I would you were as I would have you be

Clare Henkel's costume design

Perhaps my disappointment this morning was inevitable. Virginia Woolf observed, after seeing an Old Vic production of Twelfth Night: “The fault may lie partly with Shakespeare. It is easier to act his comedy than his poetry, one may suppose, for when he wrote as a poet he was apt to write too quick for the human tongue. The prodigality of his metaphors can be flashed over by the eye, but the speaking voice falters in the middle. Hence the comedy was too out of proportion to the rest.”

This was certainly the case when E. and I took in Twelfth Night at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival last night. It was played in the giant courtyard called the Marry Rippon outdoor theater. Half the lights were out (there was a plaintive announcement about this early on — they’ve got the money to fix the lights, but they’ll need to be sent away — that just made us root for the actors all the more). Like a number of directors do, Director Philip Sneed chose to open with the shipwreck rather than “If music be the food of love,” and it was instantly clear, from, “What country, friend, is this?” that this was going to be a production that tried as exhaustively as possible to make the text and the action understandable to the audience: words enunciated precisely, words changed when they weren’t clear (’sardines’ for ‘pilchards’, ‘learn’ for ‘con’) and long sentences trimmed. There was miming and big gesturing, every opportunity for physical comedy dealt out to the last card (should we mishear Fabian’s slow, shouted “you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard” the actress helpfully drew her hand down sir Toby’s face and came to a point, whereupon he shivered). This can be a good thing, and there was a side of Shakespeare who would have spat his wine laughing at the good fun of it, but for all the dramaturg’s talk of “Appolonian-Dionysian dichotomies” in the program note, it was a strikingly one-sided production. Dionysus ran unopposed.

Let me stress that a production of Twelfth Night without buffoonery and silliness is really no production at all, but the play is not a farce. While it’s clearly not Titus it’s not Comedy of Errors either. Shakespeare took great pains break the comedy’s fall with some real pathos. Sebastian and Viola have lost one another and presume the other dead. If you dispatch with this grief quickly (and most directors do) then you at least need to address the darker side of Malvolio’s humiliation. In every production I’ve seen up until now, the imprisoning of Malvolio in the dark house and his subsequent promise of revenge has been played as a sobering tonic — the audience’s sympathies are headed that way anyway and so a shrewd production will lean that way with them. See also Shylock’s misfortune, Caliban’s poetical descriptions of the island, etc. Shakespeare is notorious for humanizing his comedy villains. That’s what keeps the audience on its toes, keeps the moral texture of the play complex, stops it from degenerating into bear-baiting. We may hate them or laugh at them but they are multidimensional nonetheless, possessed of organs, senses, dimensions, affections, passions. They bleed. And this turns the finger back at us, and it’s one of the many reasons we feel ourselves drawn to the plays time and again: we keep learning things about ourselves, how easily and foolishly we can react, the wages of laughter. “Pleasure will be paid,” as Feste puts it. But Malvolio at the Colorado Shakespeare festival remained a laughing stock from the moment he entered to the moment he romped away. Some of this fault can be laid on an oversensitive audience, or on Tim McCracken’s performance, which played the comedy of the garters and stockings so flouncingly we weren’t later able to see him as real, no matter what paints he put into it. But it’s also the fault of Jake Walker’s Feste, who hams before the gate of the dark house, leaping back and forth in front of it and spinning on his heel so that the audience can barely see past him to get any sense of the torment inside. I might have widened window in Malvolio’s prison, shown some squalor.

Unlike some of the other comedies, Twelfth Night doesn’t begin in a sane world and descend into chaos. Illyria is a carnival place from the start (hence the title: a Twelfth Night is a feast of fools, an up-is-down festival of madness celebrated on January 6th, twelve drummers drumming, etc.). But pure foolishness has nothing to tell us, and so Shakespeare has carefully seeded reminders of a different kind of life throughout the story. See the songs: from “What is love?”: “‘Tis not hereafter: … youth’s a stuff will not endure.” or take the song “Come away, come away death,” which Orsino uses to indulge his self-pity. Most Orsinos are right to play it for laughs (as Geoffrey Kent in his excellent performance does here), but it is a dark song. Antonio’s capture is fraught, or should be for Antonio, as indeed is much of the revelry that so delights us from Toby and Sir Andrew (no bullet can pierce the heart like Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once,” in the right place, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf).

