Category: readings

Time’s Possible Reconfigurations

I’ve been making my way at a glacial pace through Mark Strand’s Selected Poems. Plodding of this sort tends to happen with me and poetry; I’m usually so wary of careless gorging on line and meter that a thin volume could take months for me to get through.

I found this copy in a new-to-me used bookstore at the beginning of the year; it was the first of this poet’s works I’d ever picked up, although I’d gone to a reading of his. The piece that convinced me I couldn’t do without the book was “The Coming of Light”*– but what I’ve come back to ever since I grabbed it from the shelf is the author’s photograph on the front cover, a black-and-white shot of a handsome man in confident middle age, assured of his place in the world, maybe a bit cockily so. I continue to be struck by the totally conventional portrait, because I would never have recognized the man staring out at me; that reading I attended, mentioned earlier, took place only a few years ago, right before the poet’s death at age eighty. The thirty-four years that intervened between my book’s publication and the night I watched him discuss poetry and libretti with Renée Fleming meant, of course, a marked change in physical appearance. And I could be incredibly wrong, but I’m guessing the mellow gent who seemed unconcerned with letting the opera star take over would have looked with a bit of amusement upon his younger self’s relaxed photographic pretension.

Photo by Miriam Berkley, via Blackbird.

I thought of that (possible) difference when reading “Old People on the Nursing Home Porch.” The title makes it evident whom we’re observing here– and I have to wonder if the Strand who would have been one of their peers might have shaken his head at the vaguely arrogant assumptions the younger Strand had made in the prime of his life, about the “dullness” of their past, and their “ending up with nothing/Save what might have been” in “the wasted/Vision of each one.”** Did this slightly pitying observance contain the fear of a possible personal future– and perhaps because of that fact, make it impossible for the observer to imagine these seniors as they once were, as presently happy, and/or as more than the sum of their slow rocking? Or might the poetic voice (and not necessarily the poet) feel itself immune to this variety of ravaged fate? I wish I’d known more (anything at all, actually) about Strand’s work before listening to him talk not so long ago; he seemed approachable, and I might have felt comfortable enough to ask him about that earlier piece. Now, though, I’ll have to settle for a more discomfiting, because less theoretical, search for answers: namely, coming back to this particular dilemma, and asking myself the same sorts of questions, if I’m lucky enough to be able to do so another three decades or so down the line.



*     “The Coming of Light”

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

Mark Strand, Selected Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1980), 115.

** ibid., 8.


Words to Fill in for a Lack of Words

How the hell am I supposed to review Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric? Like everything I’ve read or seen by her, I can’t; I simply can’t do anything but sit there in awe. The closest I can come to articulating anything useful is to note that, just after the final narrator claimed she didn’t know how to end what she was doing (or rather, end the situation that had created and was creating the very need for this volume to be written), I finished her book– and had to write, “NICE,” meaning something closer to a marvel-saturated “DAMN.”

Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

From Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know how Rankine does what she does– but it’s not even worth admitting I’m envious, because that’s got to be just a given for anyone who reads or sees her work, and is such a useless complaint when faced with unquestionable artistry– and urgently relevant artistry at that– that maybe the best response is simply to stand in sheer gratitude to the phenomenon that she is.

Incidentally, I went to a lecture and reading Rankine gave not too long ago, for which people lined up over an hour in advance (for a poet!). At some point during one of the narrated videos she played, I noticed an inordinate amount of sniffling– and looked around to realize that I and everyone around me were crying.

And here’s the great and terrible fact about that response: it’s still not enough. Because the force of her presentation unavoidably magnifies the force of the situations/realities/tragedies she describes, something has to be done. There you are, faced with your own complicity and responsibility, and the unshakable demand– on behalf of others (and) inseparable from yourself– that you damn well better go forth in real solidarity.

The Play’s the Thing

Unknown photographer; from the Leo Baeck Institute via Wikimedia Commons

Unknown photographer; from the Leo Baeck Institute via Wikimedia Commons

I ain’t gonna lie, people: it’s been a tough and sometimes scary week, and I almost wanted to bow out of a gathering of a play-reading group I just joined, a nice, unassuming bunch who just want to get together and read things out loud. I’ve been looking for just such a thing for years now, and yet there I was, feeling so beaten down it seemed I was incapable of doing more that crawling into a corner and going into prolonged hibernation.

