Monday, August 30, 2010

Black Humor

"I've had worse!"

You wouldn’t know it reading these posts, but yes, I have a sense of humor. The more ridiculous and offensive the better. Monty Python, Marx Brothers, Three Stooges. I watch standup on the Comedy Channel on cable. A lot. In social settings I am first to spot the absurdity in a situation and point it out, often in language that would make a sailor blush. (I do this in professional settings too. Apparently my lack of recognition of propriety and authority go quite nicely together.) I love playing with words and poking my friends in the gut and making them giggle. I’m sure there is something deeply wrong with me and this all comes from old insecurities that I must be amusing or be rejected, plus what seems an evermore necessary use of lightheartedness as defense against the rising tide of doom and gloom in the world around me, never mind the world within. Fact is, for everyone that thinks I am so contemplative I must never do or say anything silly, there is someone out there who envies me being such a happy idiot I must never ponder the serious side of life.

Verlaine au café Procope, d'après Cesare Bacchi

                                                          Il pleure dans mon coeur
                                                          Comme il pleut sur la ville.
                                                          Quelle est cette langueur
                                                          Qui pénêtre mon coeur ?

                                                          O bruit doux de la pluie
                                                          Par terre et sur les toits !
                                                          Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
                                                          O le chant de la pluie !

                                                          Il pleure sans raison
                                                          Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
                                                          Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
                                                          Ce deuil est sans raison.

                                                          C’est bien la pire peine
                                                          De ne savoir pourquoi,
                                                          Sans amour et sans haine,
                                                          Mon coeur a tant de peine.

Yes, I can be Chuckles the Clown in person, but for some reason, I have never been a funny or a happy writer. Put paper in front of me and I turn into a wise, wistful old fart. From Europe. Not unlike the wise wistful old farts like Verlaine whose lament above is indicative of my reading material when I was still too young to understand what there was out in the world to be so vexed and melancholy about. It wasn’t happening yet, the exhausting disappointments and devastating betrayals, but oh, they were coming. It didn’t help to have parents whose favorite form of wordless expression next to laughter was the indignant exasperated sputter. I had a lot of mixed messages given to me when I was a child, but chief among them was that I could be and do just about anything in this wonderful thing called life. Of course, sigh, don’t be surprised when it all turns to shit. And it will.

who I'm from

A se stesso - por Giacomo Leopardi
                                                    Or poserai per sempre,
                                                    Stanco mio cor. Perì l'inganno estremo,
                                                    Ch'eterno io mi credei. Perì. Ben sento,
                                                    In noi di cari inganni,
                                                    Non che la speme, il desiderio è spento.
                                                    Posa per sempre. Assai
                                                    Palpitasti. Non val cosa nessuna
                                                    I moti tuoi, nè di sospiri è degna
                                                    La terra. Amaro e noia
                                                    La vita, altro mai nulla; e fango è il mondo
                                                    T'acqueta omai. Dispera
                                                    L'ultima volta. Al gener nostro il fato
                                                    Non donò che il morire. Omai disprezza
                                                    Te, la natura, il brutto
                                                    Poter che, ascoso, a comun danno impera
                                                    E l'infinita vanità del tutto

I think this has a lot to do with being Italian. We have a reputation of being very happy idiots indeed. We sing, we eat, we love and laugh at life with the passion and abandon of the hot blood in our veins. But the Southern dialect I inherited from my grandparents (pictured above) has more colorful curses than words of celebration, every song my grandmothers sang was about longing for a lost or elusive love, every meal was eaten as a battle with death (quando si mangia si combatte con la morte), and every joke handed down to me in translation involved poor hapless characters and their misfortunes. Someone else’s, the funniest kind! By the time I heard them, the punch lines had long since been removed to use as real-life commentary in any similar situation of bad luck, and no one needed or was able to tell the whole joke anymore. Maybe they were more instructional tales after all. My grandparents were immigrants and survived great hardships. Black humor in the mother tongue was just one of the unique sources of strength comprising their immeasurable legacy to me.