The character of Feste especially is a trickster of some darkness. He empties everyone’s purse, arrives and goes in his own time, and like a lot of Shakespeare’s fools he tells truth to power. His job to take us out of ourselves, yes, but then to return us to the reality of our own worlds, delighted but perhaps wiser. See his last song. The rain rains every day, even in Illyria. His is not an easy part: there should be shrewdness there, worldliness, and an equal pleasure in inflecting chaos and in saying sooth, sometimes doing one by doing the other. There is a lot to be picky about in the film transition Trevor Nunn’s staging of Twelfth Night in 1996, but his casting of Ben Kingsley as Feste was inspired. Kingsley’s Feste knows something you do not, and there are a hundred things more important to him than making you laugh. Last night, Jake Walker’s fool wanted only to make me laugh, and he leapt and shimmied and jearked himself around the stage in hopes of it. Pretty frequently, the audience rewarded him. Maybe his performance didn’t begin this way, maybe it evolved this way over the course of the month (we’re near the end of the run). But even sweet dishes can be too sweet, and the best laughs come as a break in tension, a relief. If we want something more than laughter, we’ll need a little vinegar.


The Black Telephone

Everyone who knows me has heard me go on about my grandfather. A colonel under Patton, he retired at age 60 and spent the next 30 years of his life raising me and giving me more as a model and guide than I had any right to have. I picture him now in one of two places: the living room of his big Edwardian house in Norwich or the main room of the beach cottage where he and my grandmother spent the summers. After a morning at the beach, or before he set out for the day, he’d collapse into his chair in the center of the room, beachbottleglass lamp to his left, open door to the porch on his right, light and gull sounds coming through. He always had a book or a magazine beside him or on his lap (I still run across things all the time I wish I could send on to him, talk to him about; then there’s that arresting moment when I realize that he’s gone — nothing to do with that feeling, no place it goes), and beside the book or the magazine, and maybe a highball glass of iced tea with fresh mint floating on top of it, that black telephone. Of course I moved away from Connecticut when I was 17, and though I was back at the cottage at least a couple of times a summer (I can remember so perfectly how the place felt, drawers and doors hard to shut because they were swelled with the summer humidity, smell of must and sandalwood and the salt from the ocean, the low ceiling and the steep staircase and the deep darkness when night fell) the way I talked to him most often was through that black rotary phone. It had a satisfying heft to it, and it chimed when jostled.

When my friends Jeff and Maureen got married down that street from that cottage at Harkness Memorial State Park, a bunch of us stayed overnight at the cottage, which had been all but abandoned by then, my grandfather gone and my grandmother no longer making the trip in summer. We took the fallout pills that the Millstone nuclear plant had sent to all the nearby homes in the ’70s and sat around waiting for what turned out to be mostly iodine to have some effect. Meanwhile, Shafer took picture after picture of that phone. He seemed to connect with it, not just as a pleasingly shaped object but as something more, an symbol potent with duende. When we cleaned out the cottage two years later I put the phone aside to save for him. Last month I mailed it out to Houston as a housewarming present. So imagine my pleasure to find this poem on his blog tonight.

I miss you old man.

by Shafer Hall

If late at night there is a ringing
and it’s the Colonel, don’t be frightened.

Remember that the funny twists
of the heron’s neck are posture too.

Perhaps the hair on your cheeks
is bristling? But the Colonel was clean-shaven.

The Colonel’s prayers were more communication
than supplication; the old phone
is more of an appliance than a relic.

If the Colonel asks for a report, tell him
everyone’s fine; the rocky island in the bay
is white with birds.

on taste

Gombrich on taste (via Herr Golaski):

The old proverb that you cannot argue about matters of taste may well be true, but that should not conceal the fact that taste can be developed. This is again a matter of common experience which everyone can test in a modest field. To people who are not used to drinking tea one blend may taste exactly like another. But if they have the leisure, will and opportunity to search out such refinements as there may be, they may develop into true connoisseurs who can distinguish exactly what type and mixture they prefer, and their greater knowledge is bound to add to their enjoyment of the choicest blends.

