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Flash Post; Literary and Cultural Icon Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes, the great novelist, political commentator, and cultural icon, died today in Mexico City at the age of 83. He was an integral part of the great blooming of Latin America literature that took place in the 1960′s and 70′s, which gave the world a new sensibility that fused history, folklore, allegory and acute contemporary social observation with multiple and often simultaneous time shifts. Mr Fuentes, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, Julio Cortazar of Argentina, and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, were the giants of this movement. Magical Realism was a term often used to describe elements of their work.

I was privileged to have shared a number of meals with Carlos. Above, his wife, Silvia, Carlos, Rose Styron, and me, in Martha’s Vineyard. He was a sophisticated, intense man, who would sometimes listen quietly, and sometimes speak piercingly about the most complicated issues of politics and literature. He was always plain-spoken and direct. He was warm and friendly if he liked you, but at the same time, unforgiving of self promotion and posing. He had a passionate commitment to truth, and a huge zest for life.

Carlos was both urbane and earthy. His father was  a diplomat, and he, himself, was the Mexican ambassador to France for two years. Of course, in typical Fuentes fashion, he resigned under protest, when former Mexican president, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, was appointed ambassador to Spain. Fuentes has said that he always had a protest going, as well as a work of fiction. He was as well known throughout the world as an articulate proponent of left wing causes, as he was a writer. His passion for Mexico, it’s history, and the evolution of its politics and quest for social justice, was inexhaustible.

He became widely known in America after his novel, The Old Gringo, published in 1985, was made into a film  with Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. While this novel was incredibly popular, (partially because it is so short)  I much prefer his earlier, ” classic” work like, ” The Death of Artemio Cruz”.

Carlos Fuentes death leaves the deep rumbling of a giant of both literature and politics, passing from the wortld stage.

 

 

 

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deKooning and the MoMA Retrospective

Clement Greenberg, the renowned art critic, said this about Willem deKooning. ” deKooning strives for synthesis. He wants to re-charge advanced painting, which has largely abandonned the illusion of depth and volume, with something of the old power of the sculptural contour…He wants also to make it accomodate bulging, twisting planes like those seen in Tintoretto and Rubens…he wants in the end to recover a distinct image of the human figure, yet without sacrificing anything of abstract paintings’ decorative and physical force. Obviously, this is highly ambitious art…and indeed deKooning’s ambition is perhaps the largest, or at least the most profoundly sophisticated, ever to be seen in a painter domiciled in this country.”

The monumental retrospective of Willem deKooning at MoMA, includes nearly 200 works of art and takes up the entire 6th floor of the museum. It is the kind of tribute and study that is only given to the most significant of major artists. For me, deKooning is not just one of the pioneers of “Abstract Expressionism” (a label, like all pigeonholing labels, he did not appreciate,) but one of the five greatest artists of the 20th century. This grand enterprise is called, “deKooning: A Retrospective” and was brillianaly curated by John Elderfield, the Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture. The show is organized chronologically, and boasts an incredible companion book, with a superb essay by Mr. Elderfiefld as an introduction. It is hands down the best art book of this year, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Throughout his career, in whatever stylistic phase, deKooning painted canvases so lush, they always make my mouth water. The way he applied and mixed paint, his color palette, his expressive, gestural brushwork takes my breath away. Here are some samples from different periods. The range in time is from 1945 to 1984.

Willem deKooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1904. He lived until 1997, and started his formal art education at the age of twelve, attending the Rottterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques for eight years. He also worked as an assistant to the art director of a department store. Throughout his career, he was considered a master of paint mixing, handling and application. His extensive knowledge of materials and mastery of a wide variety of techniques and draughtsmanship, was widely recognized by his peers. He came from a long line of great Dutch painters, like Rembrandt and Hals who favored a lush use of paint and energetic brushwork. In fact, Robert Rauschenberg, in the video of ” Raushenberg Erases deKooning,” says that he and many others turned to another direction in their art because of their awe of deKooning’s technique and the folly of trying to compete with him. Below are two of his early works that mimic the style of others. The one on the left, done when he was twelve, the other a few years later.


deKooning arrived in America in 1926 as a stowaway aboard an ocean liner. He had tried to leave Holland several times before, but had been caught each time before the ship sailed. He left poor, and was poor for most of his early artistic careeer in New York. In fact, at one point in the 1940′s he could not even afford oil paints in color, and therefore worked briefly, just in black and white. His first solo show in 1948 contained these black and white works exclusively.