Hide and Seek

There is also la bella figura, a system of belief that divides the world into stranieri and famiglia, and involves always showing your best face to strangers and keeping your ills to yourself or among family. For my people, one of the greatest social gaffes one can commit is called troppo la confidenza, what Americans now call “oversharing,” usually muttered by my parents at restaurants in the wake of waiters that are too friendly. (The phrase piglia una sedia or “pull up a chair!” said with deep sarcasm is also applicable here.) This may be why I have always been more comfortable taking intimate photographs of objects than people. And maybe when I’m writing, the social reflex of respecting boundaries and appearing pleasant and amusing vanishes, as if I were sitting here talking to myself. And those conversations are hardly ever funny! So, even though the newspapers assure us the end might just be near, I’ll do my best to lighten it up here from time to time. And look at what happened. I set out to write something funny, and ended up writing something very serious about why I’m not funny! I guess life has been roughing me up a little lately. But as the armless and irrepressible Black Knight once said -- tis but a scratch!
End might just be near!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Know where you belong

                                                             I'm Nobody! Who are you?
                                                             Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
                                                             Then there's a pair of us!
                                                                             -Emily Dickinson

Is an artist born or made? Either way, I could not have found a better place to be born or made than New York City. The artistic history, diversity, and sensory intensity available in the city that never sleeps can make or break you, and for me it did both, to my great good fortune. It is both blessing and curse to be sensitive and insatiable in surroundings that will feed all of your best and worst vulnerabilities and ambitions. I left my native city almost a decade ago after spending four there, and I will always think of myself as a visitor anywhere else I go, however long I stay. I have the soul of a traveler, at home everywhere and nowhere, but I belong in, and to NYC.

The floor outside apartment 62
                                                     My eyes, like millions of
                                                     glassy squares, merely reflect.
          -Frank O’Hara from “Nocturne”

NYC trained my eye to see and my heart to enjoy the small details as well as the vast scope of life, often existing side by side, the way extraordinary kindness and unyielding toughness co-exist in its natives. Small neighborhoods that contain worlds, intimate eating and watering holes one turned corner away from huge open spaces filled with multitudes in motion, deprivation and overabundance, the deafening unnerving rackets, the magical meditative stillnesses…living in the city heightens one’s sense of contrasts, contradictions, extremes, but also deepens the faith that if you can get through all the overwhelming ugliness there will be that moment or scene of serene beauty for those who seek it, wait for it, and give it the attention it deserves.

which of us is subject window mirror for all our gazing never coming nearer?

As we come close to the end of this season of taking time off to go away or go home, I've been reading a lot lately online about love affairs with cities and landscapes and how that passion for place can inform and inspire us as artists. When I visit my native city, I have the twin pleasure of being both away and home, where all is instantly familiar and stunningly new, and I fall in love again, every time, like the first time. There is always something different, even in a view seen many times, like a favorite painting you keep going back to, because it keeps having something fresh to tell you about itself, and about yourself. I've seen  Edward Hopper's “Early Sunday Morning” reproduced endlessly, and yet when I turn a corner and come upon it in the gallery, it still knocks me out. Period.

   down this street empty of passage moves a moment melancholy cool

That’s how I feel about my city. So many resident or transient writers and artists have succumbed to the charms of Manhattan. Berenice Abbott, whose photo below of the old elevated train has outlived the structure itself, understood all images of the city deserve the long perspective, sharp angles, lines leading in unexpected directions, and stark oppositions of dark and light that exist in its soul. NYC will always be my first love, my best muse, a right bastard at times…but home. I haven’t done any traveling this summer, and envy everyone their exotic and intimate photographic records, so here I offer instead some timeless revisited images of NYC, the place I would always rather be, and never really left.

home is what you have to leave to know where you belong

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lend me a hand...