Admittedly, taste in art is something infinitely more complex than taste in food and drink. It is not only a matter of discovering various subtle flavors; it is something more serious and more important.

…an offshore wind…

I’m taken by this description of a wedding reception (or is it a tempest-tossed barque?) in M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart.

The Marquee was warm enough, but its floor tilted sharply to the left, so that everyone sitting at that side felt as if they were sliding out of it. The supporting poles, dressed with yellow and white ribbon, creaked uneasily in an offshore wind which that evening had bulged and slackened rhythmically; the electric chandeliers swayed. Halfway through the meal, the tennis court had begun to squeeze itself up through the coconut matting. Apart from Lucas and Pam, I didn’t know anyone there. I sat on my own with my back against the tent, drank some champagne, and stared up into the roof where, far above the central tables on which the ruins of the buffet lay scattered among yellow bows and springs of artificial flowers, a bright red helium balloon was trapped. Four or five children were staring up at it too, heads tilted back at an identical angle. Events seemed to have piled up against all of us.

Is the title a pun on coeur? The Hearts of the Heart? And it’s so perilously close to The Curse of the Heart that you keep looking and re-looking to make sure that isn’t it after all.

I’m starting my fiction class today and I’m suddenly sorry I didn’t include one of Harrison’s stories on the syllabus. He’s the kind of writer who’s books pass urgently from hand to hand (Course of the Heart was, in fact, handed to me) and he’s a tight and tricky blogger too: http://ambientehotel.wordpress.com/.

Never switch on the Mac in the night to make a note: by the time it’s woken up you’ve gone back to sleep again. You’ve forgotten who you were, let alone what he was thinking.

His Light changed the way I think about science fiction and has to be one of the major books of the last decade. Go read him.

The starlit wave is still

and I’m home from a dozen Christmas visits and a half-dozen airports. Home to a great conversation with Andrea Dupree at Lighthouse Writers Blog about staying on task and lessons learned:

Q. You’ve said in other interviews that your novel was borne out of a desire to “write about identity and the formation of that identity.” You took on, like Eugenides in The Marriage Plot, college age kids in love with ideas and books and each other. Do you feel you came up with new ideas about identity formation by writing the novel? Did anything surprise you?

I think I was more of a utopianist before I wrote the book, more closely allied with some of my characters’ aspirations. I was younger. Then, as I wrote and re-wrote the book, I watched as they relentlessly disassembled one another’s dreams.  Jack, my protagonist, tries to step into his friend Bill’s life by impersonating Bill as best he can. His friends Paul and Corinna assume they can marry young and settle down in a respectable little village and both security and happiness will arrive at their door.

Did I learn anything? I suppose I learned how you can’t custom design your own life because the world has its own ideas for you, thrash against it as you will. And even when you achieve what you were struggling for you find it’s different from what you’d expected. It was about 1994 when I first started browsing bookstores, fingering those fiction spines and wishing my own book was tucked in between them. That’s what I wanted my life to be, an integration with those voices. Flash forward so many years and it turns out the road I was running didn’t take me where I expected it would. That old bookstore I used to browse is closed, I live in a different city, and all of the books on my own shelves are new. Astoundingly, it turns out I didn’t want to publish a novel after all, or rather, I did, but I wanted to do it exclusively in 1994. I wanted to be 35 and accomplished in 1994 instead of 18 and oblivious. But of course I wasn’t a real person yet, just an aspirant. The characters in Under the Small Lights are like that too.

The body of the chat (and a louche picture of this writer) can be enjoyed more fully here: http://lighthouseblog.org/2012/01/08/real-people-weird-creatures-novelist-john-cotter-on-life-and-fiction/.

And if you live in the Denver area and you’d like to take that workshop we’re talking about, you can sign up here: https://lighthousewriters.org/workshop/detail/id/489/

We’ll read stories from Maureen McHugh and P.G. Wodehouse and other unlikely workshop specimens and we’ll be writing and jawing our hearts out.  It’s Saturday afternoons in January and February, and a little bit of March.