The flattened space with shifting planes, twisting contours, and biomorphic shapes that are deKooning’s signature, are all here. Below are paintings by Miro and Gorky, the two Surrealists who, along with Picasso and Cubism were the biggest influences on him. It’s interesting to see how he absorbs and extends their use of space and content into his own unique style.


Below, are examples of how deKooning deals with these issues.

Dekooning flattened out and abstracted Gorky’s pictorial space, which still had remnants of traditional perspective. They shared a love of biomrphic forms, though deKooning’s abstracted shapes almost always had reference to figurative components or real world objects. This ghost of the human form never left even his most abstract work, and combined with his distinctive and luscious color palette, he consistently produced work after work of great beauty. His prolificness and the consistency of his output was truly remarkable.

Through the 1940′s, he and Pollock, among the other ” Abstract Expressionists” were defining a new pictorial space in the history of painting, building on the breakthroughs, primarily of Cezanne and Picasso. Unlike Pollock and the others, however, deKooning, throughout his long career , almost always worked simultaneouly on representational figure pieces along with his abstract work. Below are some of his figurative pieces from the 40′s, the same period as the paintings above.

Also, unlike the rest of the so called “New York School,” deKooning’s development was not a straight evolution to a signature style which he typically repeated. Talking about this, he said that, “to try to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety.” During the 1940′s, the battleground in painting was all about the march to squeeze out the subjective interior world, flatten the pictorial space, and develop a non-referential vocabulary in a place without the traditional illusion of space and volume. This battle over space and content is nicely illustrated by Elderfield in his essay. He shows the following three paintings, and I will add a fourth. These are repectively by Nicolas Poussin, Picasso, deKooning and Pollock. Both the deKooning and Pollock were done in 1950.


Picasso fractured and recombined the space and forms of classical painting, deKooning, “liquified Cubism,” and Pollock strained out the illusion of recognizable forms or exterior references. Both deKooning and Pollock abandon the hierarchal structure, in favor of an all over surface of equal focus and finish. The painting, above left, called, “Excavation,” is 81 x 104.4 inches. It is the largest easel painting deKooning ever did, and is considered the masterpiece of his early period.

As I mentioned, DeKooning had consistently done representational pieces, usually of women. However his third series, entitled simply, “Woman,” done between 1950 and 1952 caused a semi-scandal in the art world.

The figure to the left, entitled “Woman 1″ is probably the most famous painting deKooning ever did, and certainly, the most infamous. People were scandalized by its ferocious demeanor, large breasts, and huge teeth. ( In another painting, deKooning actually pasted on the canvas, teeth taken from a magazine ad.) There is a stark contrast one feels from the impression of the piece at a distance and that from close up. From afar, these woman look like fierce, amazon guardians of some precious treasure. Approach at your own risk. They are forces of nature, and hardly seductive. Up close, however, one is struck by the elegance of the space, color and brushwork, that surround the form. The figure emerges from, and goes back into, the space around it.. This tension and seamless movement back and forth, is for me, what these paintings are all about. Some critics have talked about the artist’s evident misogyny. I don’t think that is what is going on here. Fear and awe are what come through the strongest to me. deKoonong famously said, ” Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.”
Here are some other paintings in the various “Woman” series.


Below Dekooning and his wife, Elaine, who was also a painter.

From the mid 50′s through the mid 60′s, deKooning’s focus turned to landscapes, nearly pure abstractions based on both urban and country scenes. This is the “classic deKooning” period, that influenced so many painters that followed. He talked about catching a “glimpse” of something, whether on highway, in the city, or on Long Island, and then started trying to find an abstracted correlative of that. Here are some paintings in that style.


Planes of paint slide, come into focus and go out again.Large, gestural paint strokes create deep spatial effects. deKooning was known for continuously reworking his canvases, always adding layer after layer of information. There is almost a sense of, “dynamic incompletion,” which deKooning courts. This period reflects the essence of ” Action Painting,” as Abstract Expressionism was also called. Here, deKooning seems to fight to establish, to virtually, create space-time anew, every session with the cnavas. ” I paint the way I do because I can keep on putting more and more things in – like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas of space.”

DeKooning, like Pollock, had always been a legendary, heavy drinker. By the early 80′s, Dekooning’s health was failing and the beginnings of dementia had become apparent. His wife came back to him after a period apart, and he now required more assistants in the studio. His work took on a lighter, more simplified quality.