When I am out and about with my camera, I am all eyes. I literally feel them open wider like a lens to scan everything for that view around which a rectangle can be constructed for the perfect shot. Maybe now that I have my first digital SLR, I will become more of the kind of photographer who shoots at will and edits later, but for now I am the kind who leaves the house with my camera only when I mean business – I am out to find that shot which will never happen again, and I only have so many chances per roll of film, and no option to check, reject and redo along the way, so I better be paying attention, and I better get it right the first time. I actually enjoy that pressure. Sometimes I have to wait all day and make myself very small and quiet for the image no one else notices to allow itself to be caught unawares. And then comes the pleasant surprise, when the image comes back days later and is exactly what I thought I captured. It teaches humility and patience.

I don't know where I end and you begin

When I am writing, I am also all eyes, but they are the eyes of my mind, turned inward to the point I often close them as I watch the words form on an inner screen. The first lines of my poems, and my first ideas for blog posts lately, often come when I’m lying in bed, or walking around in such a state of introverted distraction I am barely aware of my surroundings, as line leads to line and I cannot tell whether I am putting my thoughts into words or the words are putting thoughts into me, or both, as in the famous print of hand drawing hand by Escher.

What a piece of work is man...(from Shakespeare's "Hamlet")

I have always envied painters (see my man above, and visit him here) their ability to make things. I know how to capture things – in words, on film – not how to draw them out of nothingness. But when I crochet I get to borrow for a time that sense of beginning with a blank space and daily watching chosen bits of color join and grow into a harmonious whole. I get to feel physically as well as mentally engaged in the thing I’m working at it. I get to smell and touch it. I get the satisfaction of being able to prove that art is not just about observing the world or living in your head envisioning beautiful things, but actual work, the kind you feel tired after several hours of toiling over. The kind you have to clean up after. I think, as artists, we cannot too often remind ourselves and the world that just because we love what we do and don’t get paid enough or anything at all for it, and some people don’t see the usefulness of our creations, there is no doubt that it’s WORK.

with edges softened surface etched by time

This post is a celebration of the gratitude of being able to work with my hands. I come from people who did just that, peasants, bakers, tailors, factory workers. My grandmother taught me to crochet when I was 10. I loved the closeness and connection we shared bent together over the yarn in our laps, but the work itself focused, calmed and pleased me in ways unattainable otherwise. I loved the rhythm of the loop-in-loop motion, the inevitability of substance steadily manifesting where there was nothing before. I wasn’t very good at it – her stitches were perfectly even and smooth while mine bunched up, skewed, skipped and snagged – but I loved doing it, even if the resulting product was ugly and unusable. It taught me a love for simple pleasures and for the handmade, not as a hobby, but as handiwork. It taught me humility and patience. And after a few decades, I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. I finished this piece of work the other day. And it felt great.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Life no longer weightless left in pieces at my feet...

I spoke recently about being perversely attracted to images of abandonment and loss. I also dig broken and partial things, like the newly-plowed snow above, hours earlier a solid field of white, beautiful in its own way, but to me at least, only fit subject for a photograph in that it was the absent but implied “before” that makes this “after” that much more meaningful.

I speak because I'm shattered 
- from "Red Poppies" by Louise Gluck

Or this cracked curb outside my apartment building, which I pass by daily, and seems always to have existed in a state of progressive yet suspended fragmentation; this photo is 4 years old and the curb has yet to fall apart completely. I once collected some of my favorite poems, not just ones you enjoy immensely, but the kind you read and cannot imagine how you existed before these words were part of your life, which they become, forever after. I found that a significant percentage of them employed some form or sense of the word “shattered.”

                                                      Anonymous as cherubs
                                                      Over the crib of God,
                                                      White seeds are floating
                                                      Out of my burst pod.
                                                      What power had I
                                                      Before I learned to yield?
                                                      Shatter me, great wind:
                                                      I shall possess the field.

- from "Two Voices in a Meadow: A Milkweed" by Richard Wilbur

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal, and specifically artistic, growth. I don’t buy that you need to suffer and struggle in order to be creative. But it helps. For me, it does seem that my most creative times have been preceded by an experience of confusion, despair, disappointment or outright catastrophe that quite literally broke me, mind, body and spirit, leaving me no choice but to pick up the pieces and make something entirely new out of them. Progressive fragmentation is still progress of a kind, and cycles of death and rebirth are the very essence of the natural world; once you get where you were going, it gives you that much more intense a sense of being completely alive.

