Saturday, January 20, 2007

"A Doorway into Thanks": Mary Oliver's Thirst

(response to THIRST, poems by Mary Oliver, 2006)

Everyone expects some virtuosity in art. "Even I could do that!" means the painting (or poem, or song) isn't even worth disliking. I've heard people say that about music by John Adams, and they were mistaken (see earlier blog entries on him). Now I'm tempted to say the same things about these poems by Mary Oliver.

Take for instance the second poem in this collection, "Walking Home from Oak-Head." It begins with the phrase, "There's something about the snow-laden sky in winter. . . ." How many cards in the drug store right now begin the same way? "There's something about a Mother. . . There's something about a good friend. . . There's something about (fill in the blank). . . ." Then, Oliver's poem is about stopping by woods on a snowy evening. Whose idea this is, I think I know! Without the complex rhyme scheme in Frost's poem, this one proceeds in groups of little lines, each indented one step beyond the one before.

do that.

Yet, I'll admit it: there really is something about a snow-laden sky in winter that causes "elation," just as Oliver says, and I'm kind of glad that she made me remember it. And when she describes the snow's falling "casually, then irrepressibly," that's nice, too, though not remarkable.

We expect, if not virtuosity in word play and compression, then at least some kind of insight that might not have occurred to us. Here, again, Mary Oliver finds some angles on things that, while not revelatory, are at least pleasantly reminiscent. There's a poem from the perspective of the patient donkey in the gospel that bears Jesus into Jerusalem, whose burden turns out to be -- as Jesus said in another context -- light. Several poems here focus on a dog named Percy, or maybe a series of dogs named Percy, whose cavorting on the beach provides me with vicarious pleasure and reminds me to try to accept the present as dogs do. My own pups teach me the same lesson.

Now, this particular collection of poems is, I understand, a departure for Ms. Oliver. She's had a reputation for politically stringent, environmentalist verse. But this book collects poems published in such periodicals as The Episcopal Times, Spiritus, and Nature and Spirituality. Following the death of a long-time partner, Mary Oliver went into an orthodox Christian church - whether RC or Episcopal, I'm not certain. Several poems here refer to newfound faith, prayer, and eternal life. Has faith made her "soft?"

One insight does emerge from the collection, which, along with those pleasant images and reminders, is enough for me to want to keep this collection nearby. It is that poetry and prayer and perhaps even the secret to a good (and eternal) life is simply what she describes in a poem called "Praying." You "pay attention" and "patch a few words together"...

                             . . .this isn't 
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

That feels right. Poetry, like prayer, doesn't have to be about virtuosity. I'm satisfied with any "doorway into thanks."

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Met Opera's First Emperor Banishes Critics

(response to the Metropolitan Opera's high-definition broadcast of THE FIRST EMPEROR, a new opera by Tan Dun and Ha Jin, and to a couple of reviews of it in the NY Times and Atlanta Journal Constitution.)

When I couldn't drop everything, fly to NYC, and buy a $400 ticket to see the Met Opera, I had to take the word of critics. Now, with high definition live broadcasts to a big screen movie theatre in Atlanta, I can see for myself how wrong the critics were. The creators of THE FIRST EMPEROR, from librettist and composer through to the designers and choreographers, right on down to the performers - even the chorus and orchestra - showed imagination, ingenuity, and evident pleasure in creating a dramatic spectacle that is a world apart from anything else I've seen.

As we hear some alien sounds from the orchestra, a visitor from Chinese opera appears in front of a vast curtain depicting the unfinished wall of China and Chinese characters. This visitor, "Yin Yang Master" with a mocking red face front and a demure masked face behind, sets the tone for the epic story: beware irony, he seems to say. He sets the action two thousand years ago.

The curtain opens on breathtaking spectacle and sound. Stairs occupy the whole stage from curtain back to its upper reaches. The chorus is arrayed in rows dressed as soldiers modeled on the famous clay modeled soldiers of that time. It's several minutes before we hear anything that sounds like our Western music. The Yin Yang Master screeches and laughs, the chorus slaps its thighs in rhythm, and even the orchestra is shouting, growling, and whooping on cue. In front, a line of serious looking men bang drums with stones, and knock or rub the stones together. A percussionist in costume knocks ceramic pots that make bell-like sounds.