Finally, as in those paintings below, the canvases consisted of just ribbons of paint. Sometimes, he required the help of his assistants while painting. He would also sometimes project images of his old paintings onto canvas and simplify the contour lines himself. Some people find these works to be examples of his diminished capacity. His work was, perhaps, not as consistent in quality as it had always been. I think, however, many of these late works represent a significant display of an unquashable, unconscious reservoir of ingrained habit and technique.

These simple lines and contours floating over the canvas have a feeling of Japanese calligraphy and, profoundly, as John Elderfield called it, “an articulation of vacancy.” These works make me think of Quantum Super Strings, vibrating through multi-dimensional space, creating the universe in all its aspects.


For me, deKooning is a giant. I have never seen anyone create such evocative, sensuous, and just plain, gorgeous, space and form, directly out of paint. With deKooning I always feel that forms arises out of space and is inseparable from it, in a way that’s different than any other painter. Everytime I see a work of his, even in reproduction, I want to jump for joy, and also to run to the studio and paint.

I want to wish everyone a great holiday season, and the happiest of New Years. See you in 2012.

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OUT OF AFRICA; MY PERSONAL JOURNEY

I’ve never done a purely personal post before. But lately, I keep thinking back to an incredible trip to Kenya and Tanzania that my wife and I took, a year and a half ago, to celebrate a big birthday of mine. An African safari had been a dream I’ve had since childhood.  I grew up when Disney and National Geographic did countless documentaries on African wildlife. Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” was my favorite T.V. show. I was always spellbound, in love with both the animals and the exotic settings. Later, I’d read and loved all of Isak Dinesen’s novels and short stories, Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night,” Elspeth Huxley’s “Flame Trees of Thika,” Kuki Gallmann’s “I Dreamed of Africa,” Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and many other stories and histories of British East Africa. And then, there were the movies. The ultimate being, of course, “Out of Africa,” Sydney Pollock’s great film (one of my all time favorites) with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and arguably, the best movie score ever written, which was composed by John Barry. So, when I did go to Africa, it had to be Kenya. Here we are, above, having breakfast on the Masai Mara, on the morning of my birthday. I felt like I was inside every romanticized Hollywood movie I’d ever seen about Africa – except for the tupperware!

Our first couple of days were spent outside Nairobi, near Isak Dinesen’s (aka Karen Blixen) farm. Her real famhouse, below, is the model for the one in the movie, “Out of Africa.” Her actual house was quite a bit smaller than the film version.


Left, is the farmhouse Dinesen owned, right, my wife, Kathy, at what remains of the coffee processing plant.

Between the giraffe coming through our window on the second story of an old manor house, and the view out the window, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Our brief stay at Giraffe Manor was a smooth introduction to the idea of being an intruder in this vast animal habitat.

The property was orignally an orphanage for abandoned giraffes. Nearby there is also an orphanage for baby elephants.



After two days outside Nairobi, we flew to the Maasai Mara, for the start of our “safari.” The Mara, tucked into the south-western corner of Kenya, is the northern continuation of the great Serengeti plain which crosses the Equator, and stretches into Tanzania. It’s the home of the famous bi-annual animal migrations from north to south, and south to north, as the wildlife follows the water.

The Mara is the home of the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people with very distinct dress and customs. Below, left, is a Maasai village, right, a group of Maasai. Wherever you see Maasai, you inevitably find their cattle nearby. Cattle is the measure of wealth for the Maasai, and a central part of their culture. This time, they were in the middle of the road.



The first afternoon, towards sunset, we took a guided walk to a waterhole. We were not alone. A pride of lions approached nearby. We found ourselves closer than I had ever dreamt of being, to a lion in the wild.

It took me a while to believe we were, indeed, where we were. Experiencing lions in such close proximity, right away, made me feel like I was in one of the scores of documentaries I had seen. Having been exposed to so many films of Africa and her wildlife, I was almost desensitized to the real thing. What I felt was not just culture shock, but cellular, genetic shock. It was being transported back to an earlier time in the development of the species. The memories were still alive but covered by our veneer of civilization and remoteness from the natural world. When they were awakened, however, they were incredibly powerful. I felt alive on a different scale.

