Sunday, April 29, 2007

Time Out

(including reflections on the Metropolitan Opera's High-definition broadcast of Il Trittico, and an all-British concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra including works by Elgar, Turnage, MacMillan, Maxwell-Davies, and Britten)

Religion and great art have at least this in common: they lift us out of ordinary time.

This was brought home to me Saturday April 27. The day was overcrowded with events, and concerns for pending time-consuming projects weighed on my mind enough that I couldn't get back to sleep when my little dog Luis woke me up at 2:30 that morning.

First on the agenda was breakfast with John R., in town for our 30th high school reunion. He'd bought me dinner on my last night on the Duke U. campus back in 1981. (That next morning, I began a two-day journey to Jackson, Mississippi, where I would stay for 17 years). Now, 27 years later, would we recognize each other? No problem. Would there be talk of old times? Truly, none of that came up. Instead, we each made short work of the previous 27 years, compressing all into just two or three decisive high points and some current themes. (Briefly: his college students' lack of interest is as galling to him as 7th graders' is to me, and we both see this lack of curiosity as something different from what our crowd showed back in the 70s; big decisions seemed to just fall in place for us both; for both of us, the realization has come as a surprise that music is what's more important to us than anything; both bike.) I left feeling very happy, as if all those years are now validated and wrapped up for storage and I'm free to move on to the next chapter.

Then I met Frank Boggs, mentor and early cultivator of my interest in music, at a multiplex to see the last broadcast of the Met's first year of opera-at-the-movies. This one, Il Trittico, had interested me least, on the basis of some commentary in Puccini's biography and the synopses of the three independent one-act operas. Act Three, Gianni Schicchi, is a masterpiece of farce, and I'd seen it already. Acts One and Two are, respectively, a sordid melodrama about a jealous husband's revenge (Pagliacci without the interest of the play-within-a-play), and a tear-jerker set among pious nuns. How wrong I was. Music gave substance to the flimsy stories and sympathy to the stock characters, while Puccini and his librettist took pains to plant themes and plot elements early so that the twists seemed natural instead of manipulative. The acting of the singers was also natural. Director Jack O'Brien and his design staff created the Met's largest sets for elaborately realistic environments, down to the worn cobblestones in the convent.

But the moment that took me out of time, and out of my seat, occurred at the end of Act Three. Schicchi is a great farce, and like all farces, all the characters are caricatures, and even the show's big hit tune is sung by an airheaded young soprano. I thought all the big emotional moments of the triptych were finished, and this was a frothy dessert. But, as Schicchi, victorious, drives all the relatives out of the mansion that now belongs to him, the entire set -- enormously wide, deep, tall, and sober, befitting a wealthy man's deathbed -- sank into the floor. The audience gasped once as they saw the roof of the mansion lowering into view, the two young lovers seated there to sing their little coda to the comedy. As the balcony neared ground level, the audience gasped again, for there, behind it all, in realistic color and detail, was the gorgeous and familiar panoramic view of Florence at sunset. Did millions of dollars go into this effect, which lasted only for two or three minutes to the end of the opera? It was worth it. I've never cried for a scene change before - but this was magic.

The Symphony program included Maxwell-Davies' musical impression of a wedding on the Orkney Islands in Scotland, with amusing (and difficult) musical imitations of a wedding band drunk with alcohol and fatigue, topped with "sunrise" in the sound of the bagpipes. Turnage's piece was a collage of gestures, and constantly delightful and interesting, though I was glad it didn't last a single minute longer. My reason for buying this ticket was to hear my hero Britten's Sinfonia de Requiem, but it was beautiful and dramatic in all the ways that I've learned to expect from Britten - so, not so remarkable.

The program ended with Elgar's most famous Pomp and Circumstance march, played with much greater zest and color than I'm used to hearing for it -- taking us instantly back in rose-colored memory to Queen Victoria's last years.

By the end of the day, I wanted to do anything I could to prolong the time -- shop for groceries, get a Subway sandwich, listen to jazz on the radio, read a book.

Art and religion both tell us that there is time outside of time, and the quotidian concerns that worry us aren't all that important.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Shooter's Fantasies

(Response to commentary by essayist Diane Roberts, who teaches English at Florida State University on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, and on the shooting of dozens of students and teachers at Virginia Tech this past week.)