I forged ahead, though, and showed up to take part in reciting Red, John Logan’s drama about Mark Rothko. There are only two characters in this piece, so the readers switched out each scene, a compromise that was actually a perfect arrangement. With what ended up being one big, famous painter with a tendency to (in the play, at least) wax philosophic while yelling at his assistant, the latter of whom wouldn’t take his verbal volleys lying down, it was nice to be able to step in and out of bouts of spoken intensity.

But what absolute therapy– getting to hurl insults and express indignation left and right, without hurting anyone’s feelings or having massive repercussions come crashing down around your head! The act of reading the written word out loud, although not entirely different from sitting alone and quietly imbibing statements and dialogue, does change the experience of interacting with said word. In one sense, that’s obvious; perceptible sound has now been brought into the interpretive mix; the aural atmosphere has changed. But when lines get voiced, and are spoken between readers of the same text, suddenly, what it means to be engaged in a participatory experience is widened, less predictable, more exciting, more interesting. As a bunch of good-natured amateurs play off of each other, feed off of and add to each other’s energy, the same words digested in the lone comfort of a single, quiet reader’s head almost become, in this new situation, animate, independent beings involved in a conversation that somehow transpires between, and yet beyond, the speakers and even the words that have been chosen for them.

I’m not making a great deal of sense, and may seem to be caught up in romantic rapture. But I’ll go with it, at least for the moment– partially because I don’t really dig being part of a theater’s audience, and so my sudden enthusiasm for drama is a bit puzzling. Unless all aspects of the production are considered elite-level– and even then–, the stage frequently just doesn’t do it for me, and I’m bored in the presence of what so often seems a stilted situation, from written dialogue to live performance. And I’m guessing, were I to go back and read Red on my own, I’d walk away feeling skeptical about whether anyone ever behaved this way in real life, even an historical figure known to have had an outsize personality. But with a bunch of people in the back of a coffee shop, stumbling over lines and laughing at our own flubs? Beautiful. Satisfying. Fun and restorative.

Maybe that’s what the theater is supposed to be, and what’s missing for me in perfected productions: a sense of being an actual part of a living– not endlessly rehearsed, or smooth, or simply observed– conversation. Not just suspending disbelief, but really participating, to the degree that your absence, or that of any of the other readers, would feel like a loss. It’s only speculation, but I’ll try to keep the considerations in mind the next time the group meets– and hopefully provides just as much healing as it did the other night.

Trying to Account for Taste

In what was a very delayed blow of the obvious, I realized the other night that I’m not well disposed towards theater as a performed variety of artistic production. Oh sure, I love reading a good play, and I’ve seen the rare stellar one performed over the years– but unless done with improbable skill, staged drama and comedy tend to do nothing for me; for some reason, it’s always apparent that something unnatural is going on in the way these people are acting, and were they walking around in real life as they are on the stage, they’d come across as stilted and/or unable to be themselves. In other words, the very “grammar” of much theatrical delivery feels obviously performed, affected; I’m rarely transported into that realm were disbelief is suspended.*

It should have come as no surprise to me, then, that I’d walk away unmoved from a read-through I went to the other night– where a cast of five delivered their lines while looking at pages on music stands, and made no pretense about this being a full-fledged theatrical presentation. And surprise it really wasn’t– but what I did find myself wondering on the train home was why these things leave me uninspired when I can walk away in raptures from readings of poetry, or of passages from a novel or essay– and why I love reading texts aloud with others or having them read to me, whatever the genre, even if we trip all over ourselves while making the effort.

I was also puzzled about why I’m often more than happy to tune into a radio play, but not enthused by the very same text being read in front of me by actors in the same room. At first I thought the lack of visual distraction– a reader’s gesture or facial expression– might be key. But then I also remembered that audio books, sometimes even when recorded by their authors, make me want to run screaming in the opposite direction, hands held firmly over my finicky ears.

