The Other Monster

July 15, 2017

Monte Alban 2

 

“This is the hour when moonstruck poets know
What fungi sprout in Yuggoth…”
FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH, H.P. Lovecraft

I recall “Weird Tales” as a vestigial memory in the magazine rack of my childhood. I didn’t know anyone who read it, but I didn’t know anyone who read” Scientific American” either. There’s something embarrassingly peeper and voyeuristic about it, like smut promising men’s adventure mags, it was a publication that adults warned children to stay away from…or at least keep in the basement by the paint and turpentine…

Oh no wait, I’m having either a disgusting Proustian moment, or planting a memory. My Uncle’s Uncle may have been a perv…now I only have 3,999 more pages of recherché…

Or maybe he just found them and kept them like he saved other kinds of paper. Maybe that’s either part of his concealed perviness. Or it’s symptomatic of a mental McGuffin meant to throw me off the plotline that he had a second family in a village in Greece, a wife disfigured in WWII who he had tried to poison but failed, however she has turned mute either as a consequence of the poison, or to disguise her own plan for revenge, but having only a partial right hand she remains even more dependent on him than most Greek peasant wives. Nonetheless one Tuesday morning he leaves her promising to find their fortune in America and send for her. He sends her money orders from the illicit quarters and nickels he makes collecting “bug” slips over on Squirrel Hill. She can’t write. He sends money but more and more sporadically, not knowing if she’s alive or dead. The cover of that issue of Weird Tales” is illustrated with a man with an open shirt, sweating heavily, looking anxiously over his shoulder at a shadowed twisting road…yet stereotypes can translate with unexpected nuances. The picture may have served as something like an icon of his guilt, or a protective image of the patron saint of constant flight.

Otherwise he seems annoyed and busy with keeping books. When he does that he puts on reading glasses that disturbingly make him appear as if he is both reptilian and dozing, at the same time his lips move silently mouthing his calculations and column headings in Greek. He is rude, nearly abusive, to his ‘second’ wife who is from a second-generation Greek immigrant family rooted on a desolate island. He berates her in English, she mutters back Greek folk sayings that could be curses or protective jests, then lights another filtered cigarette. She is pious, laughs nervously, bakes incessantly, and blesses even the smallest of events, laying down a low trump card, or flicking her cigarette and missing the ash tray. Perhaps she was the one who found the magazine. Her frugality is relentless. She saves Christmas used Christmas paper under her bed.

In my memories I don’t recall seeing my Uncle’s uncle paint, or do a single domestic chore…perhaps the paint, turpentine and “Weird Tales” belonged to a different person altogether. A relative of a relative who barely spoke English and needed work, or needed to barter off a debt. After he had painted the interior, he arranged the leftover supplies neatly stacked on a basement shelf with the magazine he had been trying to read to practice English, but found he had no form in any of his languages to correctly translate the events that the cover and pages promised to unfold, so he left it behind, not wanting to throw away a book, even though it had no meaning. Perhaps during the war, he had witnessed book burnings, been forced to burn his own books, or been coerced to burn the books of others…somehow found himself stimulated by it. He may have carried some kind of sensibility in his fingertips as he riffles the pages of a book the way others might feel pleasure caressing fur. Leaving the magazine perfectly arranged on that shelf gave him an incomprehensible, detached satisfaction, a quiet sense of order. Perhaps he tore up a different copy to wrap his paint brushes when he had finished cleaning them. Folding the pages of the fantasy sub-Hells into envelopes to keep the bristles straight with the kind of ingenuity that comes from a generational tradition of endemic poverty that demands painstaking thrift, and intimate focus on re-utilizing and preserving. He left it then as a bonus, a kindness, that indicated gratitude and optimism.

Or the basement isn’t a basement in that house on Ravenwood, but a waiting tentacle of some Lovecraft creature beneath, the untranslatable fungus that paints itself with fear, but only as a lure…an attraction to the unconscious mind of someone who has picked up that edition of “Weird Tales”. It is another eternal fungus that lives by eating memories. For decades it may rest dormant, encased in a seeming insignificant forgotten detail, and then once remembered it’s released and begins its awful blooming. I can barely recollect my Uncle’s uncle now. He has been dead for more than two generations. I didn’t like him very well. Whether he had a disfigured second wife or no, he was a short-tempered, unpleasant man with poor digestion, who always appeared to want to be somewhere else than where we were. Although I try to keep any memory with the kind of compulsive hoarding the “Weird Tales” has come to represent. If by long meditative work I could organize my memories into a Memory Palace, he would be in an imagined basement represented by a peripheral and disregarded fantasy magazine that, strangely, if it could be removed from its immutable location, I would read it, but with the amplified depth and expectations I might bring to translating a remnant form of a different civilization, perhaps a fragment of a myth not included in “The Metamorphosis”…at least as a text with a meaning beyond its circumstance. On the cover is a man looking over his shoulder at a shadowy twisting road. Like so much, it is incomprehensible, but will not stop.

Reader don’t leave me here. Do you feel what this horror pulp has generated? Or is this merely near the 15th day of the Seventh month…and I’m being psychically enlisted to bring magazines to my dead relatives whose spirits Chinese bankers have come to possess through collapsed junk bond loans wherein a side codicil encumbered the souls of immigrant dead as collateral. Or I put my own family in Diyu when I set a scribbled drawing of a nu gui on fire and tacked it to a classroom wall as an illustration. Either way I must pay rent in Diyu. I know nothing about the hungry realms after death, except we will sweat through our shirts to try to escape, and some of us would rather remain here as even as a fugitive, intermittently growing fungus buried in an obscure publication than enter an existence predicted only by the longing we feel for things that aren’t there.

Perhaps this extrapolation can be dismissed as merely a rare, but possible, side effect from my last two weeks of writing and rewriting a sonnet about Georgia O’Keeffe’s black door paintings, and then looking up from my computer to discover “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, in all its B & W smuttiness, had replaced my expected distracted viewing of Wimbledon. O ironic cosmos that places stars into the boot soles of Whitman, and larvae in the commas of Lovecraft, why have you denied me the pleasure of watching images of deer-like women athletes chasing across green lawns and left me hypnotized by the image of woman’s sadistic, disembodied head ordering murders and capriciously refusing to be grafted onto the body of a gullible strip tease artiste’? Why must there always be a monstrous hand behind the locked door? Why should a sleazy tenor sax solo be the prelude to another failed giant leap in scientific titillation? At least in the film’s Armageddon the other monster escapes, Deus ex Machina, in time to rescue the peculiarly gullible stripper, then surrounded by gray fire, the talking head laughs like my Uncle’s uncle’s wife.

Now I really must end, “Victor Frankenstein” is on in Spanish and I’ll have to concentrate to translate dialog from a burning circus in Victorian London. Except this, two weeks ago a woman sent me an e-mail asking me to critique a poem wherein the Frankenstein monster tritely would ask its maker “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I suggested she change the line to “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” for period resonance, reflecting how the Brits used to love dead Greeks at the end of the Romantics. Tuesday night, I ran into her at a poetry reading. She whispers,“Did you know, it’s what Jesus said…on the cross, I think.” O fungus come now. It’s been that kind of summer, lots of turning roads, dark doors, bad translations, and resurrected monsters all whirling in the rearview mirror. We all used to love terrible things; we try to convince ourselves to believe we still don’t.

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Demon Ship

November 26, 2016

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Demon Ship

Last Sunday I’d been rereading D H Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” with the slow careful reading I lavish on revising. Revision is a peculiar human act, I don’t think any other creature revises its past to effect its present. I awoke that Sunday hearing Lawrence reciting from an unbidden memory I carried from a recording I used to listened to in 1975. Reading Lawrence on line during travel in the mountains of New Mexico near where his ashes are buried briefly felt apropos enough to disguise my unconscious attraction to the voice asking “Have you built your ship of death…?”. It’s been a year of changes.

It began in January with a family death. For most of my life I’ve been estranged from my relatives, so when we share passages the distance is more apparent and unforgivable, the summer family reunion was only a little less awkward than the wake. Then came an unusually despairing spate of manuscript rejections. The top of the guitar I played for thirty years split. I began the frenetic task of opening another new second chance campus in a defaulted church community center. Happily and tearfully, I walked my daughter over a rough bridge to the meadow where she was married. I turned sixty-five. Donald Trump was elected. A water leak changed my library into the room that used to contain my library. Erasure/revision has directed me to re-think what I believed I knew in different, sober directions.

 Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul // has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises. “The Ship of Death”, D.H. Lawrence 1929 [41-42]

Some days I’m lucky enough to stay in a house on a mesa road above an abandoned cloister. It possesses enough quiet I can pretend to hear the hiss of the earth rotating. I spend the days in a few chores, walks in the cold, arranging visits, and preparing meals. Without the distraction of paid work, the days feel pleasant, refreshing, but fraudulent. Learning to re-think emptiness borders on the barely possible. I failed at my first retirement, the burden of filling the hours with myself was too exhausting. That effort also taught me to recognize that the dream I carried of being a writer was probably only going to make me an interesting correspondent, a private poet, and romantic author of blogs a few people read. Still, adjusting to leaving dreams behind seems nearly impossible too.

The dreams of writing and literature I’ve carried unquestioned since I was an altar boy, in turn they have carried me to quiet, to repose. They give me license to disengage and observe the world. In payment I dutifully provide a few decomposed sentences that have been revised, rewritten, questioned, tortured for more information, and then filed as magnetic data. It’s something like religion. Writing has been my monastery. A near silent lifetime of reading and writing has been the defining and confining discipline of my life.  And still its secretive possessive revelations, archane processes, and continual self-criticism attract me. It rewards me with spiritual struggle and a community of phantoms, living and dead. It sounds pompously creepy.  I go there to serve; ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

But my days of confession, redemption, or therapeutic explanation are past. In this cold now, the signal traumas of my personal past mean less and less, whether Freud, Jung, Maslow, Bill W., or Dr. Phil was right, doesn’t matter. There are plenty of drugs to help me not feel any specific discomfort I choose. Even if I were more cured, more self-actualized, or even more published, it will do little to change the day to day of my future. I will write. I will die. We don’t have to talk about the why of it anymore. It seems a fitting time to consider the captain of the Ship of Death.

For many of my generation the shock of the election of Donald Trump has been like encountering a Tibetan Demon in person…or more accurately, on social media. The Internet is a distant image of a nearby world, constantly scrolling, infused with confession, anger in minutiae, religious and poetic imagery, mendacity, and a menu of fears d’jour. Many of my FBBFs are negotiating anxious apocalypses, released depressions, moral catastrophes, and dooms writ large and small. Many are writers,  I understand their stylish flourishes of dismay.Many are defriending. I will allow my age to permit me to declare much of this, illusion. Maya. Mara. Mirage. Mr. Trump may be as horrible a demon as some suppose, perhaps worse. He should be credited for the intellectual and spiritual havoc that surrounds him already. But the specific and social versions of our responses are our own projections. Those are our own orange headed demons. I read a woman’s post describing being overwhelmed, “I have to see it on social media to know if it exists.” A Twenty-first century variation of reality.

Mr. Trump’s projections are presently beyond my ken. Saying nothing ameliorative about the politics of the moment, Mr. Trump won’t be on my ship; I doubt I’m on his. He’s an active symbol in this depressive moment, but I don’t want him to possess my moments. He’s just one more part of the struggle for me to revise personal change. As I grow older, most change is revising losses. So I use some of the accreted wisdom from writing about being conscious for fifty years to attempt to write and revise this experience into a meaningful nothing special, a not inspired, a commonplace. Right now I need to write a vehicle of perseverance and appreciation to travel into these moments.

I need to see them in writing to be sure they exist. At the same time, drawing on my recent experiences I know any and  every one of the pieces I create, revise and complete can be washed away in plumbing mishap, bagged in black plastic at the curb awaiting heavy trash day, or just kicked around like any other thing in the material world until it falls to nameless ruin. Although it’s  years of invention, concentrated self-criticism, re-revisons and labor unfulfilled or completed, I know my work is already traveling in the continuum of the random past. It’s a ventriloquist’s dummy in a suitcase I carry to tell you my life. It’s already on board the ship of death.

darkness at one with darkness, up and down // and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more // and the little ship is there; yet she is gone. “The Ship of Death” [68-69]

However, encountering a demon is both illusory and real. Demons serve a transformative purpose in our world.Random annihilation exists for all things. I have no notion if inanimate objects know fear or pain. There are quite beautiful experiments showing clear water possesses the molecular capacity to reflect both serenity and distress. My cosmological universe begins with Ovid and Lucretius and finds its ceiling at chapter five of “A Brief History of Time”. I can’t conceive of the fractal my sixty some light years of motion would delineate in the space/time continuum without feeling dazed. Theoretical physics has the same effect on me as Zazen. For me the nature of being alive is to continue on in the arc of life for as long as we can endure. At a friend’s suggestion, I read The Hidden Life of Trees, an account of the consciousness of the arboreal world. According to Peter Wohleben trees have prescience of their impending demise and flower abundantly. Most humans don’t possess the prescient grace of trees; that’s why we need apparitions of demons like D. H. Lawrence and Donald Trump.

Ages ago as a species we internalized the herd instinct to flee into intellectual worlds of panic and anxiety. We evolved internal migration clocks into obsessions with mechanical timekeeping. We continue to travel in migratory urges in a proud variety of vehicles, in rigid commutes, and vacation pilgrimages. But more essential to our character, we can translate personal death into abstraction. We’re not the only creature that understands or mourns death; we are the only creature that mourns its own death before it happens. We also belong to a species that has learned to distract itself from death by fixating on revising its world. We defer the simple processes of living and species procreation to construct abstract tasks. It’s as selfless and self-serving as building a church or writing an essay. I abandon living my life temporarily to write about my life. Writing is like reading only better, it empowers writers to slowly revise the tenor and details of our existence. But we always read and write in a burning library.

So…One evening I’m walking towards a labyrinth and as a bell sounds I see a Tibetan Demon.

If I revise this sentence enough times the factual details blend with what the reader needs to have happen. For instance, the labyrinth and bells do exist in my neighborhood, but the bells didn’t ring. Those realities don’t matter. But when I wrote I live near a labyrinth, readers began to doubt me more than when I wrote I saw a demon. However, for the sake of the one line story it’s imperative a Demon arrive,  although it’s the most improbable of the three  events. More fantastically I have chosen a demon that bears a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and that fabrication makes all of it more credible. Writer and reader create an imagined bond of shared veracities in the process of writing and revising.  Not everyone lives near a labyrinth, but everyone lives near a demon.

Recall initially I was writing about “The Ship of Death”, contemplating my mortality by stanza. Instead you and I now seem to have strayed off task pursuing a Tibetan Demon that vaguely looks like the President elect. We will collaborate on this distraction only for as long as it provides us the shared pleasure of belief. Belief allows us to endure absurdity. I contemplate sad nuances of my demise and you enjoy it. What holy demonics are we looking at?

Tuesday afternoon I met friends for lunch in Santa Fe. New Mexico’s capital prides itself on being spiritually hegemonic. As we strolled around it was impossible not to see the borders of belief are constantly crossed. Posada style skulls embroidered on linen aprons, Ganeshes molded in local beeswax, milagro embossed crosses made of dried chiles, clan totems and fetishes in silver and turquoise laid on the sidewalk, prayer rugs hung in display windows next to crocodile boots, santos night lights, sandalwood malas, gemstone malas, greeting card prayers to the patron saints of domesticity, a three foot polished brass Shiva surrounded by earrings, cartons of scented votives, hand knotted Persian Qoms stacked in rolls as makeshift office walls, Kachinas scaled human and rendered in glazed ceramic and gold, mandala coloring books, calavera coloring books, sitting Buddhas in garden stone, sitting Buddhas of hardened clay, Our Lady of Guadalupe marking a ladies room, illuminated Mughal manuscript pages, imported Polish painted wood crèches, pinon incense in miniature pueblo houses, gold pendants of Gaia, prayer flags hanging above a tamale cart, Palladium prints of Angkor Wat, a startled Mexican peasant hand carved on a crucifix, bundles of white sage next to an image of the Dali Lama, nazar amulets in blue glass, Mudra broaches, nazars by Swarovski, Quan Yin standing on a sea of cashmere pashminas and, of course, windows and walls decorated with brilliant demons from Tibet in a variety of formats.

Some of this artwork is genuine, some religious replicas pretending questionable provenance, and some mere decoration, but all of it is for sale. It’s an ironic market of distractions designed to help a supplicant overcome worldly distraction. Negotiable memento mori. Visiting spiritual bazaars like these I feel at ease, floating, as if I’m almost at home, arm and arm in the company of friends. I saunter in raw weather surrounded by iconography.

A gypsy refrain played by a band of itinerant musicians drifts across the plaza. Probably I’m not much different from a medieval peasant daydreaming during services in an unheated cathedral. It was near the eve of a holiday for me, the secular-religious feast of Thanksgiving. Walking down San Francisco street, I found myself devoutly grateful to be back in love with the world. Pleased to wander through this reconstructed city of commercially celebrated death, not yet surrendering to Lawrence’s silent sea of abandon, or enduring Trumpian rule, but still alive, looking for my car along the transcendent backstreets of holiness. The lesson of the demon is always to make one see the virtues of the ordinary life, to appreciate a sip of water, a shivering afternoon drifting past silver breath by silver breath.