Beginning her commentary with a list of the disturbing graphic violence found in writings of respected authors, among them Williams Faulkner and Shakespeare, Diane Roberts comments on the fatuity of media "rent-a-shrinks" who believe that the Virginia Tech shooter's intentions were evident in his writing.

Her student writers often fill their stories with fantasies of revenge and fantasies of horrible deaths for characters who are their stand-ins. Feeling powerless and feeling oppressed is part of being young; so is feeling sorry for yourself. Dreaming of power, then, is a corrective, along with dreaming of revenge, and dreaming of the gratifying grief and regret at their own funerals.

There's another simple observation by the wise and witty Frederick Buechner in his masterpiece quartet of novels collected as THE BOOK OF BEBB. The narrator, a high school English teacher, comments on grading his juniors' stories with their "usual quota" of fatal car crashes and violence, as the students inject death in their stories to make up for the lack of anything resembling real life in them.

Cho's fantasies weren't different, and it's clear that he felt a lack of "real life" in his own life -- just like many others his age. But a healthy mind draws a line between fantasy and reality.

Speaking Well of the Dead: Kathay, R.I.P.

(reflections on the life of Kathay Walters, friend and neighbor, and on the sermon given at her memorial service in little Alamo, Georgia.)

A preacher at the Methodist church of Alamo, Georgia began his memorial sermon this way (as I rermember it):

I have to admit that I didn't know Kathay Walters. I only met her once, two months ago, at the funeral of her mother. All I know is what I've heard from you [her family]. And I don't know who started it . . .

He was referring to a family feud with allegations of malfeasance, allegations of mistreatment of aged parents, all tangled with property, wills, and harsh words. The minister guessed that he was the first ever to choose Philippians 4 at a funeral oration. It's the passage that I set to music for my brother's marriage, "One thing I know, forgetting what lies behind. . . straining for the prize of the upward call of Jesus." The preacher went on:

. . . I don't know who was right or wrong. But I know this: No one here is going to speak ill of the dead. . . . You, her family, her daughter, her sisters. . . you all remember times when she loved you and you loved her, and you all remember good times. Remember those, and remember that Jesus said no one is fit to be a judge but Jesus alone.

It was a remarkably candid and forceful statement in a situation where preachers usually resort to bromides about death and vague "memories" about a person they knew only in their Sunday best -- or in a hospital gown. The little brick church, whitewashed inside, was big enough to hold about one hundred - fifty people if they squeezed. There was a group at the back of one side, separated by a gulf of ten pews from a family group at the front. Pall bearers across the aisle were separated by another ten pews from where I sat with Nikhil (who moved three years ago into the home where I used to live across the street from her) with his wife Mallika and cousin Amar. At the point when he said to remember the times when she'd loved them, the separated groups began to cry.

With us was Kathay's dearest neighbor friend Dottie, who'd laughed with me on the phone just a week before as she was helping Kathay to plan out a lifetime of reforming her eating habits to accommodate diabetes. Dottie had taken Kathay to the hospital with acute symptoms on the Tuesday, and stayed with her through overnight surgery and violent, excruciating aftermath.

Since the preacher didn't know Kathay, I offer my perspective. There's a lot that I didn't want to know, and there's a lot that was so different from my experience that I just laughed.

I know that her candor was shocking. She was fearless. She wouldn't sit still when she perceived that she or someone else wasn't being treated fairly. When teens down our street attracted a clientele of thugs in loud cars, she called the police to report drug dealing and over-loud car radios. She sat on her front porch with a cell phone to call 911 and a gun in her lap. When the cleaners lost her clothes smoke-smudged in a house fire (that I slept through - notwithstanding the firetrucks and sirens across the street), she sent to insurance companies and small-claims court her long inventories of every gown, blouse, and article of underwear with estimated costs -- dictated to me at my computer. On other issues, she dictated letters to me addressed to the Governor, our Senators, our Insurance Commissioner, the owner of Home Depot (to expedite the opening of his aquarium), and her divorce lawyer, and Oprah.

