Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Juxtapositions: Whitman and Szymborska

As part of an occasional series, two poems, presented side by side, without commentary. Read more about Walt Whitman and Wislawa Szymborska

Harry Callahan, "Lake Michigan" (1953)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mike Piazza and “Walk Away, Renée"

Mike Piazza batted .318 as a rookie in the Dodgers days.
I was listening to Weekend Edition Saturday yesterday morning—since NPR shows aren't available until 6-7 hours after they air in the U.S., I usually end up listening to things I really like the day afterwards. They were running this interview with Mike Piazza. I don't really know a ton about baseball or follow it especially closely—I'm generally aware that "Mike Piazza" was a baseball player in the same way that I'm aware that "Wayne Rooney" is a soccer player—but hearing him talk about his time as a catcher with the New York Mets jogged my memory of something else: the Belle & Sebastian song "Piazza, New York Catcher."

As silly as it sounds, I had never put the two together. Whenever I heard the song, I thought that it was talking about a piazza in the sense of "Italian town square"—not, as now seems obvious, the actual New York catcher (duh). Read more after the jump...

Friday, February 22, 2013

The life of Jane Austen's party

Precisely the kind of frivolity that Thomas Bertram hoped to avoid.

Early occurrence of the idiom "life of the party" in an odd place:
"Sir Thomas was indeed the life of the party, who at his suggestion now seated themselves around the fire."
—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park 2.1 (Norton ed., 123)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Monsters of the deep in 18th-century France

François Boucher was one of the most prominent artists of the French Rococo, painting countless highly stylized, gracious, gnomically allusive canvases and murals. For example:

Boucher, The Rising of the Sun (1753)
But look a little more closely at the lower-left hand corner of that painting. Do you see anything odd?

In between the babies and the sea goddesses, there is some kind of giant, ugly fish monster. And it keeps showing up, too, as in the pendant Setting of the Sun, adored by sea nymphs:
Setting of the Sun (1752)

Or the Boucher Birth of Venus:

What are those things? And why do they constantly have nymphs and cherubs around them?

It turns out that this is how dolphins were painted by 18th century French painters who had never actually seen a dolphin before. They thought they were basically just big, carpy fish, and because they'd never been anywhere where you'd actually encounter a dolphin, depictions became more and more mannered over time, until they bore absolutely no resemblance to actual dolphins. One would think that Mediterranean painters might have fared better, but not necessarily:
Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, Arion and the Dolphin (early 16th century?)
And this is a Roman mosaic of a dolphin from the ruins of Tunis:

What's amazing to me is that somehow dolphins made the jump from completely incorrect, mostly imagined depictions—a point when dolphins could have been unicorns for all that "realism" was concerned—to being the victims of complete and total schlock, as any Google Images results for "dolphin painting" will reveal:

Somehow we missed the great age of dolphin art! There were no dolphin Neoclassicists or Realists or Impressionists. No dolphin Cubists, and certainly no dolphin Surrealists. We jumped straight from Rococo fantasy to kitsch in one bound, just like a dolphin leaping out of the water for a big sardine.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Skylarks and Nightingales

Skylarks and nightingales are two of the more artistically resonant birds in Western literature. But very few Americans have probably ever heard either, because they're not native to North America. In these days when so many of us grow up without a knowledge of the natural world, it's questionable how many people, even in Europe, could identify either of these birds by their songs alone. Which leads to the question: why do we have such strong associations with birds we've never actually seen?

For the record, a skylark sounds like this:

And a nightingale sounds like this:

Both had major poems exploring the duality of joy and melancholy written about them by British Romantic poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "To a Skylark":
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. ... 
And Keats wrote the "Ode to a Nightingale":
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thous, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. ... 
Both had jazz standards written about them. Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael wrote "Skylark," which in this Ella Fitzgerald recording has a delightful little onomatopoetic flute solo at the beginning

Around the same time (a bit earlier, in fact), British songwriters Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin wrote "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square":

Both Schubert and Brahms set the poem "An die Nachtigall," by the German poet Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, to music. The Schubert is somewhat easier and therefore more frequently sung, but the Brahms is as beautiful:

And the British love Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending":

And the list goes on. There are the nightingale myths going back to the story of Philomele in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the invocations of that myth in Titus Andronicus, then The Waste Land. The French children's song "Alouette" is about plucking a lark. By anthimeria, the lark has become the very act of reveling in insouciant spontaneity. That most ornithophilic of composers, Olivier Messiaen, wrote both larks and nightingales into his piano pieces in the "Catalogue d'oiseaux," (Catalogue of Birds), and rhapsodized about the nightingale, or rossignol, in his Traité de rythme, de couleur, et de l'ornithologie:
It is superior to all by the quality and power of its voice, by the beauty of its timbre, by its virtuosity, and especially by the marvelous art with which it moves from one tempo to another, from one nuance to another, from one attack to another, opposing or intermingling with an indomitable ease: the slow in the fast, the pianissimo in the fortissimo, the staccato in the legato
Still, it's hard not to wonder exactly what it is like to simply hear one of these birds on its own, without the cultural associations surrounding them. Would we bother to pay attention if the birds didn't have names, if no one had told us to listen before? Or would they just blend with all the others?