For the next four days, our young Maasai guide, Nelson, showed us even more incredible sights; cheetahs, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, among what seemed like a parade of endless wonders. Like all the Maasai we met, Nelson was warm, bright, and eager to show off his homeland to us. I was particularly struck by how the Maasai who go to school, seem to effortlessly balance their worldliness with their love and pride in traditional culture. The government mandates that schools and medical centers be located in reasonable proximity to all villages. This is an attempt to wean the Maasai from their semi-nomadic way, to develop a more ‘”modern,”  fixed, social structure, by using  a contemporary, “wired in” education, to plug young people online, into global awareness. The young Maasai we met seemed very comfortable straddling two worlds. How the tension between the two forces plays out, however, is a controversial matter in the national politics of Kenya. Here are some of the amazing animals we saw out on the Mara.


We were fifteen feet away from these cheetahs who were feasting on a fresh kill. Even Nelson couldn’t believe how close they let us come to them.
Below, hippos heading down into the Mara River, and crocs coming out of the water.


Elephants were everywhere, and for the most part, completely oblivious to people, even with their young.


Kathy and I back in camp.


A birthday celebration the staff threw for me on the Mara. Unforgettable.

The next day we sadly left our many new Maasai friends, and went to Tanzania to see the southern Serengeti, Lake Manyara, and the Ngorongoro Crater, a world heritage site.

Here are some of the marvelous animals and landscapes we saw there.


Our favorite baby monkey.

A yawning lion.


I could never get enough of zebras. They’re everywhere, especially in the Serengeti, alongside the wildebeasts, during the migration.


Here are two of the typical camps we stayed in.

The camps we used were all fixed sites. Every night, no matter which camp we were in, to get to, and from, the common dining area, we had to be acccompanied by a Maasai with a spear. We could often hear lions close by and ominous thrashing in the brush. The nights were as black as they can only be where there is no environmental light pollution, and the stars of the Southern Hemisphere shown with the most intense clarity. Night was alive with sound. One was lulled to sleep by a varied cacophony of animal noise.

It was the wildebeast migration season, and they often filled the horizon. Tens of thousands of animals on the move – and ocassionally, resting. What a sight.

There were always, however, others besides us, who just watched.

On the way to the Ngorongoro Crater, we stopped at the Olduvai Gorge, often called, ” The Cradle of Mankind.”


The gorge is a steep ravine that snakes for 30 miles through The Great Rift Valley. It has been the source of the oldest hominid fossil remains of our species and its progenitors. Louis and Mary Leakey began excavating here in 1931. Their work was continued by their son, Richard. The record for the oldest fossil remains has, over the last few decades, gone back and forth between Donald Johanson’s discoveries in Ethiopia ( eg. the famous, “Lucy,”) and Richard’s new findings, here in the gorge. Regardless, it is a magical place that fills one with awe at the thought of standing, literally, in the flow of evolution.


From Olduvai, we went on to the Ngorongormo Crater, which has been called,” The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It is a huge volcanic caldera whose area is close to 100 square miles. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site that is the permanent home of over 25,000 large animals, and  even more, during migratory season. There are game trails up the side that allow migratory animals in and out. It is basically, however, a completely isolated, unspoiled location. From the edge of the crater the view is breathtaking, from inside, the concentration of animals, incredible.



The most dangerous and aggressive of all the big animals, is the Cape Buffalo.

When they’re not hunting, lions like to sleep and cuddle. I was always shocked at how close they let you get to them. The king of the jungle is certainly not afraid of humans.



The awe and humility one feels being in this wild and ancient environment is life changing. It gives one a new sense of the order of things, and of how humankind fits into the larger environment. In some ways we have come far, but in others, we are so disconnected and out of harmony with the planet. One can’t help but feel we have been made custodians of a priceless treasure that is our duty to protect. Without this living history of our past, what kind of future will there be? We are all, “Out of Africa.”

I want to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. I feel such a deep gratitude to have been able to see these wonders in Africa. I hope everyone  has the opportunity, at some point, to fulfill one of their life – long dreams, as I did, with this trip. Thank you all, as well, for your terrific support of the blog.

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Flash Post; Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time.”

