Monday, July 29, 2013

Art, artists, and gratitude

Bill and I have just come back from five days in Boston, though we stayed out of town in the lovely coastal village of Rockport.  Of the five days, it rained three.  No; I'm not feeling hard done by; I suspect that many of us are having rainier holidays, and if you can't find something indoors to do in Boston, you are vacationally challenged.  On our first rainy day, we drove in to the New England Aquarium, which re-opened after a complete refurbishment, most particularly of its giant tank.  In many ways, we saw nature as artist, inventive, colourful, more varied than I would ever have imagined.  She works with every colour, every kind of spot or stripe or polka dot, every shape for fins, heads (check out the yellow cow fish online), bodies.  And colour combinations.  Deep purple with deep rose.  Deep blue with bright yellow stripes. The most remarkable silvery blue clothes fish that always travel in schools, flashing as they slip by.   Some artist, whose name I have tried to discover, created a remarkable coral reef for the big tank.  After new and more effective plexiglass was installed, they started adding the fish, beginning with the smallest ones, letting them find their hiding places in their new coral reef before adding bigger ones.  These are not the coral reefs that you would find today, but are replicas of older reefs; in turn, the reefs are as inventive as the fish, growing in strangely wonderful shapes and colours.

 I'm also grateful to the aquarium for the kind of environmental work they do, some of which is rather subtle.  Of course they advocate for marine life.  But one of the first displays you walk into has sting rays gliding through the water.  A young woman sits on a rock in the middle of the shallow pool and encourages you to pet the sting rays.  They feel like a rather cruddy old boot with a layer of soft clay on top.  But they like being petted and swirl around their pool to come by the people just to get attention.  The aquarium brings sea life into our hands and sets up a rather improbable relationship between people and...sting rays?!
On our second rainy day, we went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Throughout the museum there are neon installations like the one you see above, which greets you at the door, and one  which read, simply, POETRY.  It was absolutely charming to come across groups of young artists like those you see below, most of them attempting to translate three dimensions into two.  This makes the gallery a kind of living place.  
Also lively was an encounter we had with an older woman whose hat Bill admired.  She was dressed to kill in a black straw hat with red roses and wore an "Adlai all the way" button, which might tell you something about her age.  (Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, and lost both times to Eisenhower.)  She stopped and had a little chat with us, telling us to look her up if we were ever in Woburn before traipsing off with her friend.  She might have been one of the portraits by Sargent in the MFA's new American wing, portraits that manage to suggest personality--rather than simply likeness.  Then later there were six Picassos, one for each of six radically different phases of his career.  A wall of calm Monets, three late Van Goghs....I can't really capture the richness of the day, partly because Boston's collection strives to give the viewer a little bit of everything rather than focusing on a single vision like Chicago with its large collection of impressionists or the McMichael Gallery with its Group of Seven paintings.
On our third rainy day, we went to the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell Massachusetts, which used to be a mill town and is now a distant suburb of Boston.  Lowell's streets are edged with lots of charming brick buildings, but these are now filled with spas, candy shops, musty antique stores; Lowell's businesses have been eclipsed by the very tony Burlington Mall that's about twenty minutes closer to Boston.

On our sunny days, we walked on the beaches, through a granite quarry, and through two artists' colonies, chatting with the artists about their work.  One kind gentleman who does patterned black and white raku, was delighted to tell me exactly how he did it.  He gets white stripes or lozenge shapes on his pots by putting on a layer of slip before the pot is fired.  After the pot's firing, after it is closed in a garbage can with combustible sawdust, he douses is with cold water and the slip pops off, leaving spaces that have not been smoked by the firing.  We talked to an older woman who is just learning to paint on silk and wants to talk about her husband's work with a palette knife in his more recent oils.  I loved going to the shops that were also studios, like the one at the top of the page.  Seeing what they collected and needed around them gave me some insight into their work that you don't get from a minimalist white gallery.  You can see all the daily odds and sods that art is really made of--like a can of turpentine among some decorative vases.