When I moved into the Owens Meadow subdivision of Kennesaw, GA back in 1998, she introduced herself, demanded that we trade house keys "because neighbors should be able to take care of each other," and she put me to work clearing weeds out of the vacant zone between my house and the next, so that she wouldn't have to look at them. (She also didn't want any haven for snakes.) But she also mowed lawns up and down the street as a service to the neighborhood -- riding her tractor in her short shorts (Kathay was not a petite woman), red hair, hat, sunglasses, cigarette dangling from her mouth.

When I called her from the hospital the morning after a car crash, she took care of my house and my dogs Cleo and Bo, who adored her always. During my long convalescence, she provided me with meals, too.

Some years later, after I'd moved, and Cleo died suddenly, I drove to tell her. I couldn't even get the words out, "Cleo died." She comforted me, and led me straight across the street to demand that the next door neighbor give me his little dog -- who'd played often with Bo and Cleo, and who otherwise never got off the rope tied to the side of the garage -- saying, "You don't care for the dog, and he'll give him a good home." That's how I got Luis. By the way, I'd done the driving for her when her beloved old cat suddenly fell ill (poisoned, perhaps). She buried him in the backyard and swore she'd never leave that house, because he was back there.

She taught me how to make martinis, having been the cute blond waitress in a miniskirt at the Holiday Inn on Windy Hill Road. Back in 1970, she told me, that was about the only place in Cobb County where a man could get a good drink. Late nights in winter, she also liked it when I brought eggnog, which she'd make "dirty" by adding Grand Marnier or Bourbon -- in a proportion about 50-50. She also worked as the head of dining services in a large retirement center, and after planning meals for hundreds a day, she never did learn to cook for one guest. I always left her dinner table stuffed, and carrying tubs of leftovers besides.

When I'd come home frustrated by students, feeling beaten down, she'd sit me on the porch, put a huge snifter of plum wine in my hands, and share her opinions.

Her house was always dark, except for the big-screen TV. She kept it super - cool in the summer, insulated with screens and blankets and curtains on the windows.

I never did write down the words that she would say without having seen them -- "honeysuckers" were weeds on my fence, and the neighbors had a hot tub "ka-huzzi." But I felt it would be a kind of betrayal to write down the words for someone else's amusement, and they're all gone, now. Still, there's one story along those lines that I love: She had little ceramic birdhouses, and little carved ones, too, arrayed on the tops of the kitchen cabinets. She proudly pointed to new wallpaper trim she'd pasted along the ceiling -- "birdhouses," she said. But I looked more closely and saw that those "birdhouses" had moons carved on them, and human ankles visible within -- she'd plastered the kitchen with outhouses. She was embarrassed, but she left them up.

Our friend Nikhil did a bold and fitting thing, writing an appreciation of her in rhyme that took up a full page of the funeral home's sign-in book, an improvised verse that mentioned her big heart and sharp tongue, how she was never shy about speaking what was on her mind.

I'd long been in the habit of taking her out to some of our favorite places, and taking her to some events, besides. We saw The Color Purple and The Lion King, and the new aquarium. We ate often at Buffalo's and Copeland's, and recently, the OK Cafe. She'd dress to the nines in glittery tops and tight black pants, with jewelry and eye shadow. But I waited 'til March 23, a beautiful afternoon, to suggest that we go down to Buckhead to the pricey and trendy Atlanta Seafood Company, with its three-storey copper fish in front. She loved it - had lobster, "white ziffandel," and some of my dessert. It was the last time I saw her.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Heavy Issues, Light Textures

(Response to ALL THE KING'S MEN, a play by Robert Penn Warren, directed by August Staub at Theatre in the Square, Marietta, GA; and EDALAT SQUARE, an opera in one act by R. Timothy Brady, directed by the composer/librettist at Emory University.)

Friday night, and then again on Sunday afternoon, I've enjoyed two works of theatre that turn on the same question: What's right when what's good diverges from what's legal? Rather than being weighed down by the question, both works use techniques to keep the storytelling light and supple.

When I read ALL THE KING'S MEN as a teenager, I never pictured Stark as actor David Milford portrays him - crinkly faced cherub, ingratiating and boyish, suddenly bullying and sarcastic. Fighting for his own political primacy so that he can continue to "do good," Stark casts about for any way he can use to undermine his opponents, settling on the method of exposing the bad choices they made.

