Wednesday, March 8, 2023

We would break the jar of the night

A few weeks ago, I read an anthology of modern Sudanese poetry. A lot of the poetry was about Sudanese history, ancient and more modern, and did not mean as much to me as I wish it had. Alas, my ignorance. Even so, there was a lot of pure poetry in the poems, and so I offer up what were, to me, some of the most striking images. If I have time, I'll go back and list the individual poets, which would be only right and proper.
He died there, 
on a heap of debris. 
From our parents' mouths we were fed flaming songs
full of perseverance and promise,
that one day we will come back to you, Saai,
to rebuild our shacks and alleys
O incomer, 
We have nothing to offer;
We are in the background of the picture: a light or a color;
An ebony frame embroidered with carvings and decorations.

Wait for me;
for I am traveling at night too,
alone, setting off on a long journey.
In the remote passageways wait for me.
In the desert highlands and by the sea
wait for me.
In the flapping of wings
and the routes of the migrating birds,
when the orbits collapse
and the sky grows gloomy and dark,
wait for me.
An ark, pregnant with all our weaknesses
and longing for our old new land.
how the angel and the Virgin embraced,
under the ceilings of fire
and the street's din and dust--
and then they parted:
to his heaven, and to her subdued body
We would break the jar of the night,
sprinkle the fragments on the shore, 
and disturb the serenity
of the Nile,
the pebble,
and the sand.
Under a hat the hollow color of a Tuesday
Every day I get more convinced
that I am a matchstick.
I have consumed all stocks of patience and tolerance,
I have spared nothing for the days to come, 
because I thought you were my last destination.

O thunderstorm: come die inside me.

I must pass through the town dogs,
the morning music,
and gunfire,
to inscribe this poem on the trunk of the mango tree.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Wildwood in the post


I'm always happy to have a new Marly Youmans book in the collection. But where is my copy of The Book of the Red King, and where is The Foliate Head? Anyway, I will write something about Seren, hopefully this weekend.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Reading, February 2023

The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell: 1942, England is still at war and the middle class is still rising. The new money and the old money tacitly agree that the working class are lazy, stupid, and unfit to rule themselves. But as this is a Thirkell novel, somehow love is in the air no matter your station.

Citizens to Lords by Ellen Meiksins Wood: Historian Wood puts social/political works (spanning the roughly two millennia from ancient Greece to William of Ockham) back into their historical social settings to illustrate that they were written not as abstract pieces for the ages, but to address specific problems of their day, the authors speaking from specific social/economic positions within their societies. Wood illustrates how political philosophy is usually written by the dominant classes, has a very narrow focus, and specific political aims.

Landscapes by John Berger: Writing and wronging about art, right here.

Our Mother the Mountain by Robert Ale: Not that Robert Ale, no. A new one, writing about logging and mixed martial arts.

Modern Sudanese Poetry: I hope to write about images from these poems. Soon, hopefully.

Diaboliad and Other Stories by Mikhail Bulgakov: A collection of comic stories from across Bulgakov's career, most of them not very good. The one exception is "The Fatal Eggs," a science fiction satire of Soviet bureaucracy. Even that is not anywhere as good as The Master and Margarita, White Guard, or A Country Doctor's Notebook, all of which are highly recommended.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga: An elegy for Mukasonga's mother, who was murdered in one of the many waves of Rwandan genocide. Peaceful, moving, and terrifying, somewhat like a non-Modernist Toni Morrison novel.

Post Office by Charles Bukowski: "I don't know how it happens to people. I had child support, need for something to drink, rent, shoes, socks, all that stuff. Like everyone else I needed an old car, something to eat, all the little intangibles. Like women. Or a day at the track. With everything on the line and no way out, you don't even think about it." My friend, the late Kent Roper, had been a big Bukowski fan, and had a Bukowski quote for every occasion. This is the first Bukowski I've read. It is a depressing, sexist, racist, comic novel about laboring for survival, the laboring and the denial of being a laborer conspiring to devour your life, years at a time. "In the morning it was morning and I was still alive."