And the gratitude?  Well, we got caught in a couple of rush hours; at one point, it took us 2 hours to make a 45-minute trip.  The day we were at the Museum of Fine Arts, we had been sensible enough to take the train up to Boston, and then catch the tram for the Museum.  At the end of the day, when we were done, we found ourselves among Bostonians heading home from work in heavy rain.  The tram car was so crowded that the driver announced that they were sending us another pair of cars and could we please not push our way in.  Once to North Station, where we caught our train, we found ourselves in the grey cold among the commuters who travel for an hour or more to get home through landscape that is sometimes industrial, sometimes coastal, but on days like last Thursday predominantly yet beautifully grey.  I had to shake my head again and again in order to keep this image of a daily, tired journey through a somber landscape from overwhelming the art I had just been glorying in.  I tried to imagine what this journey would feel like at the end of the day before I remembered that I used to catch a bus in downtown Boston and travel an hour out to Brandeis University, where I edited the work for a social science research group before grabbing my copy of War and Peace and getting back on the bus again. On public transit, you can make use of this time.  And perhaps you can get used to doing what you have to do, as I did.  But it still gives one pause and inclines one to quote T. S. Eliot's Wasteland.

On the rainy evenings, I read.  I began with Richard Ford's collection of short stories (from Ken Probert's library) A Multitude of Sins.  I admired the craft.  Each story is set in a different city, and the background is an integral part of the values and conflicts of the story.  I imagined Ford on a long road trip, simply driving to cities, hanging out for some coffee or a few martinis (judging from what his characters drink in this collection) and trying to figure out what made them tick before he moved on to a different community.  Characterization and narrative voice are all masterful; the plots are small gems, some of them even built like a gem-stone, with half a dozen different facets of a person's character being pulled into the experiences and memories of a single evening.  At the same time, though, I found myself discouraged by Ford's vision of people behaving badly.  True, it's what makes for drama.  Yet, I asked myself, don't most of us go through our lives striving to behave better?  That was only my first, fervent hypothesis:  probably most of us go through our lives trying to get what we want.  Yet if, like me, you've had a minor train wreck in your life, one that seemed major at the time, you begin to shift your priorities and to strive for something less like a train wreck, which usually involves a lot of self-reflection and an attempt to treat people with care and kindness and respect.  So I spent quite a number of rainy hours asking questions about plots and how they reflected human lives.

As an antidote to Ford's beautifully-crafted cynicism, I read Robert Pogue Harrison's Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition, which begins thus:  "Human beings are not made to look too intently at the Medusa head of history--its rage, death, and endless suffering.  This is not a shortcoming on our part; on the contrary, our reluctance to let history's realities petrify us underlies much of what makes human life bearable:  our religious impulses, our poetic and utopian imagination, our moral ideals, our metaphysical projections, our storytelling, our aesthetic transfigurations of the real, our passion for games, our delight in nature....More often than not in Western culture, it has been the garden, whether real or imaginary, that has provided sanctuary from the frenzy and tumult of history."  I had been looking at the Medusa head of history just before we left for our holidays, trying to absorb two facts from India:  that 23 children had died of pesticides in their school lunches, and that India has an extensive and expensive school lunch program which is cursed by so much graft and bribery that children get a fraction of the food the government supposedly pays for.  What does one say for a country that cannot organize its priorities, its laws, its values to give safe food to children?  What, then, does one say for a country that rarely bothers to ensure that children have enough food?  Harrison's book is teaching me that the "fall" from the Garden of Eden is a fall from a life of relative ease into one of care, the (cultural) moment when beauty and hard work--if not suffering--stand in a tenuous balance that gives the beauty achieved its meaning.  But if one cannot find the beauty? I came back from my holidays, then, with questions.

On evenings when it didn't rain, we walked.  No questions here:  just beauty.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The summer river of reading

When I was a child, there was a family down the street with six girls--the boy came along at the end.  As large families on a single income will do, they struggled along, and the girls often wore, with great pride, the beautiful handmade clothes my mother made for me.  Mr. Shaeffer made his own root beer and the two oldest daughters and I occupied various spaces in their many-roomed basement and garage, making ourselves homes for the various movie and TV characters we idolized.  (Mr. Shaeffer worked for a company that distributed fan magazines, which littered their house, with the covers torn off so we couldn't re-sell them.)  We were always "sisters," and had an odd habit of calling one another "sister" rather than by name.  I wonder what that was about, whether it was designed to make our play more real more artificial?