When Placido Domingo enters, he demands "Silence!" and calls for a new kind of music to replace this ancient sound. (In a documentary feature at intermission, we learn that Tan Dun based this opening sequence on pictures and literary descriptions of the music of the time, though no one knows how the instruments were played.) Domingo as Emperor Xin (for whom "China" is named) sets up the metaphor that shapes the entire opera, the yin and yang of Music and Silence, Light and Shadow. He calls for his old friend, his cellmate from a time in his life when he was jailed, a composer whom he calls "Shadow."

When Shadow is captured by Xin's prospective son-in-law the general, the conflicts of the piece are clear at once. The general loves Xin's daughter, while the princess (petulant, energetic, and disabled by a childhood injury to her legs) is immediately interested in her father's "shadow," and the composer himself defies the emperor whose army leveled his village, enslaved his people, and killed his mother. Motivating the plot, Xin is determined to have a piece of music that will unify his vast empire. We sense, then, that some piece of music will somehow be the climax of this opera, and we've been warned that it won't be what the emperor ordered.

Along the way to the end, we have great moments.

There is the romance between Princess and Composer, which miraculously restores her ability to walk. He won't eat or speak or even open his eyes, in defiance of the emperor; she extracts a promise from her father that she can marry him if she can make him speak. This is a wonderful seduction scene, in which the action is amplified by lurking presences behind the actors: percussionists bowing hand-held bells, and dancers making suggestive moves glimpsed under the stairs.

There is a scene of a chorus of slaves building the Great Wall, singing of their only dream: to lie in a grave on a hill side near home. Tan Dun's music here is notable for simplicity and sparse accompaniment - mere glances of orchestral sound - and for extremely long diminuendos. As they sing in their drab slaves' costumes, the Composer wanders among them dressed finely in blue. He is now the Princess's lover and Emperor's employee.

During a thrilling orchestral interlude, we watch the ceremonial dressing of the Composer for the Emperor's inauguration, at which the long-awaited national anthem will be heard.

The final scene is a grand spectacle that begins with the conventional song of praise that the Emperor would expect. By the end, however, the Composer has had his most-appropriate revenge.

Alien as the setting and some of the music was, there were also many parallels to traditional operas. The doting Verdi father is here; the willful and erotic Princess Salome is here; the chorus of Hebrew slaves from Nabucco is referenced. And, of course, the Emperor is MacBeth. Having fought his way to the top of the world, he has lost everything that made the triumph worth having -- friendship, family, love, and respect. His triumph is a mockery of him, and a tragedy for his kingdom.

Critics said that the audience was bored, that the opera needed extensive cutting, that Domingo looked ridiculous, that the story line was unclear. Sorry, critics: we've seen it with our own eyes, and you're way off-base.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Anticipation and Dread: Robert Olen Butler's Fiction

reflection on HAD A GOOD TIME: Stories from American Postcards by Robert Olen Butler (Grover Press, 2004).

I'm always a little afraid when I start to read fiction by Robert Olen Butler. I know he's going to draw me into a corner of our world made strange in some wonderful way through a character's eyes. I know that he'll surprise me. I also know that, looking back on the story or novel, I'll see that the surprise was inevitable, usually implied from the start. I know well the feeling of delighted anticipation that often grows as we approach the climax. But I also know its opposite, a feeling of strong dread that makes me regret having started in the first place.

Most wonderfully, Butler's fiction often builds towards something dreadful that turns into a something joyful, surprising, and still inevitable. That worked on a grand scale in his novel MR. SPACEMAN, and repeatedly in short stories, which are his specialty.

What I've described sounds perhaps like a formula, along the lines of O'Henry, and Butler's work is anything but formulaic. More than any creative artist I know (besides Stephen Sondheim and Tom Stoppard), he keeps challenging himself to wring quality from unlikely sources. In this collection from 2004, HAD A GOOD TIME, each story is his extrapolation from actual postcards from the 1890s to 1920s. An earlier collection TABLOID DREAMS took off from headlines he found in the National Enquirer, and one of those stories, "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover" was the basis of his novel MR. SPACEMAN. The collection that I read first was A GOOD SCENT FROM A STRANGE MOUNTAIN, in which every story concerns Vietnamese immigrants living in the area of New Orleans.

I'm still working on my own interpretation of something he remarked in the radio interview that brought him to my attention back around 1990. The interviewer pointed out that Butler, a Vietnam War veteran, had been labeled as a "political writer." Butler agreed that his writing was political, but not in the way that people usually mean. Parties, policies, and beliefs, he said, are all superficial signs of any person's political core, which he says is much deeper, established very early in life.