Anthony Powell’s twelve volume cycle of related novels was published over a 24 year time span, from 1951-1974. In its entirety, “Dance to the Music of Time” is a major arrow in the quiver of any serious Anglophile. The series chronicles a fifty year period of British culture and manners through the reminiscences of one character, Nick Jenkins
(think Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby.) It’s wonderful fun to see how his chums and acquaintances at University come in and out of his life, in evolving circumstances of their own. From school days, Deb Balls, and country weekends, we start to see the outline of romances and incipient careers that are to define them all. We see The Spanish Civil War, WWII, (with flashbacks to WWI,) through post war changes and evolutions in everyone’s life. It is especially delicious to watch the introduction and rise, of Nick’s great nemesis, the despised Widmerpool. He is originally mocked as awkward and incompetent, and barely tolerated by the group, but of course, rises to great position and power.

In the words of the critic, Robert Selig, ” This twelve volume sequence [ A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. The standard excitements of old fashioned plots…seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers, in intricate human arabesques.”


The series is named after the famous painting of the same name by Nicholas Poussin, done in 1638. The painting is considered to represent the passing of time and the different stages of the “wheel of fortune.” These are poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure. The cycle starts with the male in the back representing poverty. He longingly glances at labor, the muscular woman to his right. She eagerly grasps wealth, who is dressed in gold skirt and sandals. She, in turn, locks hands with pleasure, who glances knowingly back at us. Too much pleasure can lead back to poverty, with whom she, in turn, is also bound.

Anthony Powell was an insider in London’s heady, literary Bohemia. He was close to Evelyn Waugh, A. N. Wilson, and Kingsley Amis. Many of the characters in “Dance” are based on real people whose identities were obvious to those contemporaries in the know. The books received critical praise as they were released and were also, commercially successful. Although twelve volumes in length, “Dance To the Music of Time” reads easily. I found myself reading the whole thing in about a year, reading other books at various points in between. Sometimes I would read two or three in a row, other times, interrupting the flow with several other books between volumes. Individually, and as whole, they are uniformly fun reads, with enough substance to maintain a long term commitment. The whole cycle was adapted both as a radio, and later, a TV series. While not as deep, or quite as well written, as “Brideshead Revisited,”  ” Dance to the Music of Time” is an absolute  must, and a serious pleasure, for anyone interested in 20th century English culture, history, politics and manners.

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Poetry: Mark Strand & Jack Gilbert, The Head and the Heart of the Journey Within.

Jack Gilbert (left) and Mark Strand are two towering poets whom I admire greatly. They both write in clear, plain, direct language. They both travel deeply within, and exhibit a piercing, keen intellect. You could say they are also both pre-occupied with themselves, the I, but they are oriented on different axes. Here is a famous poem by Strand, Keeping Things Whole.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces

where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Some of the elements present here are typical of Strand’s work. These are, a focus on self, but in the context of absence and insecurity. There is also a sense of loss, but kept at a distance. It is quite revealing that Strand who had once studied painting, before focusing on poetry, wrote a famous book on the great  American painter of isolation and alienation, Edward Hopper. He observed that Hopper’s characters seemed ” trapped in the space of their waiting.” Strand and Hopper share that feeling, and a sensibility, where the surface of either the poem or painting is a kind of screen that creates a necessary barrier to the external world that protects the inner self. Let’s contrast this with a poem by Jack Gilbert, called, Finding Something

I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,
because horse is the closest I can get to it.
I sit on the terrace of this worn villa the king’s
telegrapher built on the mountain that looks down
on a blue sea and the small white ferry
that crosses slowly to the next island each noon.
Michiko is dying in the house behind me,
the long windows open so I can hear
the faint sound she will make when she wants
watermelon to suck or so I can take her
to a bucket in the corner of the high-ceilinged room
which is the best we can do for a chamber pot.
She will lean against my leg as she sits
so as not to fall over in her weakness.
How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

With simple language and a beguilingly lyrical setting of the scene, Gilbert brings us directly into an intimacy almost too anguished to bear. We are led so quickly from the outside, into the deepest heart of human experience, that we are stunned, breathless in shock and awe. “It is this lyrical mix of anguish and grace that make Gilbert’s poems so rewarding, and so heartbreaking.” As James Dickey said, ” He takes himself away to a place more inward than is safe to go; from that awful silence and tightening, he returns to us poems of savage compassion. Gilbert is the rarest of beings, a necessary poet, who teaches us not only how to live, but to die creatively, and with all meaning.”

Mark Strand has been a very prolific poet, and has won every award  there is to win: Fulbright and MacArthur Fellowships, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer, and been Poet Laureate of the U.S.  Jack Gilbert has only published five books in the last fifty years, and two of those have been in the last five years. He has won prizes and was a finalist for the Pulitzer twice, but is hardly known to the general poetry reading public. He is considered a “poet’s poet.” He has spent much of his life, living abroad, and therefore been out of  mainstream media attention.