Archaic Torso of Apollo - by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

                                            We cannot know his legendary head
                                            with eyes like ripening fruit.  And yet his torso
                                            is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
                                            like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

                                            gleams in all its power.  Otherwise
                                            the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
                                            a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
                                            to that dark center where procreation flared.

                                            Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
                                            beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
                                            and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

                                            would not, from all the borders of itself,
                                            burst like a star: for here there is no place
                                            that does not see you.  You must change your life.

Maybe that’s why I like broken things. I can see in them not only the loss or absence of what isn’t there, but the possibility of what might yet be. Rilke’s poem about the Belvedere Torso, one of the most famous and beautiful broken things in existence, ends with the stunningly unexpected yet inevitable line above, even more impressive in the original language, which I encourage you to seek out and read aloud even if you don't know German! I wonder if a whole, smooth statue could have provoked in Rilke such a line, coming as it does seemingly out of nowhere, not to complete the poem, but to break it -- and the reader -- open to whole new worlds of thought and emotion. It speaks because it’s shattered.

Addendum: as a reminder to all to recheck any matters related to communication during periods of Mercury Retrograde, just as I was about to post this post, it came to my attention that the statue Rilke was writing about may not have been the Belvedere Torso which lives at the Vatican Museum, and I actually had the privilege of seeing when they released it for an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York many years ago, but the one pictured above, which lives at the Louvre in Paris, and is indeed archaic, a torso, and Apollo. Not to be confused with the Apollo Belvedere, below, which doesn't belong in a discussion of partial things at all.

If anyone can clear this up for me, please do. I suppose even if I've had it wrong all these years, it's a happy mistake. And Rilke probably would have written the same poem for either statue!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Time Enough at Last

In this1959 Twilight Zone episode starring Burgess Meredith and written by Rod Serling, based on a short story by Lynn Venable , Henry Bemis, a bookish bank clerk, can't find enough time to read. He reads constantly, nearly every waking minute. On his lunch hour, he reads of the H-bomb while down in the vault of the bank. It goes off suddenly, leaving him as the last man on Earth. In the ruins of a sporting goods store he finds a gun and considers doing away with himself … but when he catches sight of the remains of a public library, he has a reason to stay alive.

Anyone who has seen or Googled this classic episode will know it ended very badly indeed for Bemis, whose story, start to (literally) shattering finish, speaks very deeply to me, a lifelong nearsighted voracious reader, and not a little anti-social. “All the books I’ll ever want! All the time I need and want!” Who among us hasn’t dreamed of such an opportunity? These words have been much on my mind in the first weeks since I left a 9 to 5 job to focus on writing, art-making and generating enough income that I can grow old never having to work for (and by) anyone but myself again.

Odilon Redon Le Liseur

After I quit my job, I read a novel of a few hundred pages. It took a few days, not several weeks -- or months -- and it felt great. I realized that for too many years I have been doing most of my reading in small rushed stolen moments, on buses, in waiting rooms, between interruptions during my alleged lunch hour, in the few minutes before falling asleep at night, online, in magazines, and in books I picked up so seldom, I always had to re-read back from the point I left off, before I could move forward again. Sisyphean task at best. And all this time my desire to acquire books refused to align itself with the reality of my reading habits. The ranks of the unread multiplied and haunted me from their dedicated bookcase in my bedroom until I finally had to box them up and put them out of sight and mind in storage in the basement.

Jean-Jacques Henner La Liseuse

There is nothing so luxurious and gratitude-making as being able to lie on a couch with enough energy, time and peace of mind to enter completely the world a writer has generously created for you with words. To proceed with wonder and caution at the beginning, feeling your way through unfamiliar territory, pick up speed as the plot and characters develop, and then linger towards the end because you have become so attached to this world you must leave too soon, you want to make the last hours of your stay last as long as possible. This is a great gift – to give and to receive. Today I’m adding a feature to my blog called “What I’m Lucky to be Reading” as a constant reminder of how fortunate I am to have time enough at last. Not to mention (inside joke) shatterproof eyeglasses.