In some ways, none of this makes any sense. What is it about certain modes of delivery that makes simple enjoyment of the sounds of words, or of the presentation of an idea or situation, not enough? Where reading out loud with a group of people is concerned, could part of the draw be that we’re not making any attempt to place an audience, or even ourselves, in a believable alternate universe? Part of that pretense is still there when a cast reads from their pages to an audience. But I’m also beginning to wonder if this disconnect has something to do with intimacy, at least when things are presented live.**

When friends, or even strangers, read aloud in a group, there’s already a certain relationship that exists between these people exposing themselves to each other, taking a bit of a risk, albeit minor, that they’ll sound foolish or less than masterful or ignorant of correct pronunciations. With readings given in front of an audience, the cast still experiences that risk, but the audience has nothing to fear for itself; the cast rarely sees or is present with them in any meaningful way. With a single author or poet, the vulnerability of a cast member is doubled; this is not only a presentation you’re giving; it’s your very work, even you, in a sense, being put on display– and so the relationship and trust asked in a certain way from the audience may differ from what’s required of a troupe passing someone else’s words through their mouths. At the end of the day, that troupe isn’t fundamentally responsible, or totally, at least, if spectators walk away dissatisfied.

That’s the best I can come up with at the moment; maybe there’s really nothing to come up with after all, and it just boils down to an inexplicable taste for one thing over another. Any thoughts? Having given up, for now, at least, on this conundrum, I’ll go immerse myself in the intimate exchange between reader and unadorned word.



* Maybe one of the reasons I can do opera is that at its foundations, it doesn’t really aim for verisimilitude; after all, I can’t think of anyone who goes through life communicating primarily through song, and usually very difficult song at that.

** Remember, I dig radio plays– but I don’t think intimacy can really be established with a bunch of disconnected voices, at least not in the same way it can be with live, present human beings.

A Flash of Intuition

The other night, I sat in a crowded studio to witness an out-of-this-world performance by a pianist and a poet, tag-teaming each other with their respective talents. The former blew me away with what she was doing on the keys; the latter, although interesting, suddenly threw me back to a decisive moment from the semi-remote past.

As the wordsmith sat up on stage and delivered his lines in what could only have been a mode of enunciation achieved only after several rounds of attentive preening and vocal experimentation, there I was, stuck once again in a seminar on Martin Luther. I don’t remember what we were going over; we’d taken a good, hard look at the 95 Theses the week before, and maybe we were exploring some of the theologian’s more creative insults or his selling out the peasants when they demanded some rights from landlords. What is still crystal-clear, though, is an eager boy’s hand shooting up and asking for clarification, and the instructor, without looking at anything or taking even a nano-second to hesitate, referencing a particular thesis out of the above-mentioned document, quoting it, and then going into a lengthy explication. It was impressive– and I realized in that moment that I had zero desire to devote the amount of time and narrow focus it would take me to achieve anything similar to what had just transpired, at least not in the service of professional scholarship. Hell, Luther wasn’t even this professor’s specialty, and for all his trained talent at rapid-fire sorting through brain files and applying the most appropriate specimen to an out-of-the-blue question, he really didn’t seem satisfied with life at all, and I knew, in fact, that he was lonely.

Of course, it took me years and a whole other degree program to admit to the truth of the instinct that had hit me in the gut that day, but that’s another story. What that memory flash signaled for me a few days ago was just what it would take (other than actually completing a written project) to get me up on that stage, with a slew of published books and an in-the-know audience ready to praise them, and maybe buy a copy of something: namely, constant slogging through and keeping up with literary circles and scenes; maintaining an organized, systematic method of submitting to and tracking pieces’ fates at various outlets; finding an agent; cultivating a public personality; marketing myself… It all left an exhaustingly bad taste in my mouth. And in line with my considerations of late regarding the OK-ness of not writing for publication, and with a recent post up at Brain Pickings about Umberto Eco’s and/or Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s anti-scholarly nature, that transport back to a past moment of insight made massive heaps of sense. Finally, even though the imagined outcomes would not have been necessary results of chasing two different dreams, just as I was made ill at the thought of sharing my professor’s fate of being a sad knowledge machine, here, too, I was repulsed at having to turn into a version of this hip word-boy, if that was the price of literary success.

All this speculation may simply be a case of protesting too much, and/or letting myself off the hook. But sometimes, the gut is infallible.