The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell // emerges strange and lovely.    “The Ship of Death” [97-98]

Hegelian Timex

October 30, 2016

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Since August I’ve been wearing a watch again. A cheap Timex, my Internet fancy from summer, delivered for less than the price for lunch for two. Periodically I fixate on looking at watches, for a while I tried out their intimate ticking to cure insomnia, one more failed cure. At weddings and family funerals, I wear my father’s Enicar. I bought it in Switzerland; I was fourteen. It doesn’t bother to keep time more than a day. To know today’s real time, I use my phone. My new handsome Timex used to be what was termed a whim, a trifle to look in. Around dawn I woke up on the couch. “The Isle of Dead” that I was watching as I fell asleep morphed into a teenage girl (portrayed by an older actress) who discovers an odd text on hypnotism that entrances adults portraying adults into romantic slapstick. It was Saturday, I didn’t have to make a time clock click, so I tucked back under the covers upstairs. Back in bed Carol & I read our phones in luxurious weekend pace. We were waiting for Junior to come by to explain why the roof leak I traded a months’ pay to disappear, reappeared.

Since August completing simple tasks at my job have been shifting from middling stressful to middling chaotic. Friday my coworker & I shared an AM commute to work with Devo singing along to “DNA Smart Patrol” until we turned at the block the new campus shares with sex workers. Silence seemed inadequate. Stressful and chaotic are relative vocational terms. Confusing innocence with not having done something, I imagine I might be cast as one of the passing townspeople in “Nights of Cabiria”. In reality from, poets to prostitutes, we all get paid, or pay people to act in tasks we don’t want to spend time from our own lives to do.

My job at my new school remains frustrated by temporary technology and backorders. For five days this week I’ve been salaried to waste time walking up and down stairs to check pages at a printer, deliver a form for a signature, or travel one office to another to ask or answer a question. Hopefully I’ll replace myself with devices. Clever machines that are manufactured, and later disassembled, by people invisible to me. Those lives may appear a bit better than the women walking the street in a moral sense, but not much different in a qualitative or quantitative sense. They’ll be abused, abandoned, die early. Everything moving takes us along willing or not.

This year is also the 246th birthday of Hegel. Most of my life I’ve been willful in misinterpreting Hegelian Dialectics as egocentric relativistic analysis rather than a reflection of an absolute bipolarity. This morning that process appears roughly equivalent to memories of a former lover’s expression, sighing the line from J. Alfred Prufrock, “that’s not what I meant…”   Still I’m older than Hegel ever was (longevity being a different relative value). Being philosophically orthodox has currency, but life accrues like tree rings. I’d rather profit by dark parsing with a lost lover than diagraming reflexive arrows, but I can’t now.

What matters in this current now, is the ceiling has been leaking from the room above the library. The leak is real and metaphorical, it’s symbolic, but it doesn’t symbolize anything specific. Who Carol thought to be Junior calling from his habitual tardiness, was a friend explaining their tardiness returning a call with a date for dinner. Time, as Dali depicted it in Tempus Fugit feels less painful than the exegesis of that intoxicated distortion, time is a narcotic.  We hoard time in dreams, cut it like addicts with razor blades and triple balance scales dividing years into minutes, seconds and femtoseconds. We decorate gardens with sundials, astrologically measure out futures on ancient charts of stellar sand, reckon time in disintegrating atomic fountains of combed atoms, crust clocks with filigree, or construct private time machines like my father’s watch. They are legerdemain, illusions to slur perception of our time’s inexorable passage, at best, like a Hegelian dialectic, they allow a transitory sense of correctness. It was now 9:41, but 9:41 has already disappeared. Yet that once misinterpreted lover’s glance continues, she continues brushing back her hair and brushing back her hair, if only to me, only lost without periodization.

The dinner engagement in the telephone call was being postponed due a trip to Brussels, polite domestic disarray, and his Halley’s mind is slowing, dissolving, cognitive slippage. She has forgotten more than I’ll ever…her lyric goes twisting off, a comet disappearing as her past present future. She’s dying by many names, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis. It’s monstrous and horrifies me. The prayer to St. Joseph I memorized as a devout pre-adolescent seemed inconceivable then, now a desperate, sincere sentiment. Even the iconography, a robed figure resembling Santa Claus carrying a lily, come to fetch life from peaceful sleep is attractive. It’s exponentially more attractive than the 1945 Boris Karloff portraying a Greek general opening his wife’s grave on an island quarantined by a disease that can be stopped only by a sirocco. Still the plot’s misguided cinematic fellow travelers will forever share a film of life inhabited by thieves, servants, and a semi-comatose killer in a negligée.

That’s where I fell asleep. Mr. Karloff, expending a last sigh of screen time into his near canine expression of pathos, the sad grimace of television, we the unseen audience, aren’t anticipated to recognize until the ironic last line. “He was only trying to protect us.” He wasn’t such a monster after all, just pretending…another patriarchal titan obliterated as the credits rise to disappear. William Pratt (Boris Karloff) spent much of his time exploring bipolarity of a dialectic inherent in the artifice of monster and victim. His craft was a construction of flickers, nuances, voice tones and eyebrows to encompass intimate loss and cosmic rage. At the films’ end our common factual knowledge returns as words superimposed, in a contrived order for a floating instant, then replaced by the name of the second assistant director, the key grip, part of the union contract with Marx and Hegelian dialectics. Who does work, who profits?

That morning I had been reading [How to Legally Own Another Person] in bed by touch screen phone. The article began nuancing behavior between employees and contractors, then somehow concluded the Saudi Government profited from subcontracting monstrous men to fly stolen planes into 9/11. For a minute it resonated within my experiences (excepting Saudi references), at least the detailed behaviors in the P/L food chain resonated enough to allow me time to contextualize the frenetic running I had been doing for days. We bind people to tasks we won’t exchange our time to accomplish. The pay, the trade of monetized time for real time builds the scaffold. Why do I tie my own tie?

My dialectic shifted with St. Basil’s chapel high noon chimes. I’m not sure if they signify arrival or loss. Junior knocked. He arrived to survey the residue. He wasn’t wearing a hat, uniform, or any branding (or a watch). He looked annoyed and hurried, according to the article, that made him a contractor, or a terrorist. Another exchange, an additional reflexive line. The longer the arrow, the greater the opportunity for interference. I work for a woman, a devout and apostolic believer. She points to a continuous relationship with her personal salvific moral imperative, direct and vigorous. Her prayers get answered by God’s Bullseyes, no deflections. Her information demands obedience, powerful as a shaft of sunlight extending from a divine furnace. Miracles, martyrs, ecstasies and mystics don’t require wrist watches. It’s my contemplative, bent reflexive arrows that require waiting to reflect on what desire means, the lunar pulling that turns, waxes and wanes. My arrows diagram the tenuous.

This morning in my pajamas I think I’d like to have breakfast and I’d like to travel to Bayreuth to endure    the Ring Cycle Festival. Two thoughts, the first simple, requires no historical exploration beyond the blind physiology of hunger. It doesn’t matter if it’s morning or midnight. Bayreuth can point tangentially to Hegel, to my experiences visiting historical localities. Maybe some detail in the geography or architecture will signal an idea. Another diagrammatic arrow strays, points to Nazis.  Did Richard Wagner unconsciously write the theme music for the NADSP? Wagner’s admirer, Adolf Hitler, never missed a production of the Cycle at Bayreuth until he decided to invade Poland. Der Fuehrer made Wahnfried, Wagner’s villa, his second home. I treasured Niebelungen since I chanced on the Arthur Rackman illustrations.  I was just a boy. However even moral imperatives as relative as mine struggle justifying Hitler and Nazi iconography with a vacation impulse.

The reflective arrows for my trip grow a dandelion crowned with 180 degrees of yellow fingers pointing accusingly. I’d be disingenuous to pretend the direct impulse that Dylan Thomas christened “green fuse”, to be catechism or intellectually less, (or even genuinely here). It’s always louche to be irreligious, I can’t be. Theology might be argument, but religion is held in bodies. It’s an instinct, a need to follow backwards, to touch water and light. The shadows set by monoliths at Stonehenge, sun tunneling into Newgrange, stone gates of a bull star, laurel left in the Parthenon debris, crawlspace down in chambers of a Zapotec pyramid, temporary blindness in Muir Wood, Raven’s stolen fire told with salmon on the table, the raw beginnings of Heaven. It’s who we are. I love the Fool, but not the foolish, I know morning’s Hegelian dandelion has exploded in tetrahedral parachutes, floating past recall or recapture.