My library, section D-H

The first featured book is one that has been eyeing me for a few weeks from my new shelf of the unread, which quickly established itself in place of the collection now languishing unseen in the basement. Portuguese author and Nobelist Jose Saramago, who has now deprived us of his unique wit and wisdom, worldliness and wordiness by being so unkind as to cease living , has long been a favorite writer, so when his collection recording a year of personal observations appeared in translation, I snatched it up. Little did I know that “The Notebook” was actually comprised of blog postings, a medium I thought neither of us would ever embrace. I love perfect timing.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hold a place for absent things...

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by what’s missing, sometimes to the point of not being able to see or enjoy what’s present, something I think we are all sometimes guilty of doing. I rarely take photographs of people or write poems about moments of satisfaction and completion. It’s always the empty chair, the abandoned shoe, the yearning to fill the cold lonely hours with the warmth of company or passionate purpose that eludes and misleads and vanishes too soon. The photo above was taken on a hike in upstate New York that I shared with a good friend and fellow poet. With the beauty of nature and sympathetic human company mine for the capturing, in image or verse, I came home with this one photo of abandonment, futility and expectation. What is wrong with me? As Robert Lowell once wrote, “my mind’s not right.”

who’ll know the cost of what is kept and what is lost?

I wish I could say I do this intentionally as an artist because I believe the world ought to see the negative side of things, but frankly, the dark side appeals to me for its beauty, not its need to be properly documented. I’m not alone. Below is a favorite photo by Andre Kertesz. I would like to do an entire series of images of objects created for human use that take not only their purpose and identity but their very shape from the human form they are meant to serve. It makes them look all the more useless when not in use.

This week I have re-connected with old friends and made some new ones. We all seem to be thinking a lot lately about what’s missing or not missing in our lives. Over the years, I have gained and lost many things. I have often felt that whatever purpose I was shaped for, I was not being used. But now I am going to focus on what’s present, and not what is gone or absent.

This post is dedicated to Marlowe the Cat (1996-2010). R.I.P.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Bigger stronger and longer lasting than anyone ever imagined...

Believe the incredible. Do the impossible, against all odds and common sense. Above is a photograph I took a few years ago of the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island in New York City, where I was born. At the time they were considering tearing down the old amusement park, which stands to this day. The quote is from my poem “Marvelous,” a tribute to the many feats of engineering and triumphs of imagination that have made my native city great. It all begins with daring to think the unthinkable and prove the naysayers wrong, as all my favorite artists who inspire me have done.

I have always been especially interested in artists who work in or combine more than one medium. William Blake and the ancient Asian painter-poet-calligraphers are a great inspiration to me. Music, writing, visual and plastic arts have all contributed to my sense of what is artistically possible, and beautiful. I feel each has something to learn and borrow from the other – poems should look and sound as good as they read on the page, music should touch your body and make words and pictures appear in your mind, and an image should have physical presence, and speak or even sing to you.

Where silence speaks my undiscovered name…

Words and image mine. Amazing what there is to see on a long winter walk in Manhattan. I nearly fell into a snowbank to capture this tiny delicate scene existing undiscovered in Riverside Park alongside a noisy busy city street. I hope always to include in my posts both my own work and thoughts and those of my favorite artists and thinkers. For me, being an artist is as much about absorbing what's around you as expressing what's inside you. Maybe more.

Begin again the story of your life...

The quote is from Jane Hirshfield, poet and Zen student, from her poem "Da Capo," which describes the endless yet strangely beautiful cycle of yet another heartbreak leading to yet another return to the joys of a new life. The image above is by Robert Frank from his book The Americans. Today is a new beginning for me. Who knows where this road will lead? Consider this an invitation for all the likeminded souls out there to follow me. There is much more to come. Thanks for stopping by!