Monday, February 20, 2023

Redrawing the maps with John Berger

John Berger's Landscapes is a collection of his essays from 1954 to 2015, ranging in subject from basic definitions of art to Marxist readings of the news of the day. Berger, a Marxist writer/critic/artist, always saw art as part of the social fabric of the world, and always saw the social fabric of the world in political/historical terms, a struggle over the the means of survival. It is little wonder that Landscapes is published by my lefter-than-you friends at Verso.

The artist chooses his material--stone, glass, pigment, or a mixture of several. He then chooses a way of working it--smoothly, roughly, in order to preserve its own character, in order to destroy or transcend it. These choices are to a large measure historically conditioned. By working his material so that it represents ideas or an object, or both, the artist transforms raw material into 'artistic' material. What is represented is materialized in the worked, raw material; whereas the worked raw material acquires an immaterial character through its representations and the unnatural unity which connects and binds these representations together. 'Artistic' material, so defined, a substance half physical and half spiritual, is an ingredient of the material of figuration.

A further ingredient derives from the means of representation. These are color, line and light-and-shade. Perceived in nature, these qualities are merely the stuff of sensation--undifferentiated from one another and arbitrarily mixed. The artist, in order to replace contingency by necessity, first separates the qualities and then combines them around a central idea or feeling which determines all their relations.


When a painter is working he is aware of the means which are available to him--these include his materials, the style he inherits, the conventions he must obey, his prescribed or freely chosen subject matter--as constituting both an opportunity and a restraint. By working and using the opportunity he becomes conscious of some of its limits. These limits challenge him, at either an artisanal, a magical or an imaginative level. He pushes against one or several of them. According to his character and historical situation, the result of his pushing varies from a barely discernible variation of a convention--changing no more than the individual voice of a singer changes a melody--to a fully original discovery, a breakthrough. Every painter from paleolithic times onwards has experienced this will to push.

In many ways, these passages are a lot like Ruskin's preliminary statements about art in Modern Painters, but I do not think that I've ever seen so clearly expressed the idea that art is unnatural, that an artist creates something artificial, and is not presenting nature, no matter the subject matter of the work of art. I am also struck by how well Berger's comments about the visual arts map to the art of writing fiction. No doubt this is due to Berger's interest in storytelling.

Contrary to what is usually said, peasants are interested in the world beyond the village. Yet it is rare for a peasant to remain a peasant and be able to move. He has no choice of locality. His place was given at the very moment of his conception And so if he considers his village the center of the world, it is not so much a question of parochialism as a phenomenological truth. His world has a center (mine does not). He believes that what happens in the village is typical of human experience. This belief is only naive if one interprets it in technological or organizational terms. He interprets it in terms of the species man. What fascinates him is the typology of human characters in all their variations, and the common destiny of birth and death, shared by all. Thus the foreground of the village's living portrait of itself is extremely specific, whilst the background consists of the most open, general, and never entirely answerable questions.

While I was typing up this passage, I thought about Chekhov, and how Berger's conception of a peasant could well apply to Chekhov's way of representing life. Chekhov considered himself a peasant, even when he was famous and well-off financially, living in an estate with servants and dogs.

For a long time it was thought that art was the imitation and celebration of nature. The confusion arose because the concept of nature itself was a projection of the desired. Now that we have cleansed our view of nature, we see that art is an expression of our sense of the inadequacy of the given--which we are not obligated to accept with gratitude. Art mediates between our good fortune and our disappointment. Sometimes it mounts to a pitch of horror. Sometimes it gives permanent value and meaning to the ephemeral. Sometimes it describes the desired. Thus art, however free or anarchic its mode of expression, is always a plea for greater control and and example, within the artificial limits of a 'medium,' of the advantages of such control. Theories about the artist's inspiration are all projections back on to the artist of the effect which his work has upon us.