In another week I’ll be back in a hotel room. Following God, or more likely where God used to be.  It’s the overture that opens the way over the mountain pass, a perfumed breeze after winter. We are so often pilgrims without destination, hearing the hush between stone columns, blinking in a granite pool holding the sun’s circle, hunching on plastic hospital chairs. We seldom find what we’re looking for. We seldom find anything. Old God, my God, why have you forsaken me here of all places? In the muddle of a dialectical as familiar as dead relatives, as aimlessness as looking for a ghost wandering the corridors of the Pollard Hotel. Below me lurk bears and early snow vowing a late summer marriage.

 

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KA TA SEE Persona PART TWO

Some persona poems are a double distilled poetic form. Basically a persona poem requires a voice speaking from a dramatic situation. Since the Modernist Period dramatic has diminished to a context that allows for a kind of oblique self-portraiture.  The poems require a literate, alert audience. Like wearing a mask, it requires the observer to know who is being portrayed and then appreciate the nuances of the delivery. If one arrives at a masquerade ball as Edgar Allen Poe, but is mistaken for Count Dracula the droll charm in describing one’s cocktail with sad alliteration is lost. The persona poem is both formally demanding, and imaginatively freeing.

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues in iambic pentameter were the model of persona poetry for Ezra Pound. Browning revitalized the form by fragmenting the traditional epic into shorter dramatic monologues. Robert Frost wrote some wonderful dramatic monologues like “Witch of Coos” and “Death of the Hired Man”. They were traditional in that as readers we understand the voice is Frost, but not the persona. Pound discussed fragmenting the form into masks of portraiture with his colleague, T.S. Eliot. He also made some arrangements to have Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in Poetry Magazine and now millions of students know what to do with the bottoms of your trousers when you grow old. Prufrock is the Twentieth Century’s most familiar persona character. J. Alfred wasn’t T.S. Eliot and he was. Eliot’s favorite poet growing up was Byron, yet ironically Prufrock seemed his poetic antithesis.

Byron is an underappreciated master of the use of poetic persona. Byron’s masterwork, “Don Juan”, was considered scandalous, primarily because Byron himself was considered a scandal. Often the biographical character of Byron as the melancholy, erotic, wandering Romantic poet overshadows his craft and production as a poet. Judging from the behavior of graduate students frequenting cocktail lounges like Poison Girl, even today I suspect most would rather be Byron than be able to write like him. It’s a persona young poets like to adopt, it allows them to speak both as sexy, sophisticated, and world weary, when in fact they often studious, ambitious, and bookishly unworldly. Through the course of his career Byron was able to develop a poetic voice that was distinctively his, but wasn’t exactly him.

Although he was a historical character who didn’t seem to need much permission, he did need a poetic voice that allowed him to be heard without being the “Lord Byron”. Don Juan was already a literary mock hero defined as a womanizing, wandering scalawag whose life is complicated by paramours and their husbands. As a subject Don Juan is separated from traditional epic heroes and scalawags, like Odysseus, primarily by tone. Consider the BBC version of “War & Peace” and Woody Allen’s “Love & Death” plenty of death and suffering in both, but the introduction of satiric wit by Allen’s nebbish character relieves “Love & Death” of the gravitas of Tolstoy, and allows for the additional of a personal commentary.

The nebbish, or fool, descends to us from the European tradition of divine lineage. A fool was a persona given a dispensation to satirize royalty, that’s why he wears a mock crown. It was dangerous work. It’s worth remembering that during Byron’s life (and even Elliot’s) royalty and peers possessed genuine power especially in taste, literary matters and publication. We still classify much of English Literature by the monarch reigning during the time the work was produced. The fact that Byron was a genuine baron gave him education, class privilege, and entre that currently would make him one of the maligned “1%”. Nonetheless he became perhaps the world’s most fashionable rebel.

One of Byron’s poetic models was Alexander Pope, his poetry is what separates undergraduate from graduate literature students. Pope was one of the first writers who made a living from writing, subsequently he was very cognizant of who he offended and flattered. He had to publish his verse form “Essay on Criticism” anonymously. He translated The Iliad into heroic couplets and used the same couplet form in his mock heroic satires. Couplets both put an edge on Pope’s wit and extended him a certain amount of fool’s dispensation in powerful circles.

Know then, unnumber’d spirits round thee fly,

The light militia of the lower sky; (Rape of Lock)

 

Formal rhyme was, and still is, a verbal mask to draw attention to the fact that what is being said is both true and artifice.

Following the example of Pope, Byron’s gift for rhyme was initially topical and referred disparagingly to literary figures of his age. Not too unlike rappers who challenge each other’s skills, it was a way of representing, of demanding attention. Although he was facile in many forms, ultimately Byron choose to write his poem “Don Juan” in ottava rima, an Italian form often used in mock heroic epics. Ottava rima uses Cantos made of formal stanzas, each stanza end rhymes ab, ab, ab, cc.

Brave men were living before Agamemnon[22]

And since, exceeding valorous and sage,

A good deal like him too, though quite the same none;

But then they shone not on the poet’s page,

And so have been forgotten:–I condemn none,

But can’t find any in the present age

Fit for my poem (that is, for my new one);

So, as I said, I’ll take my friend Don Juan. (Canto I, 5.)

 

In the first six lines the poet refers to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces at Troy who returned home to be murdered by his wife’s lover, and claims he can find no contemporary. He roughly rhymes the name with the word “none” twice. In ottava rima the final couplet also serves to undercut, joke, satirize or re-address what has come before in the stanza. The couplet then re-introduces the mock hero (self) with a forced two syllable rhyme, new one/Juan, that introduces his friend, Don [jew one]. The couplet end rhyme changes the Spanish name to an Anglicized pronunciation. He cleverly identifies the character as both the Don Juan and English.

Ironically, this convoluted and extended verbal construction of “Don Juan” is often described as the truest voice of George Byron, who was neither Don nor Lord. Byron employed this form and proceeded to narrate the invented adventures of Don Juan for over two hundred stanzas per Canto, with seventeen cantos completed and more planned at the time of his death (that works out to approximately 3,500 stanzas, so a kind moment to consider Browning’s genius in concision might be in order.

Although to poets of the 21st Century considering a persona in the cantos of “Don Juan” seems incalculably far off, they were published less than a hundred years before Prufrock, which itself is now over a hundred years old. Byron/Don Juan as a persona continues to survive. Perhaps it was best exemplified in my generation by Jim Morrison. He adopted Byron’s dark, troubled, jaded, Romantic persona down to the flowing opened collared shirts and sadly early death. As a poet and performer he was able to inhabit a parallel Byronic construction as a persona to speak through, a possession with obvious risks.  Unlike some of his musical contemporaries like Miles Davis or David Bowie he didn’t invent his artistic persona and subsequently couldn’t re-invent himself as a periods of artistic invention evolved.  I have friends whose son-in-law makes a living portraying Jim Morrison in a Doors tribute band, Strange Days (not be confused with other, inferior, Doors tribute bands). Jason Tosta impersonates a person inhabiting the persona of another person. He recreates an image of Jim Morrison in studious detail, even attempting to have Frye make him replica boots, but he is an actor. His audience pays to watch him re-present a performance of a completed act. He doesn’t (I hope) allow himself to try to speak through the late Mr. Morrison.

My professional introduction to the dramatic monolog/persona poem came through the generosity of Richard Howard, the poet, essayist, and translator. At 86 he is still a master of the  literary style of the persona form, a style that employs formal precision, intimate historical erudition and poetic revelation. His literary maestro was Henry James who didn’t write persona poetry, however Richard did serve a sort of apprenticeship with W.H. Auden whose “The Age of Anxiety” used four characters in barroom to poetically explore their failure to actualize.

Since the publication of Untitled Subjects in 1969, Richard Howard has populated poetry with dramatic conversations between, about, with and from a humbling variety of personae both real, fictional and fictionalized. Richard anticipates a salon of sophisticated, literate readers to participate in his invented conversations. Using his encyclopedic knowledge of culture and translator’s apprehension of belle lettres he produces poems that express his view of the world as paradoxically sad, unpredictably revelatory and elegantly disconnected. One may hear the voice of Goliath speaking from the severed head cast in the Donatello bronze, listen to a peasant’s description of the poet Holderin found worshiping ancient gods in his garden, eavesdrop as Oscar Wilde gives Walt Whitman a copy of Fleurs de Mal, submit a letter composed by gifted fifth grade students asking for a cure for coitus, or read the response written by the Envoy in Browning’s “Last Duchess”. They are ballet-precise, intelligent poems drawn from a life of conscious immersion in art and culture. They’re designed to be performed aloud to an audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the dramatic situation, as well as the poet’s wit, consummate craft and unashamed genius.

