Friday, December 12, 2008

Zagajewski's inheritance

The contemporary Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (above) has inherited the full eyebrows of Czeslaw Milosz, the late elderstatesman of Polish bards; he also carries on Milosz's crowning poetic achievement: the noble struggle to voice an authentic faith in a "post-religious world." Cynthia Haven, writing recently in a feature for the Poetry Foundation, describes the nature of this spirutal inheritance:

'The death of Milosz in 2004, the year Zagajewski won the Neustadt, effectively marked the passing of the scepter to the younger poet, the crown prince of Polish poetry. “What a joy to see a major poet emerging from a hardly differentiated mass of contemporaries and taking the lead in the poetry of my language,” Milosz had written in a 1985 introduction to his verse, by way of investiture and blessing....

Zagajewski’s quiet, persistent optimism is refreshing in a nation of shallow enthusiasms. What are its roots? Friend and fellow poet Rifenburgh has an insight: “I personally think he believes in a ‘world without end’ and the eternality of the spirit. I think he believes death as a finality would be too easy: it’s not that simple.”

Expressing such a vision is not that simple, either. Milosz once said that “we are in a largely post-religious world.” He recounted a conversation with Pope John Paul II, who commented upon Milosz’s work, saying, “Well, you make one step forward, one step back.” Milosz replied, “Holy Father, how in the 20th century can one write religious poetry differently?”

Zagajewski concurred: “I don’t want to be a New Age vague religious crank, but I also need to distance myself from ‘professional’ Catholic writers. I think poets have to be able to find fresh metaphors for old metaphysical objects and longings. I’m a Christian, a sometimes doubting one (but this is almost a definition of a Christian: to doubt also). In my writing I have to be radically different from a priest. My language must have the sheen of a certain discovery.”

His view is a counterpoint to the current fashion of irony, which he decries. “I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus, but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance,” he said. “How to cure it? I wish I knew. The danger is that we live in a world where there’s irony on one side and fundamentalism (religious, political) on the other. Between them the space is rather small, but it’s my space.'

Thursday, December 11, 2008

the John Paulson of Verse

"Robert Graves once remarked that just as there is no money in poetry, there is no poetry in money. But Katy Lederer sees it differently. Lederer has just published “The Heaven-Sent Leaf,” a collection of poetry animated by the idea of the economic bubble. “It’s so dry when you read it in the papers, but, really, it’s mythic,” she said recently, on a day that the stock market had dropped three hundred and seventy points. “It’s Icarus, it’s ‘Faust,’ it’s Eros and vanitas. It’s ‘Star Wars’!” If this is not a formula for literary success, it’s good market timing, at least; she might be the John Paulson of verse."

-Rebecca Rotham, Ballad of the Bubble (New Yorker, Dec. 8).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Achebe's Red Flag

"In a myth told by the Igbo people of Nigeria, men once decided to send a messenger to ask Chuku, the supreme god, if the dead could be permitted to come back to life. As their messenger, they chose a dog. But the dog delayed, and a toad, which had been eavesdropping, reached Chuku first. Wanting to punish man, the toad reversed the request, and told Chuku that after death men did not want to return to the world. The god said that he would do as they wished, and when the dog arrived with the true message he refused to change his mind. Thus, men may be born again, but only in a different form.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe recounts this myth, which exists in hundreds of versions throughout Africa, in one of his essays. Sometimes, Achebe writes, the messenger is a chameleon, a lizard, or another animal; sometimes the message is altered accidentally rather than maliciously. But the structure remains the same: men ask for immortality and the god is willing to grant it, but something goes wrong and the gift is lost forever. “It is as though the ancestors who made language and knew from what bestiality its use rescued them are saying to us: Beware of interfering with its purpose!” Achebe writes. “For when language is seriously interfered with, when it is disjoined from truth . . . horrors can descend again on mankind.”
-excerpted from "After Empire: Chinua Achebe and the Great African Novel," New Yorker, May 26, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

Heaney's Directive

...Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.

-Seamus Heaney (last three stanzas of "North")

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Whitman's Song of His/Her/Your/Our/Myself

"'What is it then between us?' Walt Whitman asks in his great poem 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.' Well, what is it Mr. Whitman? Was 'Leaves of Grass' just a book of poems, or was it a manifesto of multiculturalism before that notion even existed? Was it a paeon to love and sex and freedom? Was it just some guy's utopian dream of an ideal America, or a blueprint for a real America? A century and a half later, are we ready for the America of Walt Whitman's dreams?"

