satori machines

Elisa and I wrote some poetry and read it along with Daron Muller and Eleni Sikelianos and quite a few others at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art last week. The idea was to write poetry based on the non-narrative films. The picture above makes it seem as though Elisa and I were the only ones there. She and I wandering the gallery and reading to each other would have been another kind of night — a better kind? — but I was pretty honored to be included and so I wrote a poem for the first time in a few moons. (Imagine every second line indented 3 or 4 spaces … the formatting on WordPress murders me)


after an instillation by David Fodel and Paco Proano

You are a lie of light;
be indeterminate,
a satori machine
who makes gods of geegaws.

The glass harmonica
is pitched to obscure
the rattle of teacups
ten feet away.

Make your smoky poly-
carbonate a spiritual
filter for what hovers
in back of you.

Don’t worry patterns,
they convert at a touch
not your touch. The picture
remains translucent,

i.e. unclear.
Kick the stone of your
soul down the road:
advance the track.

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:

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.