That stylistic braggadocio is part of the style. It is a demonstration and a proclamation. Howard sees himself as a poet in the tradition of Pope, Byron, Eliot and Auden. A formal tradition carried on through today by other poets like Rita Dove, Frank Bidart, and my friend Veronica Golos. These variations of persona poem are poems bound to literature in form and existing characters, and allow the poet to speak only within those structures. They can ask the questions their persona answered, but they can’t extrapolate to resolve questions beyond the text. The poet willfully imprisons their life in the persona figure and performs a dramatic escape act.

Persona Bones

June 29, 2016

KaTa See

KA TA SEE

Persona Stories

Last Saturday was Persona Day in the Jemez Valley. Two of my favorite poets, Leslie Ullman and Veronica Golos came to support the Friends of the Library. Veronica is excited about her new book Rootworks. Leslie has a new volume Oblique Strategies in galleys. It was the type of casual weekend that only English teachers imagine might be part of their vacations. Bright, skilled writers talking about their experiences writing as other people, everyone on their better behavior, cookies in abundance and literary discourse without having to call on that person who wasn’t paying attention. Genuine poets and home baked cookies I don’t expect much more from life.

Both poets were insightful and responded with the kind of spontaneous interplay that make these type of discussions worth preparing for and having. Veronica and Leslie discussed the complicated ethics, individual techniques, and their personal experiences inhabiting other voices. Then there was snack break and the listeners wanted a writing exercise. It fell to me to provide one. As I gave directions and allowed time for responses, a momentary blank came, and then I heard a voice say “Write down what you want to leave behind.” The voice was mine. It was the kind of unconscious burble that happens under social pressure. You adjust and deal with it, it’s a writing exercise, some disorientation is expected. Forty minutes later we were at a buffet dinner. By noon on Sunday everyone had dispersed. Carol and I had an appointment with a traveling shaman for an afternoon of Ka Ta See, Peruvian bone reading, and soaking in the pools at Giggling Springs.

Growing up Roman Catholic visiting a fortune teller was regarded as a Mortal Sin. It was demonic, Satanic and, the priest added, probably a con. We weren’t even supposed to put coins in the Madame Fortuna machine in the Penny Arcade at the amusement park. I felt guilty if I read the fortune in my cookie. There were some gypsies in town, but they didn’t act like Maria Ouspenskia in the werewolf movies. Religion seemed determined to prevent any contact with spiritualism.  However, when I was twelve my grandfather got lost driving the family to visit the shrine of St. Anne Beaupre. Unexpectedly I had a waxy vision and told my grandparents and cousins in a few minutes we would see a man on a tractor wearing a green shirt and red hat who would give us directions in French, but we would understand them. It happened; everyone shut up about it immediately. After all it was a religious pilgrimage, visions were appropriate for saints, but apparently not as a backseat activity. Silence was my Grandmother’s default setting for children, especially on car drives. She had had experience from the end of the Golden Age of Spiritualism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Mediums and the Spiritualism Movement were as popular in the Modernist Period following The Great War as “Game of Thrones” is today. In the world just before radio and movies, performance was the only kinetic art form. Magicians like Harry Houdini were the equivalents of rock stars. Vaudeville, tent shows, circuses, carnivals and even riverboats were still the vehicles that brought entertainment to cities and towns. Even simple acts (or complicated ones like Houdini’s) had to be ‘put over’ in person. The actors and musicians may have been bored, but their performances were regarded as genuine by those who watched. For the most part Houdini only pretended to struggle in order to manipulate his audience. He could get away with this because there were no recordings of his act other than gossip, still photographs, newspapers and advance publicity. Each new town was allowed to believe what they were seeing was death defied in their presence. It was harmlessly exploiting the naiveté of the age. Mediums fell into that category of symbiosis, but not perhaps as harmless.

For one preternaturally hot summer I was involved a married woman. The romance was ending badly in final sweaty assignations and denial. She took me to visit a psychic she knew who lived in Kentucky. Not backwoods Kentucky, but a trailer park, a little north of Independence. By night he was a short order cook at the truck stop off the Interstate, by day he would swipe at flies and have visions for $15. He put three small black stones on his head and kept them in place with a stocking cap. He fluttered his eyelids and talked about giant yellow winged Venusian angel creatures whom we would soon contact, he saw a desert where life could breathe ammonia. He didn’t answer my friend’s question about leaving her husband. Opening his eyes, he looked at me as if he knew me. “You’re an only child. You’re the only male heir. You are the last of your line.” Nothing he should have known, nothing I wanted to hear. She asked about my future, looking to see if she were there. “I see arc carbon.” was his reply.

We stopped seeing one another. The following summer, I had a job managing an old cinema. One night I was visiting with the projectionist up in the soundproof, fireproof booth. In a tray next to one of the projectors I asked about the bronze lined stubs the size of bullets. “They make the light…electricity arcs through carbon.”

Sensitives speak things they shouldn’t know into a world that might understand them. It’s an old tradition in nearly every culture. People want to converse with spirits and get their advice about the future. Both literally and figuratively it’s a marginal world. I’ve made a long sporadic study of seeking out practices, seers, healers, spiritualists, card readers and sacred locations. I found it ran in my family. I’m respectful but skeptical, one never knows where lightning will strike.

So Sunday afternoon I sat on the grass beneath an enormous cottonwood and watched a woman toss a double handful of bones onto the woven rug of the world. She held an owl’s wing and walked around in and out of the shade. She began, “This is about what you want to leave behind.”

Time Enough at Last

June 14, 2016

 

IMG_Glasses

I had my vacation reading packed for travel, the last Umberto Eco, the newest Murakami, several volumes of poems I wanted to reread without distraction, and my new travel companion, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel I read only in places other than my home. Literature has developed specialized contexts for me. When I think of myself, I think of myself as ‘the reader’, one writers imagine, engaged, articulate, and active. In spite of my handicap of reading slowly, I am patient and willing to stay in a literary relationship. I’m a cash customer, I purchase the books I read. I ask no mercy from my authors and in turn demand they deliver sophisticated thoughts and ideas, not merely kill time or invent thrills. Beach reads and murder mysteries annoy me. The farthest I’ve gone down that path was Sherlock Holmes, but only as self-required reading in my Victorian period. A fascination that actually started as a teaching project when I was working in Galveston Alternative Center for Education. I wanted to connect the curriculum with preparing students to visit and participate “Dickens On the Strand”.

It was an edgy, complicated social and literary endeavor. Thestudents were ‘alternative’ to being thrown out on the streets for the greater good of their high school, but still required by law to have a school placement. ”Dickens On the Strand” is the traditional celebration of Charles Dickens imaginary visit to Galveston. Nine blocks of the old historical district fit themselves out for hand bells, charming parades and an open street costumed party. It’s the beginning of Christmas. Quaint shops, twinkling lights, buskers and carolers. It was less racist than Victorian England, but it was de facto segregated (as much of Galveston was). Although the majority of the students I taught lived no more than ten blocks from the Strand district, none of them had ever attended. To my belief they were far more Dickensian than the folks who rented gowns, capes and canes to stroll the fantasy laid out in Galveston’s historical district.

My students believed they lived in G-town and they were G4Life.

When fantasies collide they best one often hopes for is irony.

Sherlock Holmes, even in film version, was incapable of holding our collective attention. The dialog was too overwrought, the restraint of the English class system too condescending, and Sherlock himself was just too annoying for us to battle through, and any essay topic from a Sherlock Holmes story is constantly doomed to explanation rather than interpretation. Dickens we could bring to life, a bowdlerized version of Jekyll & Hyde and by way of Internet “Jack the Ripper” these fired synapses and made connections. I made the same bargain with my students that I make with the books I read. I won’t waste precious reading effort with foolish practice exercises. If they’re going to work hard, they’re going to get paid. Freshman read A Christmas Carol, sophomores took on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Juniors and Seniors combined to work through Oliver Twist.  As we wrote we explored Dickens’ works and life, life during Queen Victoria reign, websites in England, the US and Japan, and the wonderful Brown University Victorian Web. They wanted the real literature, the same as other students. We all swam in Victorian literature and history. As the Strand date approached they knew more about our reading than anyone in the school that expelled them. They knew why gentlemen didn’t button the bottom button on the waistcoats, why ladies walked on the inside of gentlemen, where treadmills came from and what the staves in “Christmas Carol” were. On the day we attended “Dickens On the Strand” they recognized what was portrayed and they in turn were recognized as apropos portraits. It’s the type of genuine relationship more and more frequently denied students and teachers. It was one of the possiblitites teaching literature can provide. Reading was life changing.