This excerpt is taken from "Walt Whitman: Song of Myself," a recent WNYC documentary which seeks to answer these questions by teasing out the social, sexual, and political implications of Whitman's landmark collection, "Leaves of Grass." Narrated by Carl Hancock Rux, and featuring commentary by Philip Lopate and Martin Espada, and recitations of Whitman's poetry by Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright, "Song of Myself" portrays a dynamic sketch of The Great Gray Poet.

The commentary returns, as does the poetry, to Whitman's excitable fascination with urban egalitarianism, his robust observations of quotidian street life, his love for the working class, his articulate voyeurism, his deep democratic sympathies. What also emerges from this production is a picture of Whitman as a socio-sexual vanguard who celebrated erotic liberality in a culturally-conservative era. Listening in, we are reminded again and again of the panoramic scope of Whitman's poetic lens. His poetic aim was to "contain multitudes" in his verse. WNYC's well-produced program is alive with a memorable hint of the same expansive, inclusive energy that fires Whitman's electric verse.

Monday, September 8, 2008

"On the cover of C. K. Williams' sensibly packaged retrospective is a color photograph of the author, smiling, in a red turtleneck, pleasant brown v-neck sweater, and winter coat—navy blue with plaid lining. He looks as though he's been foraging for firewood and has just returned to recite a few poems. His eyebrows are slightly raised. "Ah, you're just in time," he seems to be saying, with "COLLECTED POEMS" printed in large white letters across his chest."

-Aaron Belz, "Six Pack: The Charms and Annoyances of Collected Poems," Books and Culture, July/ August '08

Friday, September 5, 2008

Time for Makoto Fujimura

In the Meiji period of the late nineteenth century, a small coterie of Japanese painters decided their contemporaries had endured enough Western influence. Armed with sumi (a Chinese ink made from soot, fishbone, and animal hide), and a complex pigment derived from pulverized semi-precious stones like malachite and azurite-- the coarse, petrous materials their ancestors had relied on for generations-- they sought to extricate their culture's rich artistic heritage from the dominant sway of European aesthetic trends. This movement, led by Shimomura Kanzan, Yokoyama Taikan, and Hishida Shunso, is recognized now as the modern emergence of Nihonga, a derivate name for a technique practiced by Japanese masters for over a thousand years.

This newer generation of painters saw the preservation of Nihonga, with its unique combination of volatile, earth-hewn materials, as the key to sustaining the distinctive form of Japanese visual art. They continued to apply their mixtures to washi (Japanase paper)* or silk, instead of the canvases favored by Western artists. Yet in composing their works to be displayed in frames, they revolutionized the formats utilized by their forebears, who typically painted on scrolls and screens.**

Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese-American artist living in New York City, is one of today's most innovative practitioners of Nihonga. Fujimura, who was born in Boston but later earned his MFA in Tokyo, utilizes the form's traditional techniques and materials to create abstract expressionist compositions remarkable for their stunning contrasts of pattern and hue. The critic Gerard Haggerty has compared Fujimura's paintings to the "rich and subtle coloration of a butterfly's wing."***

"Still Point - Evening" 2003

"Fire" 2006

"January Hour - Epiphany"

"Shalom" 2001

"Gladiolas Red" 2000

"Gladiolas Blue" 2000

"November Hour"

Ken Myers interviewed Fujimura shortly after the release of his book River Grace, which was published earlier this year. An excerpted form of that conversation is available on Audition, Mars Hill Audio's free podcast.

"Like abstract expressionist painters from the mid-twentieth century, Fujimura is profoundly concerned with the action of creating his art and not just with the finished product," says Myers. "And because of the materials he uses, which chemically and visually change over time, looking carefully at his paintings encourages an attentiveness to the meaning of time, and of the things in God's creation that take time. Fujimura's book River Grace reflects on how his art, his life, and his beliefs are as subtly and creatively intertwined as the materials he uses, which as he explained to me in [our] recent conversation, are as much about time as about space and color."

Fujimura, in that conversation, explains his work this way:

"The process of time is a language for me. My work is process-oriented, so it's going to be about the passage of time. The material itself, being organic, will begin to settle hopefully like a good bottle of wine and with time will become distilled on the surface of the painting. I'm using medieval materials, which means mineral pigments, pulverized precious minerals like malachite and azurite, as well as gold and silver and sumi ink on top of paper. They are done on a base mixture of hide, glue and water layered many times--often about fifty layers on a single painting. You're literally trapping time in the process.

It will continue to morph over time. It takes about two years for the surface to settle. So if you use silver, that's going to tarnish over time, so you calculate that in to how it's going to look in forty or fifty years. You have Japanese paintings from the seventeenth century that use silver powder. It's completely darkened now, but it's absolutely one of the most beautiful things you'll see because the artist has calculated that to be part of the piece."

*Wikipedia, **Brittanica, ***Mars Hill Audio Journal, Audition #11