“They Came” by Odysseas Elytis

translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis

dressed up as “friends,”
came countless times, my enemies,
trampling the primeval soil.
And the soil never blended with their heel.
They brought
The Wise One, the Founder, and the Geometer,
Bibles of letters and numbers,
every kind of Submission and Power,
to sway over the primeval light.
And the light never blended with their roof.
Not even a bee was fooled into beginning the golden game,
not even a Zephyr into swelling the white aprons.
On the peaks, in the valleys, in the ports
they raised and founded
mighty towers and villas,
floating timbers and other vessels;
and the Laws decreeing the pursuit of profit
they applied to the primeval measure.
And the measure never blended with their thinking.
Not even a footprint of a god left a man on their soul,
not even a fairy’s glance tried to rob them of their speech.
They came
dressed as “friends,”
came countless times, my enemies,
bearing the primeval gifts.
And their gifts were nothing else
but iron and fire only.
To the open expecting fingers
only weapons and iron and fire.
Only weapons and iron and fire.

A Memorable Fancy

It turns out that removing caffeine entirely from my life has a good effect on that deafening roar in my ears. I’ve been buckling under that awful siren for years and everyone who knows me has heard me sob about it (though I have not heard myself, I have heard a roar). Since I quite morning coffee, afternoon tea, and chocolate of all kinds I find I can hear pretty well– certainly enough to teach, talk on the phone, and be an okay boyfriend. I have been told that I also seem more energetic, though there’s lots of ways you could slice that. Am I energetic because I can hear the world? (As today I overheard a woman four tables away tell her friend “It’s not my cut of tea because it’s mostly meat” — I smiled because I could hear the words, at least I think I could.)

So when I hang out in coffee shops these days I drink herbal tea. It’s not so bad. It tastes like berries or mint. Today I discovered a place I’ll be going back to: Gypsy House Cafe on 13th & Marion. By Gypsy they mean nonwestern as there’s an African painting for every hookah and a bodhisattva for every fiddle strain. I love it. There’s incense, odd drapery, trustafarians. Edward Said would set fire to the place but it’s exactly the bastardized ‘otherness’ of the place that appeals to me. I feel as though I’ve stepped out of the world I know, that there are other possibilities in life. Like there’s another world, non-threateningly exotic and portable. Listening to stuff like this, not knowing what on earth is being sung, and smelling the world’s most unfaithful Turkish coffee cannot possibly be a shameful pleasure. I refuse to intellectualize this. What’s good is what feels good. And the cold air felt good on my walk home.

Columbine St.

I’ve been writing a bit about art in the last few issues of Open Letters Monthly. Last month it was my very special relationship to John Singer Sargent, this month, the glam and decay of John Bonath’s Strange Beauties at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science:

In order to reach A Strange Beauty, which is entirely worth a visit to the mountain west, you’ll cross the museum’s T-Rex-occupied entryway and take a right through the Space Odyssey rooms (spinning projections of the earth, Is There Water on Mars?, children jumping and pointing and squealing) until you emerge on the West Side. The room, the gallery, is three stories high with glass walls displaying the finest view in Denver: City Park Pond, backgrounded by the steel and glass towers of downtown, themselves backgrounded by the gold foothills and the white-topped Rockies.

At a distance, the images on floor one resemble their photographs (like the photographs accompanying this article), but as you get closer, the illusion of verisimilitude breaks down, and their painterly qualities become apparent. These are, in fact, paintings. They’re single objects: gold nuggets, skulls, a bat, tagged birds, ammonites, set against black backgrounds that seem to let them float in space, anchorless. This makes them more solid, more tangible. Further inspection reveals other alterations to enhance their contours—pointillist colors invisible at a distance cause the objects to swing free of their frames, to pop. A transparent medium mixed with iridescent pigments catches the room light and makes the objects more real still. They’re splendidly alive, far more than their originals, some of which are present under glass, and look, in comparison, strikingly dead.