If I were to try to put Butler's creed into words, it would be like my own effort to define Sondheim's creed. It would have something to do with deep empathy, understanding even repulsive people. Get beyond class, race, groups, careers, beliefs - and you reach the unique and valuable person. The Christ-like alien in MR. SPACEMAN prepares himself to reveal the truth of our universe by walking among us, trying to experience our daily grind, and by using a brain scanner to inhabit the stories of people he plucks up from Louisiana to his spaceship. I'm reminded of an emblematic line from Flannery O'Connor, "Even the meanest among them sparkled."

Another element of his creed would be that violence never achieves its perpetrators' real objective.

So it's with a mixture of anticipation and dread that I'm going to look for his latest collection, SEVERANCE, which grows from his most daunting, least promising, challenge to himself: Each story is what goes through the mind of an individual during the estimated ninety seconds of consciousness left when the head has been severed from the body.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Cartoon Puzzles: The Real Intelligent Design

(Reflections on THE NEW YORKER BOOK OF CARTOON PUZZLES AND GAMES by a team of writers who call themselves "Puzzability." Foreword by Will Shortz and Robert Mankoff. Also, a report on NPR's Morning Edition about the efficacy of crossword puzzles for staving off senility. Memories of another novelty book in French "Mots De Gousses, Rames" )

If you don't believe in God, this may change your mind:

From thousands of cartoons printed in THE NEW YORKER over the decades, eight appear on pp. 116-117 of CARTOON PUZZLES AND GAMES. One word is omitted from each caption. The letters of one missing word overlap letters of the next one, and so on: waver, averages, start, tartan...and so on. That's pretty cool But arrange them in order in a grid, coiling from the outer squares to the inside, and all the letters down the middle of the grid spell the caption of a ninth cartoon.

That's what I call "intelligent design." And survival of the fittest has nothing to do with it.

When I work this puzzle, I think exactly what Will Shortz says in his introduction. (He's the NY Times' affable puzzle editor, familiar to me from years of hearing him on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday). "I haven't just solved something, I've discovered something that's pretty. And I don't know how the people who put this together did it."

A gift from my friend Kitty Drew, this book makes me shake my head in disbelief, even while I'm laughing at cartoons and working through possible solutions to the different styles of puzzle. Shortz makes another apt observation: "When the incongruous parts of a cartoon come together, you want them to come together in a rush -- a snap. That's what produces a burst of laughter. It's the same thing with puzzles." Some of these cartoons are by Charles Addams, whose Addams Family cartoons are etched deep in my memory from around age 5.

That experience of "snap," when incongruous things suddenly fit, and when everything works vertically, horizontally, meaningfully, humorously - well, that's what you get in Bach, in Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and music, in a staging of Tom Stoppard's best plays (Arcadia, foremost). An earlier blog entry quotes Duke Ellington when he said that the "snap" (he called it "the fitting") was the same as happiness.

For me, this is evidence of God. Sure, logical positivists say that such puzzles should make me believe in the capacity of the human brain, not in a supernatural being. Fair enough. But, what on earth explains anyone's desire to put together such totally useless wonders as these?

I'm reminded of a small book I saw twenty-five years ago, apparently in French. I say apparently, because it's actually in English. Under the pretense of collecting folk lyrics from provinces in medieval France, with all the obscure imagery explained in copious footnotes, the author actually was giving the reader Mother Goose Rhymes (he called it "Mots de Gousses, Rames") with a thick French accent. For example, a poem ostensibly about a drought that reduced one apple harvest in the 14th century begins, "Pie terre, pie terre / Pommes qui n'y d'aire" ("pity earth, pity earth / apples that never reach the air"). When read aloud in French, it produces "Peter Peter Pumpkin eater." Got it? That guy didn't do it for money or popularity; few people could "get" the joke. Did it help him to propagate the species? Naw. Did he have too much time? What motivates someone to do something like that?

For me, writing music is satisfying in the same way. And, just as I don't go back to revisit crossword puzzles I've completed, I don't think often about the songs I've written -- only the next one.

In case anyone needs another reason, there's some evidence that exercising the brain in mid-life builds up a "cognitive reservoir" that ameliorates the inevitable effects of the brain's aging. Crossword puzzles, along with mentally stimulating work and continuing education (learning an instrument or a language) serve that purpose, according to a report on this morning's NPR.