While I had lovely clothes I could pass on to them, they had something I couldn't boast:  family members who lived on a lake.  Several times each summer, Mrs. Schaeffer would pack up all the girls in their suburban station wagon--including me--with our towels and already in our swim suits.  What I remember most about swimming in that lake was the way rivers of warm and cool water twined around our legs.  The lake must have been stream-fed so that water warmed by a shallow stream or coming quickly from the wooded areas around entered the lake and yet kept to its stream.

For some reason, this summer's changeable weather has reminded me of that lake for the first time in years; in turn, they both make me think--probably or improbably--of reading.  One of the lovely things about summer for me is reading in the long summer light with a concentration I have only in the summer.  At the same time, the weather--whether it's hot  or muggy or cool and dry in the evenings--plays a role in my choice of reading.  If it's muggy, I might grab the mystery I've been working on, whereas perfect summer evenings with a hint of night time coolness in the air urge me to tackle something profound.  There's a timelessness about such summer nights that makes me feel as if I have the time and the concentration to do another volume of Proust or dig out the newest translation of War and Peace.  It's as if my mood and my body, as they respond to the weather, are having a conversation with my mind.

 Dark stormy afternoons or evenings make me want something altogether different:  the comforting familiarity of Galsworthy's predictably unpredictable Forsyte Saga.  Galsworthy has given us a family tree at the very beginning, so we know the broad outlines of the plot even before we begin to read--who is going to marry whom, who is going to live a long life or die in England's ignominious Boer War; as well, the family saga has its own pace and purpose that, like most genres, we understand without understanding. Windy days make me pick up Woolf's diaries, which I'm reading to write the chapter on Three GuineasThe Years and Three Guineas were originally conceived of as a hybrid essay-novel, but keeping her credentials as a high modernist who didn`t get involved in politics dictated that she pull them apart.  The Years caused her more grief than anything else she`d written, though it was also her most popular book.  So the diaries from that period change  mood as quickly as a windy day.  Some days she feels that her method in The Years is profound; other days she feels the novel is too slight, an abject failure.  Writing Three Guineas went at a gallop; before she even started to draft, she felt that she had enough "powder"--evidence of male folly--to blow up St. Paul's Cathedral.

Hot afternoons are for the reading I need for my research.  This is one of the rituals of an academic`s life:  spending a major part of the summer working on a publishable project.  Even nearing retirement, I find chasing an idea to be exhilarating and in an odd way steadying.  So over the last couple of days I`ve been reading the letters people wrote to Woolf`s about Three Guineas.  That intensely pacifist and feminist work brought Woolf more letters than anything else she wrote, and she answered all of them. I wanted to know whether readers who were her contemporaries saw the attention she paid to Three Guineas' aesthetic form, structure, and argument.  The letters come from people in every walk of life, and many of them talked about the beauty, the pleasure--as well as the rhetorical power--they found in her long letter-essay.  This is what hot afternoons are for:  finding out that you have these powerful hunches for a good reasons.

Hot nights when I can't sleep are for poetry.  Quilters have a rule of thumb:  if you are looking at a quilt as it grows and there's a colour that sticks out, add more of it.  That sounds counter-intuitive, but it simply make the colour "normal," in a sense.  Oddly enough, the same can be said of reading poetry when you are working on poems.  If you are afraid of someone's influence, read widely so that you are learning about and absorbing poetry's possibilities and not simply the style of one poet.  Hot nights, while not timeless in the way of perfect evenings, are nevertheless a kind of found time.  You can read a single poem over and over, not worrying so much about what it means (if that's the object of poetry); rather you are trying out the many different ways it can speak to you, touch you; you are delving into the layers in this still windless air.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Thing Itself