Penn Warren's script works best as central "reporter" and amateur historian "Jack Burden" tries to explain Stark to us. The play moves fluidly back through time, juxtaposing opposites (Stark the master politician, Stark the sap in his first campaign, Lucy Stark the religious crusader, Sadie Burk her husband's cynical mistress). It bogs down between suites of scenes, when Burden debates a "Professor" who pedantically iterates that a hospital is a good thing, no matter why or how it was built. The play made me want to read more Penn Warren, and to re-read the novel. At forty-seven, I'm better able to appreciate the ambiguities and ambivalence in the world that he depicts.

Now, young though he is, composer/librettist R. Timothy Brady has created a short opera that admirably avoids the easy answer. EDALAT SQUARE was the site in Iran where two teenaged boys were executed for sodomy in 2005. The libretto is a sequence of poetic monologues, stylized and abstracted from the literal situation. Only once, near the end, the two young men sing to each other, in lines that seem to refer to seeing God. But the focus is not really on them. The older brother "Hassan" is our lens for the story. His first line, spoken on tape while we see him kneel on his prayer rug, is, "I have dreamed of a revolution, a changing of the world in the world that God had originally intended." For the sake of that dream, and strict law, and the honor of his family, Hassan reports his brother and friend to the authorities. It's clear that for him, for his mother, as for the young men, no good comes from his legal and moral decision.

Brady's dramatic structure is light, and his musical texture is remarkably airy. We hear a tape of the traditional call to prayer, while we see an abstract Persian design and watch Hassan's preparations for prayer. That sung prayer accustoms us to long, unaccompanied vocal lines that do their arabesques before returning to the original tone. A string quartet plays in similar lines. Often, the accompaniment plays between vocal lines, not under them. Once in awhile, the quartet makes percussive sounds with plucking and knocking. Hassan never sings, and rarely makes a live vocal sound, while we hear the pre-recorded voice over of his internal monologues. He does, however, perform a ritual hand-washing, and a microphone at the water bowl amplifies that sound to become part of the texture of the music. The mother sings with an "R+B soul" vocal quality; the two lovers sing with legitimate operatic voices. The final lines, sung by some kind of judge, were the most striking of all in vocal quality -- performed, I think, by a singer trained in Persian classical music -- and in their pronouncement from Sufi poetry, aimed at Hassan, in agony after the hanging: "Is there any Remover of difficulties save God? Say: Praised be God! He is God! All are his servants, and all abide by his bidding!"

I admire the composer's restraint, and the variety of ways that he colors those long lines.

Life After Deaths, continued

This week, I received an invitation to a reception honoring recipients of the Christian A. Allenburger, IV Faculty Award. It's in the library of St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi, where I taught from 1981-1998. Chris, an 8th grader who fell ill in December 1985 and died September 14, 1986, had an impact on my life that extends far beyond the fact that my first experience of a funeral was being pall bearer at his.

So, during this Easter season when four of my friends have passed away, it's fitting that I should be reminded of Chris. I'm sending this message with my regrets to the host of this week's reception:

I always feel grateful remembering Chris, Alex, and Susan. I was supposed to be Chris's teacher, but he taught me, as the threat to his life made him grow up in a hurry. He deflected attention from his own discomfort to put visitors at ease, and he listened intently to learn about life outside his hospital room. The last time I saw him, he encouraged me to follow my love of music whatever the cost -- and I started that year to study composition.

One day stands out for me when I remember that time. We had the day off from St. Andrew's, so I could visit Chris in the morning. He told me proudly that he no longer had any cancer cells in him. He was feeling so well that he invited me to stay for lunch, then to stay for a visit with his friend Payton, then to explore the hospital with both of them - wheeling Chris through a maze of hallways, and out to the helicopter pad. Alex and Susan invited me to stay for dinner, and it was special by any measure. They served all the staff on the floor with take-out from Ruth's Chris Steak House, somehow all the more delicious for being served in styrofoam boxes. During that dinner, Alex took me aside and gently explained the truth to me, that the poison killing the cancer cells was also killing Chris, and withdrawing the poison would permit the cancer to grow again. Chris's best hope for survival was his hope itself.

That dinner on the ward was a spontaneous sacrament. It was the outward sign of parents' love that nourished Chris's spiritual growth even while his body fought the disease, and a celebration of the community on that ward, and a sign of hope that a boy's life can continue to touch us beyond his death.