And I didn't even get to mention the blackbird, or the wren, or the swan...

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fats Waller, “Ain't Misbehavin'"

As seen, among other places, in the movie Stormy Weather, an early 1940s movie musical now somewhat forgotten at large—though not by jazz or film historians, or the Library of Congress—in no small part probably due to its sometimes uncomfortable proximity to minstrelsy and stereotyping. But it deserves to be saved just for these four minutes: the elastic contortions of Fats Waller's garishly expressive eyeballs, the smile that stretches on forever, and the casual knowledge of the piano—the huge stride piano bass jumps tossed off without even looking. (They say that Horowitz wept when he heard met Art Tatum.)

Eudora Welty wrote the much-anthologized short story "Powerhouse" after seeing Waller play, as she said in her Paris Review interview:
I wrote it in one night after I’d been to a concert and dance in Jackson where Fats Waller played. I tried to write my idea of the life of the traveling artist and performer—not Fats Waller himself, but any artist—in the alien world and tried to put it in the words and plot suggested by the music I’d been listening to. It was a daring attempt for a writer like me—as daring as it was to write about the murderer of Medgar Evers on that night—and I’m not qualified to write about music or performers. But trying it pleased me then, and it still does please me.
And from the second paragraph of that story:
Powerhouse is not a show-off like the Harlem boys, not drunk, not crazy—he's in a trance; he's a person of joy, a fanatic. He listens as much as he performs, a look of hideous, powerful rapture on his face. When he plays he beats down piano and seat and wears them away. He is in motion every moment--what could be more obscene? There he is with his great head, fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long yellow-sectioned strong big fingers, at rest about the size of bananas. Of course you know how he sounds—you've heard him on records—but still you need to see him. He's going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentines from Antiquity

Sappho, as imagined in a Roman wall-painting recovered from Pompeii

For Valentine's Day, a couple of test-drive translations of some love poems from antiquity:

Catullus was a lyric poet of the early first century b.c.e. We don't have a ton of biographical details, but a lot of suggestive gossip survives. He fell terribly in love with a Roman courtesan who was beautiful but cruel and unprincipled, a belle dame sans merci. We think she may have been a woman named Clodia Metelli, but in his poems, Catullus only addresses her by the pseudonym Lesbia. His poetry to her turns bitterly hateful and despondent by the end of their stormy affair, but the early poems were optimistic and carefree:
Let's live, my Lesbia, and love, and laugh off
all the grumpy old men's worthless gossip!
Suns may set and then come back again,
but our brief light will only go out once;
we all must sleep that single endless night.
So give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred—
then another thousand, then a second hundred—
then another thousand all over, then a hundred more—
then, when we've kissed so many thousand kisses,
we'll scatter them, so even we can't count,
and no one bad can ever envy us
when he adds up how many kisses there are.
—Catullus 5
It's like seeing a young Mozart at work: the poem's like hearing the pageboy Cherubino sing in The Marriage of Figaro, or a pop song whose simplicity makes it all the better because it's about a kind of crazy simple clarity of the emotions. The Latin's simple, easy, almost like hearing a little kid talk. So much translation out of Latin archaizes ("Let us live, O my Lesbia! and may we love, / and reckon the value of the rumors of the sterner old men...") and ignores the way the language can sound slangy, silly, or struck stupid with the naïvest kind of love. I wanted this to have something of a pop song about it—colloquial, catchy, unsophisticated, sincere.