Both Strand and Gilbert give us startling insights into themselves and ourselves. Strand always presents a polished, cool surface. He is insightful, and provokes stimulating thought, though is often, slightly aloof. Gilbert throws us deep into the muck of life, but always with an incredible touch of lyric grace. Strand gives us deep thought, Gilbert deep emotional insight. They both constantly delight, and are two great examples of why we need to read poetry.

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POETRY: THE PHYSICS OF LOVE BY DAVID LEEDS

In honor of my eighth wedding anniversary, a few days ago, I wanted to share this poem with you. It has a special place for me, because it was the first poem I wrote that was published. In case you don’t know, quarks are considered the most elementary constituent particle of matter, in the current “standard model” of the universe. They come in six “flavors,” which are a form of spin; up, down, charmed, strange, top, and bottom. I thought this painting of mine captured something of the feel of the poem.



The Physics of Love 

I wonder how I see you at all
when I walk into a room.
The emptiness inside you
between molecules of skin,
is the space between stars.

The smallest part of you is quarks,
top or bottom, up or down,
charmed or strange, locked
in a kind of orbit, but never staying
in one place.
No wonder you are out of focus.

Inside you, magnetic fields shift and spin,
a crazy dance of violent tides,
free from the cycles
of any moon.
It confuses the hell
out of the stuff
that holds me together.

There is so little of us,
in all this nothing.
What gives love
enough weight
to be named.

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Poetry: “The Weight” by Linda Gregg

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a poem by Linda Gregg, called,”The Weight.” It is from her terrific book “Chosen by the Lion.” Linda is a wonderful poet, and along with the great, Jack Gilbert, one of my two poetry mentors. This poem has just been rolling around in my  head  so much lately, that I’d like to share it with you.

 

The Weight

Two horses were put together in the same paddock.
Night and day. In the night and in the day
wet from heat and the chill of  the wind
on it. Muzzle to water, snorting, head swinging
and the taste of bay in the shadowed air.
The dignity of being. They slept that way,
knowing each other always.
Withers quivering for a moment,
fetlock and the proud rise at the base of the tail,
width of back. The volume of them, and each other’s weight.
Fences were nothing compared to that.
People were nothing. They kept standing,
their throats curved against the other’s rump.
They breathed against each other,
whinnied and stomped.
There are things they did that I do not know.
The privacy of them had a river in it.
Had our universe in it. And the way
its border looks back at us with its light.
This was finally their freedom.
The freedom an oak tree knows.
That is built at night by stars.

I’d love to hear everyone’s feelings and thoughts about this poem.

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The Still Point

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Compotier, 1883-7, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance
is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

 

This still life by Cezanne was the first painting I saw that made me realize that art is not merely a reproductive, or illustrative process, but an encounter that can touch on the sublime and the infinite. It elevated me to a place of profound stillness, that felt like timelessness. I felt lifted up and given a glimpse of a higher plane of reality, of being.
This painting hung in The Fogg Museum at Harvard and was an image taught in the introductory art history class I took first semester of my freshman year. I found myself visiting it often over the four years I studied there. I would stand, both mesmerized and transported. The apples were not just apples. There was a weight, a solidity to all the objects, indeed, a plasticity to the very space they inhabited, that felt at times overwhelming. The table, the jars, the fruit, the space itself, seemed as if they had always been there, and always would be there. They seemed to stand for every piece of fruit, every table, every jar, that ever existed. They seemed to contain the entire universe in them. No beginning. No end.
Was it the compressed compositional geometry, the forced perspective and abstracted spatial relationships, the tonal modeling and harmony…? It was certainly all these things, But also, it was something quite ineffable. There is a liminal feeling of being completely present. Somehow this quality transforms the specific into the universal, as it collapses past and future into an eternal present.
Cezanne transported me to a state outside myself, into a state of stillness
Not unlike meditation or prayer. Once again T.S. Eliot describes it better than I can
In Burnt Norton.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern.
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still,
Moves perpetually in its stillness….

Cezanne’s approach to “representation” brings up important questions
about what is ”realistic” and what is “abstract” in terms of painting.
I will talk in other posts about these concepts, and especially in relation to the way we actually see. Hyper-realism is a dramatic abstraction of “reality”
And the way we actually perceive the world. More later.

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