Because I cannot attend the reception, please relay my continued thanks and affection to the Allenburger family and the St. Andrew's community.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Life After Deaths

(reflections occasioned by the April 9, 2007 issue of Newsweek, which contains several articles about cancer, and several more about belief and disbelief in God. Also, reflections on recent deaths among my friends, and readings in the daily devotional Forward Day by Day)

Years ago, the morning after the suicide of a teenaged girl in our church choir, our rector Karen Evans put aside her Sunday morning sermon to discuss the event. I barely knew the girl apart from her crystal-clear and pitch-perfect voice (and her name was Crystal), but my eyes sting whenever I recall that moment. Karen said, "I'm feeling many things, and first, I'm feeling Crystal, for taking away herself, and the years we would have had with her. " In an interview, Elizabeth Edwards has another way to say the same thing about the cancer that has re-emerged after she thought she'd beaten it: "The cancer will eventually . . . win this fight. I come from a family of women who live into their 90s, so it's taken something real from me."

This morning after the Church's somber remembrance of Christ's crucifixion and burial, I'm getting ready for the funeral of my ex-neighbor and friend Kathay Walters. Just a week ago, she and her neighbor Dottie laughed with me about Kathay's brand new diagnosis of diabetes, and how she "wasn't gonna take no shots!" I'm not worried about her, though I hate to think of what Dottie told me about Kathay's final hours -- an emergency surgery followed by violent reaction and rapid shutting down of organs.

The tears that follow death are for ourselves. We cry because we've lost a loved one. We've lost the future that we had expected to share with them. We may cry for regrets about something we should have said or done. We also cry literally for ourselves -- the selves that were reflected in the eyes of an intimate, their memories of us. I learned this in a single moment, when I was leaving the home of my grandmother Thelma Maier for the last time, where she had made me feel like a little prince: that part of me was gone.

These last four weeks, I've thought a lot about death and the life that may follow it. This is Lent: 'tis the season to be pensive. Besides, Kathay's will be the fourth funeral I've attended in this time, nearly doubling the number I've attended in my whole life. Sharing tea with my friend Nikki and his wife Mallika in the home where I used to live, across the street from Kathay, we all expressed shock. How rapidly it happened . . . how the wheelbarrow loaded with weeds sits in the unfinished flower bed . . . how just two weeks ago, she dressed up and went with me to the fish restaurant where I'd been planning to take her for years . . . how Nikki and Mallika had taken food over to the house when she was feeling ill (as she had taken care of me when I was in a wheelchair recuperating from a car crash in 2000), but she had not answered the door -- and they'd never seen her again. Nikki, who has welcomed me to Hindu poojahs in his home, surprised me by imagining Kathay in heaven looking down on us, now free of the disabilities and financial worries and family battles that frustrated her, and laughing ( or maybe furiously complaining to the Authorities ) about the irony of how her house (her pride and joy) was immediately occupied by family members who had recently fought her in court over the care and death of her mother Montez Box.

I'm the Episcopalian. Do I believe in life after death? Elizabeth Edwards, in that Newsweek interview, talks of how she had to re-adjust her fundamentalist beliefs long before her cancer, back when her 16-year-old son Wade was killed when wind swept his car off the highway: "The hand of God blew him from the road." She now believes that God promises enlightenment and salvation, not protection. I suppose she means "enlightenment" as something that guides our thoughts and deeds in life, and "salvation" as a reward after.

I believe in God who is that force inside us, urging us in certain directions; a force inside the universe urging it creatively into its shape. I would not call a freak gust "the hand of God" and, when I have a narrow escape, I thank God for life itself -- and to give me guidance and energy for what I have left to do -- but I don't thank Him for the escape. Imagine: "Dear Lord, thank you for crashing that car into my side at just the right angle to crack my bones just enough to lame me for six weeks, but not to damage any internal organs or crush my spinal cord.") . Besides, if I thank God for my narrow escape from death in that car crash, it follows that I must I blame God for killing Kathay, or for killing my friend Leslie Walker from cancer three weeks ago, or for not saving the young man Michael Harper when his parents and friends and our whole faculty were praying for healing.