Sappho was a Greek poet who was already ancient when Catullus lived; she died some five centuries before he was born. Her poetry, much of it about love and heartbreak, survives mainly in fragments, but glorious ones. We actually have more of the poem below than what I've translated—a kind of imagined hymn of praise or love letter to Helen of Troy—but it's such a pyrotechnic four lines that I thought they stand gracefully on their own.
some, an army of horsemen; others, one of infantry;
and still others think a fleet of boats, on black Earth,
is what's most beautiful—but I say it's the thing
with which one falls in love
—Sappho, Lobel-Page fragment 16, vv. 1-4
It's a flash of what love felt like twenty-six centuries ago: a different range of metaphor, a different sense of the beautiful—but the same burning conviction, preserved on crumbling bits of papyrus and parchment across time, letter by letter. To quote a different poet, "What will become of us is love."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

That time when Rachmaninoff gave Sikorsky money

The Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 (from Wikipedia)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: very late-Romantic Russian composer of the first half of the twentieth century and virtuoso pianist with hands the size of dinner plates. Igor Sikorsky: Russian expatriate engineer known for perfecting the design of the modern helicopter. As everyone who cares about classical music and helicopters knows.

But what is somewhat less known is that Rachmaninoff was a huge fan of Sikorsky's. So much so that, in 1923, when Sikorsky—who had recently emigrated from Russia, fleeing the Revolution—was having a hard time getting his new Long Island workshop off the ground both financially and literally, the fabulously wealthy and famous Rachmaninoff drove up in a limousine and wrote Sikorsky a check for $5,000. (In 1920, the average car cost $575.) The two became good friends, and Sikorsky later named Rachmaninoff the first vice-president of Sikorsky Aircraft. A fuller account is on the Sikorsky Archives' website.

And now, one of the better Rachmaninoff moments, the 3rd movement of the cello sonata, as played by Mstislav Rostropovich and Aleksandr Dedyukhin in 1956:

Also worthwhile: that time that Rachmaninoff was thinking about writing an opera based on Flaubert's weirdest novel

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some things to read for Black History Month (or anytime else)

Roy DeCarava, from The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955)
Elena Sheppard at PolicyMic asked if I'd be interested in compiling a list of favorite "Suggested Books for Black History Month," and here it is! Somewhat arbitrary and entirely subjective, but nevertheless:

1. James Weldon Johnson: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)
2. Jean Toomer: Cane (1923) 
3. The poetry of Countee Cullen
4. Nella Larsen: Quicksand (1928)
5. Sterling Brown: the Slim Greer poems (1930-1933)
6. Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes: The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955)
7. Charles Mingus: Beneath the Underdog (1971)

Read the full thing at PolicyMic. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Welcome to Loose Signatures!

You're probably wondering: what exactly is a loose signature? They're the folded-paper booklets that make up a book before they've been stitched or glued together. Technically printed, but not assembled in one piece yet; kind of done, but still rough around the edges. Sort of like this blog.

Despite having some mixed feelings about amateur blogging (completely unpaid writing that takes a lot of time; and who really wants more stuff on the Internet?), since recently beginning to write some book reviews and essays for a few different sites online, I've decided to start a blog to collect them all in one place.

But, since that's not very interesting in and of itself, and I want to give you something worth checking out every now and then, there will be other stuff, too! This blog will update every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, xkcd-style (more or less). I want it to be a kind of commonplace book of things worth reading or seeing or listening to—nothing elaborate, nothing frenetic, just a way of collecting some cool things in one place, maybe with a little context. (Like whatever the opposite of a news-and-commentary aggregator would be—a de-gregator?) And every now and then I might throw in some ideas or impressions, or maybe even a drawing or two.

So thanks for reading, and check back every few days! There are a few things now, but it'll grow—when you don't have a binding, you can keep adding as many pages as you want. 

Cool Thing #1: Sobek

Okay, so I'm cheating from the very outset by using Google Images pictures to talk about stuff. But this is one of my several favorite objects in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford: a large bust of the ancient Egyptian crocodile-headed god Sobek.

Sobek-worship was especially popular during the first half of the second millennium b.c.e., which, to give you some context, was a solid thousand years or so before Plato and Aristotle walked ancient Greece, and 500-1000 years before we think David ruled Israel. This particular really awesome Sobek head comes from the 12th dynasty, which was probably between 1998 and 1778 b.c.e., and is from Hawara. It's as keenly realistic as you can legitimately call a bust of an imagined anthropomorphic deity with a crocodile's head. 

And, as quasi-promised, my notebook drawing of head-of-Sobek (with real-life museum notes!):

Friday, February 1, 2013

New review!: "Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents..."

As I write at Open Letters Monthly, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story is wonderful, but "the mission this book sets for itself is as odd as a TV show that aims to be “useful” to bright young people looking to break into television production—but also to people who like movies but rarely watch TV":
While Object Lessons declines to willingly advocate for a particular movement or school, it does tell us about the more loosely organized school of people who read short stories. And the unavoidable observation that the people who read short stories are different from the people who do not provides the background tension that weaves together the stories in this book.
You can read the full review here.