I'm with Berger when he says, as here, that the Romantic movement (Goethe, Schiller, and that lot) projected themselves across the face of nature, and claimed that nature only mattered when it struck awe into the heart of a Schiller or a Goethe. This is all pride, empty and destructive, the same poison filling the veins of our Mister Emerson. But Berger falls into a similar error himself when he claims that art is always an expression of how we would make the world into a different place if we could, that art is still (as claimed by the Romantics) a weapon against life, a means of control. To control one's materials and technique is not the same as having a vision of controlling the world. I like an essayist against whom I can have an argument. I like Berger, but he sometimes forgets about the joy of creation, of pure aesthetics, of puzzle-making and puzzle-solving. He forgets that art is a process, not a product. He admits elsewhere that he too often views the world in materialistic terms, but his wish to sometimes make art serve utilitarian ends can annoy me. Sometimes he seems to be making an aesthetic argument, swinging back into Ruskin territory:

The largest part of the international exhibition of the Venice Biennale is organized by an Italian committee. This year (1958) this committee has been much criticized for its very obvious bias towards abstract art, and has been accused of provincialism. Lionello Venturi, the art historian and grand old man of Italian criticism, has leapt to its defense by stating that the bests artists of the last sixty years have been abstract, and that anyway the pavilions organized by other countries show the same bias--the implication being that they can't all be wrong. But the truth is that they can be and are. The satirists are justified in calling this Biennale The Banale.

Ha ha, good one, John. But he goes on to say:

It is not--and never has been--a question of all abstract art being fundamentally opposed to figurative art. No student of twentieth century European culture can reasonably deny that certain abstract artists have contributed to the development of painting, sculpture and architecture. The division now is between those artists who have a sense of responsibility and those who have not; or, to put it another way, between those artists whose view of life can sustain a minimum faith in the value of human exchange, and those whom alienation has made pathological. Abstract art has long since ceased to be an affair of pure 'aesthetics.' 

I'm not sure, even now in 2023, that the abstract-versus-figurative conflict is no longer about aesthetics for many artists. I'm willing to believe that curators and museum boards and auction houses conflate style and subject with social postures. We see this all the time. But I am not convinced that a painter is drawn to a certain method because of the sorts of socioeconomic forces Berger claims. Perhaps he is right, because I tend to view all art as having been produced more or less simultaneously, and I'm unable to situate either individual artists or art movements within their historical/social frames, which inability has the result--largely invisible to me--of draining a good deal of the life force from the art I'm viewing. Knowing nothing of when and where and by whom a work was produced, I can do nothing but enjoy (or not) the surface of the work, and maybe compare it to the surfaces of other works I've seen. Any meaning I claim for the work is likely to be an expression of my own limits and prejudices. These limits and prejudices, and the overcoming of them, are one reason I read Berger.

Speaking of curators, I will leave you with an amusing bit of snark, from Berger's 1968 essay "The Historical Function of the Museum."

The art museum curators of the world (with perhaps three or four exceptions) are simply not with us. Inside their museums they live in little chateaux or, if their interests are contemporary, in Guggenheim fortresses. We, the public, have our hours of admission and are accepted as a diurnal necessity: but no curator dreams of considering that his work actually begins with us.

Curators worry about heating, the colors of their walls, hanging arrangements, the provenances of their works, and visitors of honor. Those concerned with contemporary art worry about whether they are striking the right balance between discretion and valor.

Individuals vary, but as a professional group their character is patronizing, snobbish and lazy. These qualities are, I believe, the result of a continuous fantasy in which to a greater or lesser degree they all indulge. The fantasy weaves round the notion that they have been asked to accept as a grave civic responsibility the prestige accruing from the ownership of the works under their roof.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

The village's wise man is hanged

a dead man carrying his own corpse

A startling image from Mohammed el-Fayturi's poem "Yaaqut al-Arsh." al-Arsh was a Sufi philosopher who died in 1287 in Alexandria, at the age of eighty. Our poet el-Fayturi, who spent much of his youth in Alexandria, died in 2015 at the age of eighty-five. The poem is from Modern Sudanese Poetry, a nice anthology. It will be hard not to steal the image of a dead man carrying his own corpse to his place of dying. A week from now, I will have forgotten all of the poem except this image, and will be convinced that it's my own invention.