The Thing Itself
For dee

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being

When you have learned to choose
the flattest stones and can skip them
four times into the oncoming waves.
When you fling the duckling your pup has killed
back into the fog-bound lake with a prayer
to a missing belief.  When you read, and looking up
see your book cast upon a summer afternoon
as if its pages have come unbound and are spread
upon the dark clematis purple of a blooming
world.   When you find yourself
as skillful with a shovel and a word as you are
with a saucepan and song. When you walk
down an unlit hallway in the invisible taupe shadows
of November afternoons to look for windows.
When you look down the golden throat of a white lily                    
as it breathes in light, and breathes summer
onto your skin, and you want to plant your feet
in the memory loam of this moment as deeply
as a tree in time and weather.

You want someone to take your portrait.

Perhaps as you slide, late,
harassed, and sweaty,
into the chair at the coffee shop across
from your stiffly smiling friend,
you are sitting for your portrait.

No, not some instagram snapshot with its moody look
of the Brownie square, not some iClick,
your friend is now uploading to FB with a cheeky
insult while you order your coffee.

But a portrait by Vermeer who conceives
the old golden afternoon light merely
to embody a reason for you
to put down your book or simply
think about turning your head
to face her.  A portrait of your face and voice
comprehending hers, a portrait of you listening
for that plod of grief in her voice you heard last week, 
that shadow that does not disappear at noon
but radiates from her hands like a bracelet
or a blessing.

Portraits happen daily. 

When you go missing, driving through a March
that refuses to be spring or tipping your change
into the glass jar at the foot
of the wooden stairs,  Manet knows the vista
of boredom that sounds like nickels hitting glass

When you are arguing with your inner interlocutor
who won’t let go of the injustice crumpled in his hands
like the receipt he hurries to take as he leaves
the grocery store, Rembrandt sees the light the philosopher
reads by, as well as the improbable staircase
turned inside out that
winds through half your life.

Just so these people gathered on Boston Common to sit
for Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island
of La Grande Jatte” one hundred twenty years too late,
knowing the attention to a moment
he saw in those bodies is always there.
In the lovers, he petting the dog, wondering
how the dog keeps its composure or finds
excitement in the daily round,
she staring into the blinding sunlight of an argument.
But always, there is the girl just turning
toward all the visible and invisible
questions, to stare them down before
she puts them in her damp pocket.

This is the first poem in a section called "Questions in Our Pockets."  Unlike most of the other photographs, these have people in them.  I suppose they're the poet's and photographer's version of people-watching.  

The photograph above is "Saturday Afternoon on the Boston Common" by Veronica Geminder.  Her work can be found here.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Literature and Ethics

When researchers plan experiments with living subjects, they must take the plans for their experiments to a Research Ethics Board. Fortunately or unfortunately, creative writers are not obviously subject to a similar set of rules.  Yet over the last couple of weeks, I took part in three creative writing thesis defenses where some version of a Research Ethics Board was manifested in the questions the committees and external examiners asked the writers.  (Thesis defenses are private affairs, so I will not reveal any of the candidates' names or the specific questions asked of them--my own version of blog ethics.)

What we often attempted to understand or to query was the perspective from which the writers saw their characters.  Was it writerly or readerly?  How was it influenced by issues of class and education?  What was the relationship between autobiographical material--things the writer had either experienced or witnessed--to "made up" material that the writer created because the story needed it, because it was suggested by the material, or because the writer simply wanted to add it?  All of these questions can be honed down to a single one:  what is the writer's relationship to "realism"?  And, as the scare quotes suggest, what is realism?  How can any single individual, no matter how gifted a writer and wise and compassionate an observer, create a verbal simulacrum of the "real" world?