Speaking of those white-topped Rockies, they’re my new friends in life. In case you’ve not heard I’ve moved west. Elisa and I drove out here just over two months ago in a straight line from Boston. On the afternoon we arrived in Boulder in time to catch my friend Katie’s sculpture opening (electronic ligaments in milky plasticine, hung translucently along the gallery’s windows) and saw a double rainbow in the fuzzy mist of the sky, plains side. It has been an adventure since. We’ve been up in the mountains a few times (the red clay looks purple with the sun going down) and we’ve made some intriguing new friends and picked up where we left off with some old ones.

I’m not used to moving and very much unused to the way it clears your mind — ten thousand things that seemed so breathlessly important in Boston aren’t important at all out here; they’ve just fallen away and disappeared. I’m spending at least half of my time in mind of my new classes — Blake, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, and how do you write a persuasive essay after all? Funny enough, I wake up early now, up before Elisa half the time, which never happened in Boston, even once. Like everyone always said, it’s cold in the morning and sunny in the afternoons. I’ve been listening to Brian Eno (Tracks and Traces) and of course I picked up the new Tom Waits. Humming “Back in the Crowd”:

On Calamity

I encountered a student in tears in the hallway yesterday afternoon. He’s no one I’d paid much attention to until then except for, in the back of my mind, the suspicion that he was quite rich and some chagrin that he seemed to always arrive late to class. But he was crying his head off and over the next day I heard about all of the trouble in his life. So I was reminded again of something I too-often forget, phrased here from two quite distant points in time:

Solon, seeing a very friend of his at Athens mourning piteously, brought him into a high tower, and showed him underneath all the houses in that great city, saying to him, “Think with yourself how many sundry mournings in times past have been in all these houses, how many at this present are, and in time to come shall be, and leave off to bewail the miseries of mortal folk, as if they were your own … Suppose, if it please you, that you are with me in the top of that high hill Olympus. Behold from thence all towns, provinces, and kingdoms of the world, and think you see even so many enclosures full of human calamities. These are but only theaters and places for the purpose prepared, wherein Fortuen plays her bloody tragedies.”

– Justus Lipsius (trans. John Stradling), from Two Bookes of Constancie (1594)


If you stood on the approach to the Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo, which hundreds of people cross every minute, and were able to elicit from each individual that went past what turmoil and confusion lay buried in his heart, you would find yourself bemused by the knowledge of that this world can do to a man, and life would be come unbearable. There would have been no applicants for the job of standing at Nihonbashi and waving a flag to direct the trams were it not for the fact that the people a man in such a position meets come as strangers, and as strangers they go on their way.

– Natsume Soseki (trans. Alan Turney), from Kusamakura (1906)

“Tuesday” by George Seferis

translated by Edmund Keeley

“I went down to the St. James Infirmary.”

I got lost in the town.
The gardens are hidden by the hospital of Don Juan Tavera.
Advertisements wrapping up the streets.
Each man walks without knowing
whether he’s at a beginning or an end,
whether he’s going to his mother, his daughter, or his mistress
whether he’ll judge or be judged
whether he’ll escape, whether he’s escaped already;
he doesn’t know.
At every corner a gramophone shop
in every shop a hundred gramophones
for each gramophone a hundred records
on every record
someone living plays with someone dead.
Take the steel needle and separate them
if you can.

Now what poet? Do you remember what poet
tried out the steel needle
on the seams of man’s skull?

Do you remember his song that night?
I remember that he asked us for an asprin
his eyes moved inside black rings
he was pale, and two deep wrinkles
bound his forehead. Or was it you
maybe? Or me? Or was it maybe
silent Antigone with those shoulders
rounded over her breasts?
I kept her with me ten nights
and each dawn she would weep for her child.
I remember I was looking for a pharmacy. For whom, I don’t know.
they were all closed.

I got lost in the town
no one is going to remove the hospital
full of crippled children gesturing
at me or at others following me.
odors of medicine in the air
turn heavy, fall in love and mesh
with vapors from cars going off
to the country with pre-Raphaelite couples
thoroughly blond if somehow a bit evaporated.

In the spring of 1923, Livia Rimini,
the film star, died in her bath;
they found her dead amidst her perfume
and the water was not yet cold.
yet in the movies yesterday
she gazed at me with her useless eyes.