Tangentially, the "artificial intelligence" program ChatGPT came up in a work conversation recently, when a colleague said that he'd asked the program to write three sample personal statements suitable for university applications. All three personal statements were similar to each other, and also similar to actual personal statements written by human university applicants. My colleague predicted that AI programs would be writing almost all of these application essays in the near future, and he hopes that this will end the practice of personal statements in admissions packages. I find all of this amusing.

I also found it interesting enough that I went to the ChatGPT website, created an account, and asked the program to write a poem about a dead man carrying his own corpse. I asked for three poems. All of them were awful. Really, truly bad poems. I know that a lot of people are being wowed by AI-produced graphics (which rightfully worries a lot of graphic designers and illustrators), but I think that poets are safe, for now anyway. I also asked the program to write a couple of short stories, which were equally bad for a variety of reasons, and I come away from the experience with some disappointment. Not that I want computer programs to be able to do creative writing, but I think I'd been led to believe that they already could do it, when in fact they cannot. Which is a good thing, despite my adolescent excitement about science-fictional futures. When a computer can actually surprise itself, we'll be in some trouble, lads.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Reading, January 2023

In Einem Andern Land by Ernest Hemingway: Ein alter Favorit, dieses Mal auf Deutsch gelesen, als ich ein Kopie in dieser Sprache fand. Ich habe vergessen, wo ich es gefunden habe. Das ist aber nicht wichtig.

Narrative Innovation and Incoherence by Michael Boardman: Mostly comprehensible, although I have not yet read all of the works Boardman discusses. The claim is that when some writers discover they cannot express their worldview within forms they've previously used to shape fictions, they invent new forms that, because not under full control of the writer, contain areas of incoherence that reveal themes and ideas not necessarily visible to the writer. Innovation as Freudian slip. The anxiety of anxiety.

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard: A beautiful final page, but a job of work getting there. Less interesting and effective overall than other Bernhard novels I've read, and oddly repetitive in a way that didn't work. An odd cross between Grass, Nabokov, and Beckett, with dashes of Stein. Perhaps the central argument of the book was too thin to support all the ornamentation.
Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-Nan: Some readers, I think, are most excited by strange premises and unlikely events. I am, alas, not so much one of those readers. The observations about gender bias and materialism are very good. I got tired of protagonists being called "the man." Some of the narrative gambits were highly effective, though not necessarily for the full length of the story.

Baroque Music: A Practical Guide for the Performer by Victor Rangel-Ribeiro: Answers such vital questions as, "In the music of J. S. Bach, do dotted figures played against triplets in duple time have the ratio of 3:1 or 2:1?" Chatty, opinionated, and informative, covering a wide range of works and instruments. (The answer is 3:1, by the way, or even 3.5:.5 if you double-dot the figures to give a nice rhythmic snap.)

A Change of Time by Ida Jessen: From those plucky folks at Archipelago. A middle-aged woman is set adrift when her husband (a doctor in rural Denmark) dies of cancer. He had not warned Lilly (his wife) that he was ill, and without her knowledge had already made arrangements for his funeral, the disposition of his property, and his replacement to the post. Grim and unsentimental until it comes in for a gentle landing. A contemporary novel, but quite Isak Dinesen in style and tone.

Foster by Claire Keegan: A short story set in County Wexford in 1985. Now apparently part of the curriculum of Irish schools. Somehow the young narrator reminds me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Richly detailed, very fine writing ("The presence of a black and white cat moves on the window ledge."), but it all feels like the first act of something abandoned before the story really gets moving. Which is how I feel about most of Raymond Carver's work, so what do I know. Carver is famous and influential and I am not.

Also, today is the 163rd birthday of Saint Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, the greatest short-story writer in history, and the father of modern theater. Drink a glass of vodka, perform a selfless act, and then go read something, why don't you? 

"Tell my friends that they are living badly, and must stop it."