In spite of burgeoning MFA Writing programs, there is a painful decline in the appreciation of capital L literature. There are many inter-related explanations for this, increasingly moderated curricula, focus of standardized testing, social media hive mind, loss of program funding, CAI lessons, the decline of libraries, anti-intellectualism, data driven values, and like philosophy, there’s not much money in reading literature. Beyond these cultural forces reading faces much more competition than it did when I was young. As I grew up it was books, senseless TV, family movies, church,sports or go to your room and build models. But now television and movies have transformed their forms from a half an hour or forty-five minutes of instantaneous gratification into long, brooding, completive inventions.

In spite of my predilection for bound books, I try at least, to remain neutral and open about the current and future states of reading. Consider the classic “The Untouchables” versus “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”, or the brilliant use of real time aging and realized fiction of the Harry Potter film/book franchise, or compare Batman as he appeared in Detective Stories #27 with Batman: Year One, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke , or the variant toned film versions. I laud the collective genius of modern forms. I can divert myself to a binge of series, excellent graphic novels, thoughtful blog communities, complex multiplayer video games, Netflix, Tennis Channel, Hulu, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mails and e-versions of magazines and newspapers, and constant texting to distract me from my chosen struggle to enforce my attention on a device that is a remnant of the end of the Middle Ages.

On vacation I can read or watch any of this without leaving my favorite chair…unless.

Unless something happens to my glasses. I’d been meaning to visit Dr.K., my longtime friend and Optometrist to have an exam and adjustment. It seemed my glasses weren’t clear no matter how often I cleaned them. But the school year and domestic events unexpectedly demanded days and suddenly I was gratefully driving to New Mexico. Except my eyes bothered me. They watered. They ached. Something seemed to be on my lenses. It was overcast and breezy on the drive, generally a blessing driving across west Texas, which in summer can be like driving on a brilliant griddle. Instead it was twelve hours of driving through sharp, gray glare. By the time we arrived in Amarillo I had a headache, a short temper and was an hour too late to get to the gym. The motel I used to have an ugly dog affection for had taken a few steps deeper into the surreality that makes a good story but a terrible night’s sleep.

It took fully twenty minutes of grimacing for the computer to yield a room number, a key and a registration to sign. Our room had been selected by the manager to be a recently renovated one, with wood floors, a queen bed and a flat screen television.  The door was the first one at the end of makeshift stone pathway near the empty swimming pool. After changing the air conditioner setting from frigid din to din, I looked up and noticed the smoke detector near the ceiling had been skillfully covered with a towel. When I attempted to call the desk to inquire about this anomaly, I noticed there wasn’t a phone. Fortunately, I didn’t sit down in the room’s single chair to make my non-call. It had been sloppily employed for other things, fluid things, terrifically non-hygienic things. The flat screen television the manager had proudly promised had indeed been recently screwed into the wall. Judging by the residue, patch and spackle work, it had put up a struggle.  After multiple trips to the lobby, it was clear the Internet was free, but didn’t work. I stood in line at the desk behind a dazed tourist from Germany whose room was flooded by the air conditioner and a man on his way to Missouri who had just spent two hours traveingl two miles on I-40 because a wreck closed the freeway. Waiting in line I recognized my situation could have been worse, and there was nowhere else to go. Cheerfully I mentioned to my wife that the dishabille of the room reminded me of our honeymoon room at The Chelsea Hotel; some things are better left… So I took an aspirin and sang myself to sleep trying to remember all of the lyrics to “King of the Road”.

In the morning I felt much better as I was the only person in the lobby who seemed to know how the waffle maker worked.  Any day that starts with a waffle shaped to resemble the State of Texas is bound to get better. In New Mexico it did. Miraculously there was an Optical Shop in a warehouse store open on Sunday afternoon. I took a number and surveyed the unfortunate selection of frames. In the past twenty-five years I’ve only had two pair of frames, number three was not going to come from their collection. I’m obsessive and my prescription is complicated and easy to get wrong. With the exception of sleeping I do everything with my glasses on. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. I feel about my glasses the way Vikings did about their swords. I want to be cremated with my glasses.

When Maggie called “#95” she looked around and hoped I wasn’t there. She was already tired out by the previous ninety-four. She straightened my wife’s frames and told her not to use the soft needlepointed case. We agreed on something; I liked Maggie already. She took my glasses, surveyed them and looked at me.

“I can’t get them clean.”

Immediately she seemed to know what that meant.

“The coating is coming off. What kind of coating do you have on these?”

None I knew I had paid for, but coatings are already applied to most lenses, so I had no genuinely useful information. I did however; possess a copy of the prescription. Presenting my prescription, I asked if she could use it to make me a pair of contact lenses without my reading correction so I could drive. We still say “make” in a nostalgic sense. No shop “makes” lenses in that they manufacture or grind them anymore. It’s too expensive to fight the economy of scale. I can buy glasses on the Internet from e-businesses that already know who I am, what I want and sells cheaper than Walmart. Most optometric offices examine your eyes, order your lenses and frames, and make sure they’re correct. They provide expertise and relationships. It’s why I visit Mark, both because he’s careful and competent, and because his father was my optometrist and we’ve know each other longer than my last two sets of frames. We call each other by our first names. In Maggie’s world I was the ninety-fifth person she’d seen on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded store that was still grabbing numbers. She wouldn’t even unfold the prescription. But about the coating…

“Dawn.” She said handing back my glasses. “Clean them with Dawn. It will take a long time and then they’ll get cloudy, but Dawn.”

I know I have Dawn at the place in New Mexico. I love Dawn.

So I’m in the mountains of New Mexico slowly, gently washing my glasses, coating them with Dawn, soaking them, waiting and repeating. Little by little they’re getting clearer. Mark called back. He didn’t know about Dawn. I asked him about an Internet hack I read of using SP30 sunscreen as a cleaning solution. It took over twenty years of building our relationship for him to be able not to sound like he thought I was vacationing next door to a meth lab. He’s sending me an emergency set of contact lenses. When I return we’ll make a new set of glasses. Neither of us want to think about finding new frames.

 

 

Summer II

 

 

 

The End of It

http://youtu.be/UkKo-jXl2CQ    Annie Lennox “Summertime”

It’s a couple of days after Winter Solstice. What sun there is, comes cold, strained, and weak. Christmas feasting is over; I’m tired of liking FB pictures of other people’s children holding toys. There’s low grade despair on the streets as shoppers exchange gifts for bargains. Nobody really wants another cookie, but another one gets eaten. There’s no miracle to believe in or reason for wonder or song. In another age, I’d have been tending toward Romantic melancholy, now I’ll have to content myself with Seasonal Affect Disorder or a call to my Health Care Provider’s Call-In Advisor. Today was the day I found Annie Lennox superb version of “Summertime” and the conclusion to this piece I’d been searching for since the summer ended.
“Summertime” being farthest away seemingly brings it closer, makes it precious in its absence.

Beyond her evocative voice, Ms. Lennox has a pulse of zeitgeist that has kept her a successful pop star (over 85 million records sold), in her various public avatars for nearly three decades. She seems to know in detail what she’s voicing, and is able to sense what her audience is searching for, perhaps before they know it themselves. She remains one of the consummate rock/video artist from the brief golden age of that art form. Each of her video productions displayed her ability to interpret collaborative images into collective portraits that are both emotionally expressive and wryly self-conscious. “Nostalgia” and this version of “Summertime” won’t diminish that oeuvre. Ms. Lennox remains one of the most intelligent and creative of the vocal artists to undertake “Summertime” and this rendition on her recently released “Nostalgia” possesses that mélange of memory and expression that has made faux memoir the form of our current age.

The version I’ve been listening to in a cold room is a pristine emulation of a Blue Note recording from the period of the early sixties. Mid-century style being just beyond the cusp of its current trend, “Nostalgia” comes as a slightly askew interpretation of standards from that period. I doubt this recording will either increase or diminish her stature. It is pleasing and smart, but not overly ambitious. It speaks more to utilizing talents in an interior mode than exploiting them to the pop audience she has attracted in earlier years. She lends her intelligence to “Summertime” and a personal taste in interpretation that has a feeling of historical fiction. She recorded it at the legendary Blue Note Studios and engineered it for a vinyl recording.

This is the only version of “Summertime” from this century I’ve reviewed. I had considered including the pleasant enough Nora Jones/Marian McPartland version, but there seemed more etude than interpretation for my taste… at least not enough to bring me back from my autumn stasis. The Annie Lennox version revived my “Summertime” thought with its subtle invocation of the tradition of “Summertime” as a vehicle, sometimes awkward and other times inspired to carry a complicated cultural sensibility. In some still moments afterwards I can hear the conflicted spirituality of the original George Gershwin /Abbie Mitchell recording. In her singing I heard hints of Miles Davis, and Billy Stewart mixed with a smoky Rudy Van Gelder living room intimacy, longing for a past that could have, but never quite existed.