Ever since Henry James wrote "The Art of Fiction" in 1884, we have read and practiced fiction with increasing self-consciousness that reached its height in postmodernism, which queried the possibility of making a coherent narrative out of messy life or of using words to capture characters or their complex motivation.  (Interestingly, this aesthetic has been waning over the last ten years or so, and writers have turned back to less self-consciously constructed fictions.  Maybe we don't really want a dozen epistemological questions with our fiction.)  George Eliot or Jane Austen might have told you they were simply reporting what they saw or describing how the world worked, "translated" perhaps into coherent narratives with an engaging arc that spurred readers on.  But James prompted us to ask "What are characters?" and "What elements of a story's arc might resemble my life?"  Stendahl added a wonderful metaphor for fiction:  it is a mirror carried along a roadway.  That mirror might reflect the world, but it can only reflect the part that fits within its frame.  And the person who carries it always determines the perspective from which the mirror captures or encapsulates the world.

As Stendhal's metaphor suggests, writers always already have perspectives that influence the creation of plot and the attitudes toward characters.  It's easiest to get a fix on the ideology of plot:  who gets rewarded?  Who gets punished?  Are characters able to achieve their hearts' desires or does the world they live in make this impossible?  What are those desires and what do they say about the social construction of desire?  Thinking about character is a bit harder because what we try to conceive of is characters--the authors' constructs--who are somehow given free will. If our mirror is held to life at the angle that highlights the extent to which people are shaped and directed by their social and cultural milieu, are we doing them an aesthetic and ethical disservice if we don't allow them to transcend societal constraints?

The lingering assumption here is that the creative work is both the writer's and not the writer's, allowing something to happen in the creative process that might lead us to treat our characters differently than the way we had intended.  Thus we give them a kind of free will to tell us who they are, what they want; as well, we allow the world we've created, which has its own set of rules, to ignore those rules from time to time.  How do we give up control of something we've so carefully made?  What are readers asking the creative writers to do but transcend ourselves in the service of art? 

Of course, Virginia Woolf has given me some insight into what we are asking of the artist.  In one of her earlier essays, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," she talks about the fact that Galsworthy, Bennett, and Wells are "materialists."  That is, she criticizes them for creating a social and economic milieu down to the last detail, one that shapes and constrains their characters in a way that is no longer true to the modernist ethos.  Last week, I finished reading--again--one of her later, and most popular novels--The Years.  When she began work on this project, she had hoped to write an "essay-novel," one that combined fiction with social commentary, but Leonard reminded her that modernists don't mix politics and art.  In her effort to strain off all the politics and social commentary, Woolf has left us with a family chronicle that fails really to be a family chronicle.  And in her own defense, she wrote that this was a failure she'd worked hard at; in some respects, then, she meant its lack of context to part of its effect.

So this week, I picked up the ultimate early twentieth-century family chronicle, Galsworthy's  Forsyte Saga--Galsworthy, one of Woolf's materialists.  Dare I write that she misread this work?  For what Galsworthy is doing is critiquing the materialism of the Forsytes and using this family as a kind of synecdoche for the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century upper middle class.  We might even feel that Galsworthy--who won a Nobel Prize--lacks the kind of ethics we were querying in our creative writing students, because the characters are so often presented as "types," so often dismissed by generalizations about Forsyte this and Forsyte that--their love of property and propriety--that we might imagine every one of them wearing metaphorical corsets (or waistcoats for the gentlemen).  But I have two caveats here.  One is to ask "How does the writer interrogate social practices or social trends without showing some characters' inability to escape them?"  The other is to observe that the minute Galsworthy begins to like a character--like Old Jolyon--that kind of critique and simplification disappears.

But back to The Years.  The essay chapters of that work became Woolf's very political feminist argument, Three Guineas.  In the last chapter of this improbably long letter to a male friend about how to prevent World War II, she talks about the importance of protecting culture and intellectual liberty.  One of the most powerful strategies any artist can adopt in the protection of art and knowledge is disinterestedness. 

Isn't disinterestedness one of the qualities we find in our greatest artists?  Shakespeare, Donne,  George Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Alice Munro, Faulkner:  none of these writers seems to have a single "take" on life.  We return to them again and again because we can always find a new perspective that illuminates our world and our humanity.  The rest of us carry a mirror down the roadway; while that mirror has a frame that might represent a world view that is manifested in our plots and our characters, our job is always to attempt to see something beyond that frame.