I believe in the way people live on in the lives of the people they've touched. I believe in touching those lives. I believe that's what Christ was about. I believe that the parts of scripture that tell of eternal paradise or eternal damnation are brought down to earth by other parts that make clear that death is final.

I'm about to leave for Kathay's funeral; tomorrow, I'm going to celebrate Christ's resurrection.

Do I believe in Christ's resurrection? What about Paul's letters, as when he says, if there is no resurrection after death, then we Christians are the most abject of all mankind?

Here's my bottom line: We celebrate something that can happen in our lives today. I pray to and for people who have died, as if they can hear me, or, alternatively, as if I'm dealing with parts of me that they represent. So, I'm just doing the best I can; I leave life after death to God.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sampling Poetry, March 2007: Bards and Shards

(About the March 2007 issue of the journal POETRY, "founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe")

I started writing this blog partly to keep samples of writing and ideas that I like. I've found a few in last month's issue of POETRY. These are samples, and, maybe by coincidence, they all seem to make samplings or fragments either their subject or their technique.

First, there are selections of some nine hundred fragments of verse by Sophocles. Found in quotations in other sources, these bits and pieces are grouped for us in fortune-cookie styled strips under categories that the translator-arranger Reginald Gibbons claims are "among the dominant themes of a poetic mind." For example, under the heading, "The Fullness of the World," Gibbons makes sub-groups under Roman numerals. Under "I" are several images that suggest creatures' guarding or hording: "A scorpion stands / Watch among the rocks" and "Everything is covered by spider webs." Other sub-groupings suggest varieties in wildlife, sensual pleasures in peoples' perfumes and garments, and tastes of foods.

There's more in common among the subgroups gathered under the heading, "The Sea." all supporting the thesis sentence: "Seafarers I assign / To the ranks of those most / Beaten down." There's a section about a certain fisherman who "invented" some "clever" pastimes as "board games and dice" to provide "Sweet relief from idleness." Sophocles imagines the great happiness of being a sailor on land, "Under the eaves to sleep / And hear the steady small /Rain in your thoughts." I especially like a thought that Gibbons encloses parenthetically among these "sea" related ones: "Yet, to a mother, children / Are the anchors of her life."

Another poet, Richard Kenney, reminds me of Lawrence Raab in building poems on notions taken from fantasies and science fiction that have been ubiquitous in American pop culture since the Fifties. The persona in "Science and Technology" seems to discount, and then, to confirm, the possibility that "unknown bodiless entities" use our brains for entertainments that we experience as dreams. Even more fun is a poem that takes off from the fact reported in the mid-90s that most household dust has settled to earth from outer space. He gives voice to the tiny space aliens who view us (from behind our furniture, and from our fingertips) as "long water bags minerally stiffened" who sometimes try to merge, failing because of "surface tension."

The sounds and the sense, and even the look of Kay Ryan's "Train-Track Figure" are all one. It's a fun little riff on the way we glimpse something on the other side of a passing train, "sliver over sliver of between-car vision." The lines are brief themselves, making a sliver of text on the page. There are some end rhymes, but even more consistent repetitions of vowel sounds in groups of four: "between - car / vision, each / slice too brief / to add detail / or deepen...." The repeated sound goes by in the same rhythm as the repeated sliver of image goes by. Does it mean anything? It's just a "slice of life," and it suggests only everything that we perceive in bits.

Finally, I'll mention another poem that did nothing for me, an example of a kind of poem that I read too often in POETRY. It's got the same internal rhyming, and even end rhymes, and the same short lines as Ryan's poem. But the fragmentary images seem to me to be merely random ones, associated in some way that remains private to the poet, and I lose patience with it. "The seeker leaves / for Bangladesh, / the prophets check / for signs of theft, / the singers sing / for what is left." Okay, Marxists would say that all profit is theft. Is there a pun in there? Maybe, but there's nothing real here to make me care to make sense of it. (I'll omit the poet's name. If you don't have something nice to say. . . .)

T. S. Eliot, whom POETRY helped to promote, also worked with fragments, and made fragmentariness his subject. But, as a lecturer at Oxford pointed out when I was there to study Eliot, he had a great sense of the dramatic, his fragments often conjuring characters whole by means of a bit of stage business, costuming, or dialogue, as he conjures those pretentious ladies who "come and go / Speaking of Michaelangelo."