Perhaps there is a fundamental artificiality in “Summertime” that shivering, bleak weather brings clearer. I’ve been wandering holiday airport lounges. I overheard a stranger’s unexpected intimate confession to a child. I walk my daughter’s dog as frigid evenings empty another day after the holiday’s passing…it’s that long night when summer is a luxurious memory rather than a relentless presence.

Creating both “Summertime” the LP itself, required creating a sophisticated illusion to make the interpretation a real space for the listener. Its tone reminds me of the more intimate Frank Sinatra of “In the Wee Small Hours” (which included “Mood Indigo”, also on “Nostalgia”). Lennox’s version of “Summertime” is a song hinting at a cabaret license, cigarette smoke and violins, serious cynical drinking and a slow, beautiful exposition populated with loss. Like other pop, and rhythm and blues singers such as Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, or Diana Washington, Ms. Lennox has found a mature interest in visiting “The Great American Songbook”.

“The Great American Songbook” is the traditional canon of Broadway and Movie tunes from the turn of the Twentieth Century Tin Pan Alley and ended in the1960s in the Brill Building (or with the invention of Bob Dylan). My travels with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” have deepened my familiarity with many of the Songbook songs, singers and styles that I had regarded as items folded in my mother’s bureau. They are songs that are easily memorable, relatively easy to sing (badly), and capable of enduring interpretation from a wide variety of styles, as my extravagant “Summertime” exercise has demonstrated. However they are mostly adult songs, complicated by experience and reflection. To interpret one, not merely musically correctly, but personally is what provides the challenge for the performer. Recalling Julie Andrews’ “Favorite Things” and John Coltrane’s interpretation provide examples of how much interpretation one of these standards could endure without losing its character. They are a treasury of two generation’s dreams and loss.

However, in the Twenty-first Century a standard like “Summertime” exists in a simultaneous multiplicity of interpretations. Annie Lennox in discussing her preparation for recording “Nostalgia” cites YouTube as a major resource. Ms. Lennox and I shared the kind of sonic research that began this essay six months ago that requires only an Internet connection, headphones and obsessive curiosity. The Internet is a portable research library, with semi-anonymous suggestions, hints, and wild hare tracks to follow. In the realm of language and opinion, the Internet has both sharpened and blurred the differences between academic and amateur scholarship. What were once Reviews of Literature, or anthologies, are now almost impossible to accurately compile because of the constant revision, insertion and invention of information on any given subject. In an area like criticism algorithms rule taste.

In the early eighties I recall purchasing a cassette tape of The Eurhythmics, “Be Yourself Tonight”, from a Boots Drug Store in London; they were breaking out of the hip dance club circuit and becoming MTV stars. Evenings after returning in rainy walks from the tube station I listened to it on a hand held tape recorder. Those nights harkened to the days when as a child I would listen to rock, girl talk, and rockabilly on a pocket sized transistor radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow. Both were relatively the same size, and just a little thicker than the phone I carry around now. The songs played over and over as I puzzled out meanings and nuance quite literally as if I were receiving personal coded messages from nearby space. Now they come to me as lullabies releasing scents of a Proustian memory.

I doubt the androgynous masked Annie Lennox of “Sweet Dreams” would have envisioned such a project as “Nostalgia”; still experience teaches the limitations and adjustments our talents. Ms. Lennox’s chosen repertoire has supported her voice with amplified inflection, style, and gesture. Regardless of her work’s high art aspiration, she’s in show business, in direct descent from the line of chanteuses, who have as Gershwin would have requested, can “put over” a song. What has made the difference is experience has deepened her emotional pallet, and created spaces for her share the spotlight with a song. My supposition is the intention wasn’t to possess “Summertime” the way her persona inhabits songs like “Why” or “Walking On Broken Glass”, rather something else more personally reflective and self-satisfying. It’s the accumulation of loss and disappointment, of age and maturity that makes this “Summertime” an interesting interpretation. It embraces the deep artificiality of the song’s original operatic premise as part of the broader reality of its interpretations.

Eighty-one summertimes have arrived and dissipated since George Gershwin adapted a spiritual fragment into a minor key blues lullaby. Only the song has remained constant in its dreamy dynamic of post card weather, someone else’s hope, and underwritten despair. It hasn’t brought anyone fortune. An almost incomprehensible 25,000 voices have waded in to record its melody and search for a way to negotiate its personal and cultural currents. Like a Christmas tree at the curb, or the string of lights outlining an RV window, an imaginary authenticity brings us past the original meaning, past decoration, to a strange, dark place, not without its agency of beauty.

PART FOUR Let Some Caterwauling Commence

In 1966 along with Donavon’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Billy Stewart had a hit with “Summertime” http://youtu.be/Mr7Qq_qUKb0 . It reached 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually became the biggest selling single for both Mr. Stewart and “Summertime”. It joined the legion of warm weather choruses that casually accompany vacations, graduation and summer romances like best friends. The Beach Boys and other surf bands, The Drifters, and Nat King Cole were all part of the transistor radio soundtrack that for three months accompanied Bermuda shorts, burnt hot dogs and the peculiar scent of Coppertone. Generally there was a song rotation of 2’30” songs lauding the bright brief season of navel gazing, and hopefully not only at one’s own.

 

Like secular Christmas carols, summer songs possessed shared cultural pleasures, magical optimism, and the promise of emotional acceptance. When the Summer of Love came along its musical precedence was well established. With that “Why not?” spirit “Summertime” has been recorded with, Theremins, twin guitars, twangy guitars, reggae skanks, jazz orchestras with strings, Hammond B-3 organs, angry pianos, every type of wind instrument from pan pipes to gold inlaid flutes and vocals ranging from smokey to saccharine. Many were experiments that for the promised eternity of the Internet might have found a quiet oblivion. Each interpretation brings its special palette, but perhaps not as much in the way of enlightenment.

In the legion of questionable recordings of “Summertime” here are some of the more eccentric starting with Clara Rockmore’s Theremin version and ending with the esteemed, but angry, Duke Ellington. Some “Summertime”:

http://youtu.be/j0c7p5geJZs  Clara Rockmore,

 

http://youtu.be/fNAFClBagfs Santo & Johnny,

 
http://youtu.be/LFWDpxqrOWU The Ventures,

 
http://youtu.be/JbWg_xKyi-M Herbie Mann,

 
http://youtu.be/j1bWqViY5F4 Charlie Parker,

 
http://youtu.be/q6L34MhPRak Ricky Nelson,

 
http://youtu.be/YlxxmNP2MKw Billy Preston,

 
http://youtu.be/e1nXeaE9og8 Eumir Deodato,

 
http://youtu.be/D7J4YWrZa80 The Zombies,

 
http://youtu.be/mPGG4SL7aFE Lloyd Clarke,

 
http://youtu.be/4JesgKVLqrA Johnny G Watson,

 
http://youtu.be/Tk90QyrkRTY Friends of Dean Martinez,

 
http://youtu.be/fGGJoTmlmAg The Walker Brothers,

 
http://youtu.be/0Rr_6VNF2To Booker T & the MGs,

 
http://youtu.be/5lAQltfRLfM Lawrence Welk, and

 
http://youtu.be/JzG3G4C8jMY Duke Ellington.

 

I’m indebted to John Tangari for his research on variant versions of “Summertime”. If you find you’d like more “Summertime” variations I suggest you visit his site, after that seek your own salvation diligently. http://everygreatsongever.tumblr.com/post/5767727618/30-versions-of-summertime .

PART THREE Revisions and Reclamations

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American movies have a knack for homogenizing issues into forms you can watch while you eat Goobers. “Porgy and Bess” didn’t have that kind of fortune. It was the last film produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The set and costumes were burned on the first day of rehearsals, rumors circulated that it was arson. Midway through production Otto Preminger took over as director and there was a lawsuit filed by the Director’s Guild. Harry Belafonte refused the role of Porgy, he was replaced by Sidney Poitier and the role was sung by Robert McFerrin. Sammy Davis Jr., the only performer who actually wanted to be in this production, played Sportin’Life . This only after Frank Sinatra pressured Goldwyn to cast him in spite of rumored racial slurs from the Gershwin family. Ultimately his vocals were replaced by Cab Calloway due to a recording contract dispute. The completed film has remained in litigation between factions of the Gershwin Estate and MGM who both continue contesting ownership rights. There hasn’t been a redeeming review of the film and the soundtrack was removed from distribution; that either was completed was a fruitless miracle. In many ways it typified the changing subtext of “Summertime”.

In anticipation of the film’s release and publicity several musicians produced interpretations of “Porgy & Bess”.

