure. Thus the ABBC format of the first quatrain is not repeated in the second, which is BABC. The next two stanzas both contain two quatrains, but now the rhyme scheme has become more regularized – AABC. Only in the final stanza do we find a second rhyme – the last line of each quatrain. What this scheme really sets up, tho, is a critical pause that occurs at the end of the third line in each quatrain. Listening to recordings of either Van Zandt or Harris, it often sounds as if two short lines lead to a longer third, e.g., to lay her lily hand in mine, and that ambiguity – to my ear at least – is the key to this song’s measure.

Also worth noting are the number of syllables per line here – a number that in the song itself means that shorter lines possess words that will extend over the music. Each stanza contains six five-syllable lines, and two shorter ones. It’s worth noting where in the three stanzas these condensed lines fall, again in a pattern that is both intentional & not systematic.

Above all else, this is a text dominated by one-syllable words, a device that harkens back to poets like Larry Eigner & Lew Welch. In these 24 lines, just ten words have two syllables and none have more. The only moment of difficulty, to even call it that, is the reference to two persons, Loop and Lil, never mentioned otherwise in the song.

A final – and my favorite – touch is the use of the word or syllable for, which occurs exactly once in each stanza, always at a critical point. That’s a tiny detail, but it says a lot about Van Zandt’s formal imagination, which is hardly as haphazard as we’ve come to expect from popular song. Did this come to him in a dream as he claimed? We should all be so lucky.

If Brown’s film misses an opportunity to seriously explore the construction of his works, it does go a long way to humanize Van Zandt. People went out of their way forever to accommodate his quirks & patent disabilities not just because he could vary rhyme schemes with such elegance. He had a likeable puppy-dog air that must have brought out the Protector in a lot of people – that’s not a quality you see in the likes of a Dylan or Neil Young, but they’re comfortable with being in charge in ways Van Zandt never was.

Watching this film made me wonder what a comparable project with regards to Jack Spicer might feel like. Hardly anything is more predictable – or more painful to watch – than a person in the last stages of alcoholism as they crash & burn. Be Here to Love Me ends with performances by Guy Clark & Lyle Lovett at Van Zandt’s funeral, poorly shot home-movie footage that is shown running on a TV set within the screen (a device Brown uses often). “I’m not sure I can get through this,” Clark says, or words very close to that effect, “but this is a gig I booked 30 years ago.”



Sunday, April 16, 2006

 

To celebrate ten years of its Poet’s Choice column, commemorate National Poetry Month and because nobody reads the paper on Easter Sunday, the Washington Post Book World focuses this week on poetry, with reviews of…

Dark Wild Dream, by Michael Collier, Houghton Mifflin, reviewed by Francis Phillips

White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006, by Donald Hall, Houghton Mifflin, reviewed by Billy Collins, who calls Hall “America's best baseball poet” (eat your heart out, Jack Spicer)

Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey, Houghton Mifflin, reviewed by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

The Poem that Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, Edited by Jason Shinder, Farrar Straus Giroux, reviewed by Eric Miles Williamson – he doesn’t like it

Political poetry: Dreaming the End of War, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Copper Canyon; Making Peace, by Denise Levertov, New Directions; A Cartography of Peace, by Jean L. Connor, Passager, reviewed by Rafael Campo

Sinners Welcome: Poems, by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, reviewed by Judith Kitchen

District and Circle, by Seamus Heaney, Farrar Straus Giroux, reviewed by New Criterion regular Anthony Cuda

Parallel Play: Poems, by Stephen Burt, Graywolf, reviewed by Jennifer Grotz

Poetry on Audio, which mentions the CD series from the Academy of American Poets, ShoutFactory’s Poetry on Record, and At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, reviewed by Katherine A. Powers

The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy, translated by Aliki Barnstone, Norton, reviewed by the Post’s primary reviewer, Michael Dirda.

“The Top Ten Poets,” a listing based on hits at the Academy of American Poets. The ten are, in this order:

1. Langston Hughes

2. Emily Dickinson

3. Robert Frost

4. Walt Whitman

5. E.E. Cummings

6. Sylvia Plath

7. Maya Angelou

8. Dylan Thomas

9. Shel Silverstein

10. William Carlos Williams

A tip of the hat to Steve Burt for somehow having snuck onto the Titanic here. And to Passager for representing the truly small presses that represent 99.9 percent of all American poetry. And to William Carlos Williams for almost catching up to Shel Silverstein. In all fairness, tho, I should mention that the feature on the web includes audio by Ginsberg, Whitman, Yeats, Tennyson, Browning, Sharon Olds, Rita Dova and Mary Oliver.



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