The Elusive Translation

Damn, damn, damn! Here I am, a day after attending an absolutely brilliant reading of new translations of Bertolt Brecht’s love poems, able only to find the German original online of the piece that absolutely knocked me to the floor last night.* And, conscientious translator that I am, I realize it’s technically illegal for me even to essay a private attempt at rendering the thing into English without prior permission. But since it’s been easy to find the verse auf deutsch all over the blogosphere (and since page 28, on which the poem in question, “To M,” is found, is conveniently unavailable for viewing on Amazon), I’ll paste it at the end of this post, so that you can get the full pathos and suck up every last umlaut if you so desire.

You realize what this means, of course. I’m going to have to buy another book, damn it, when I already have enough of a problem keeping my wallet chastely closed whenever a purveyor of fine print material happens to give it a come-hither wink.** And when I’ve got the hot little volume in my hands, maybe I’ll quote some of the amazing lines from this unexpectedly hard-tender lament, whose teller lets in the whores and beggars and rabble because the “you” so desperately needed inside isn’t standing around waiting to get in, and an empty ache needs to be filled at any cost.

It almost reminds me of the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, where the invited guests decline to drag themselves to the celebration, so the king tells the servants, “‘Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (NRSV) There’s more to the parable than that, and it gets weird and uncomfortable, as is often a biblical parable’s wont. I don’t know enough about Brecht even to wonder whether he was making any sort of allusion here– but I get the feeling he wasn’t. It’s just long heartache, pure and simple, on the other side of which is a numb acceptance or resignation or successful conditioning into submission thanks to prolonged schooling in reality.

Well: until I’ve gotten a hold of the new volume, I’ll leave you with a beautiful runner-up that is available for preview. Behold, “Sonnet No. 19”:

One thing I do not want: you flee from me.
Complain, I’ll want to hear you anyway.
For were you deaf I should need what you say
And were you dumb I should need what you see

And blind: I’d want to see you nonetheless.
Given to watch for me, companion
The way is long and we’re not halfway done
Consider where we are still: in darkness.

“Leave me, I’m wounded” is not good enough.
And nor is “Somewhere,” only “Here” will do.
Take longer with the task: but you can’t be let off.

You know, whoever’s needed is not free.
But come whatever may, I do need you.
I saying I could just as well say we. ***


* While undertaking this futile search, it was made painfully plain to me that something limiting has gone on with the diffusion of Brecht’s poems in English. On site after site, I found the same selection of poems, with hardly any variation. The guy wrote hundreds of pieces, and everyone just decides to stick to the same few featured in anthologies?

** Hell, even before going to the reading, I threw down some scarce cash for Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers. I guess I could make myself feel better by reminding myself that 1) I could be buying street drugs, and/or 2) a person can’t live by bread alone, & etc. Still, the ability to make rent and utilities is not an overrated experience.

*** Bertolt Brecht, Love Poems, translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), 86.


In jener Nacht, wo du nicht kamst
Schlief ich nicht ein, sondern ging oftmals vor die Türe
Und es regnete, und ich ging wieder hinein.

Damals wußte ich es nicht: Aber jetzt weiß ich es:
In jener Nacht war es schon wie in jenen späteren Nächten
Wo du nie mehr kamst, und ich schlief nicht
Und wartete schon fast nicht mehr
Aber oft ging ich vor die Tür
Weil es dort regnete und kühl war.

Aber nach jenen Nächten und auch in späteren Jahren noch
Hörte ich, wenn der Regen tropfte, deine Schritte
Vor der Tür und im Wind deine Stimme
Und dein Weinen an der kalten Ecke, denn
Du konntest nicht herein.

Darum stand ich oft auf in der Nacht und
Ging vor die Tür und machte sie auf und
Ließ herein, wer da keine Heimat hatte.
Und es kamen Bettler und Huren, Gelichter
Und allerlei Volk.

Jetzt sind viele Jahre vergangen, und wenn auch
Noch Regen tropft und Wind geht
Wenn du jetzt kämest in der Nacht, ich weiß
Ich kennte dich nicht mehr, deine Stimme nicht
Und nicht dein Gesicht, denn es ist anders geworden.
Aber immer noch höre ich Schritte im Wind
Und Weinen im Regen und daß jemand
Herein will.

(Obgleich du doch damals nicht kamst, Geliebte, und ich
war es, der wartete -!)
Und ich will hinausgehen vor die Tür
Und aufmachen und sehen, ob niemand gekommen ist.
Aber ich stehe nicht auf und gehe nicht hinaus und sehe nicht
Und es kommt auch niemand.