 

Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald 1957: http://youtu.be/LDF4_qVgbFU
In 1957 Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald produced a critically celebrated jazz version of selections from “Porgy and Bess”. Although it received a Grammy in 2001 to mark its historic significance, it seems a translation of a strange “as if “Summertime. It begins with the horn that Billie Holiday’s arrangement alluded to twenty years earlier, Louis Armstrong Hot Five. But here its tone is far from the insouciant genius of Storyville. In this recording he seems to be merely playing notes, more like an audition than an interpretation. The agile voice of Ms. Fitzgerald, sounds more like an ersatz Dinah Shore than Bess, and both Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald seem to casually walk away from the tune and lyrics. Ultimately they drift into scat vamps, mostly as decorations on no theme except pointless cheerfulness. It seems as removed from interpreting the possibilities of “Summertime” as television in 1957 was from interpreting life. It has replaced one set of racial stereotypes for a newer, emptier one.(Ten years later in 1968 Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Summertime” again with the Tee Carson trio. http://youtu.be/u2bigf337aUd . She seems to have reconsidered and produced a spare, more personal, emotionally felt rendering.) In spite of its apparent carelessness, this version has moved its interpretation of the original song into the milieu of popular culture.

 

That both artists publicly chose to make it seem nonchalant and workmanlike should not be undervalued. Racial segregation was an unresolved entity in America. That year Federal Troops were required to quell riots in Little Rock in an attempt to stop African-American students from entering high schools. In 41 states inter-racial marriage was illegal. Racial violence was organized and genuine. Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald were able to provide a coded message with the kind of disingenuousness people used to working and appearing cheerful may have understood. In my interpretation this was “Summertime” for showing up, doing the job, and getting paid. In 1958 my father, and millions of other Americans, had settled into jobs that featured long, boring shifts, managers in short sleeve white shirts, Labor Day off, and decades of cheerless smiles. They could have understood the constriction, perhaps appreciated the rebellion in performing a task correctly with complete artificiality and unspoken anger.

 

Less than a year after Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in 1958, “Summertime” was also interpreted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on the album “Porgy and Bess”: http://youtu.be/JN1uFMK3zZI .

 

In the Miles Davis interpretation old stereotypes were scraped away and its musical dialect was abandoned. The story remains, although retold from a different point of view. Miles Davis and Gil Evans reinvented “Porgy and Bess” from the inside out as “cool”.

 

In 1924 DuBose Heyward published a volume of poetry Jazbo Brown and Selected Poems. Jazbo is an amalgam figure based on itinerant Delta Bluesmen legends. He is the character playing a slow blues as the curtain rises on “Porgy and Bess” and his playing morphs into “Summertime”. In the Davis/Evans version the musical arrangement is reduced to echoing four bar phrase that resembles twelve bar blues. However, where Mr. Armstrong’s horn searched for a safe purchase, Mr. Davis examines the same melody as his possession.
He uses muted language as a code that sings in the double language of race, but not for protection, but celebratory display. Miles Davis took the chords, changes and melodies and voiced them into a sophisticated and aesthetically intellectual production.

 

In some sense he re-gifted “Porgy and Bess” to its African American community. Gone are what Duke Elington referred to as “troubling Negroisms”, no embarrassing sentimentality for segregation, no dropped -ings, apostophied elisions, no fumbling over Mammy/ Mama/ Mother. His interpretation reverses the setting and sense, where once “Porgy and Bess” was an awkward and pathos ridden opera of condescension to the lives of the ‘colored’, now “Summertime” is cool, hip, the object of envy, not pity. Neither does this interpretation dismiss the intimacy to drugs, pimps, prostitution and the underworld. Where the Armstrong/Fitzgerald version appeared audience friendly and nonchalant, the Davis/Evans version is intensely self-aware, disengaged and sophisticated.

 

If Mahalia Jackson’s spiritual lesson of racism was “in this world anything can be taken”, Mr. Davis understood that message as a secular lesson; he found himself capable of taking anything as well. Porgy has gone from walking on his knees to wearing Italian loafers. The muted notes imply that in his wry horn it can be transformed into the kind of cool Gershwin couldn’t imagine existed. It has transformed Catfish Row from a world white people believed they owned into a world they’re afraid they wouldn’t be hip enough to enter.

 

John Coltrane 1961: http://youtu.be/0bGqew020Zo

 

If Miles Davis “Summertime” was change by urban renewal, this is metamorphosis. The classic 1961 John Coltrane Quartet brought the same musical competence that von Karajan’s orchestra employed, but employed their virtuosity to repurpose “Summertime” into a vehicle of reflection and refraction. In this arrangement “Summertime” isn’t a lullaby about easy living in the big house. It becomes a series of extrapolations on the prepositional life near a house. Each improvisation comes close enough to acknowledge fragments of the familiar buried in a different conversations. It removes the languid time signatures, removes the fictive structures of the ionic scale and replaces them with modal short stories.

 

With John Coltrane’s interpretation the listener must imagine “Summertime” as jazz musicians do. It’s not a dialect, libretto or chord progression they’re changing, but the expectation of music.
The listener is the one who must generate the standard “Summertime” and in doing so the performed music becomes more apt, intimate and beautiful. The quartet assumes the person listening is participating at the core of the song. Try this experiment, Google lyrics for “Summertime”, start the John Coltrane recording and silently sing along. The unheard song you are singing becomes a foundation, while the sounded music of the quartet counterpoints the interior voicing. Once you understand that the actual “Summertime” requires you to participate, this interpretation comes clearer. The quartet follows a subliminal “Summertime” that acts as a conductor might. Like that conductor you must pay strict attention not only to the produced music, but also the music you must hear internally to bring about the next phrase.

 

By the time of this recording listeners had heard “Summertime” enough that it was in the bones of American culture.  In 1961 “Summertime” was presented not for the drowsy baby doing nothing but being lulled by tones, but an energetic prophetic ear. It is interpreted for someone who has the awareness and energy to go through the imaginary fourth wall. Punctuated by Elvin Jones percussion and McCoy Tyner’s left hand chording “Summertime” strides along extrapolating phrases, but it refuses to resolve them other than musically. There is no significant attempt to interpret the underlying fiction of “Porgy and Bess”.
At some moments Mr. Coltrane’s tone hearkens back to the Sidney Bechet recording in its open, realized virtuosity, but doesn’t attempt a closer connection with the spirit of the opera, since by 1961, it couldn’t be the same story. Suspension of disbelief was no longer possible, the tale of Porgy, the legless beggar and Bess, the beguiled victim, was symbolically nearly impossible to interpret without the overlay of race becoming more powerful than the dynamics of the rise and fall of any part of the libretto.

Let Porgy stand for the rising sense of power of African Americans, let Bess be white America. It could be true, but wouldn’t matter. Any musical expression would be juxtaposed next to Strom Thurman’s 24 hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate against the Civil Rights Act, or Governor Fabus, or Sheriff Bull Connor. In spite of the genius of Miles Davis revision just three years earlier, “Porgy and Bess” was a diminished language for discussing race.

 

“Summertime” had evolved into a musical prompt about describing intimacy and the tentative identity of relationships.
What John Coltrane’s interpretation of “Summertime” understood, opened, and expressed was essential to the American race dialog. The dialog Mr. Coltrane and the Quartet engage in is nearly pure music in a baroque sensibility, it’s variations on a given theme. Although it’s not without emotion, it’s largely without depiction. It’s an inner dialog focused on an internal mathematics. In an ironic sense it returned “Porgy and Bess” to the operatic warehouse where it could languish in obscure respectability.

IMG_20140308_141334025 Summertime

 

It is, as some say on the Gulf Coast, “hotting up”. Not quite change your shirt twice a day hot, but already stay in the shade hot. Among other things hot weather is good for ripening tomatoes, iced coffee and arguments over small things. My college roommate and I have been arguing out the fine points of topics like Victorian adversaries for decades. Over time we’ve become familiar with one another’s tastes, beliefs and exaggerations. Not long ago, quite unexpectedly he proclaimed an affection for Julie Andrews, Broadway musicals, professionally trained voices and proscribed all else to the exile of “caterwauling”. Late in ones’ life I expect a certain amount religious retrenchment, dietary conversions, even divorces, but a Pauline conversion to musical theater surprised me. Broadway repertoire has charms, but deleting the astonishing range of 20th Century recordings we had shared for years set me wondering.

 

In my life I’ve enjoyed friends who could sing long selections of musicals a cappella, who were dogmatic collectors of recordings of chanteuses, and others who had framed “Playbills” on their walls. I admire obsession. I get it, at the same time I confess too much of my childhood was tortured by overexposure to “The Sound of Music”. Julie Andrews did nothing culpable: she remains Maria Rainer. Her soprano was lovely and expressive; whatever problems I have with the singing are mine. So I did find myself taking less exception to the canonization of Broadway, but more the loss of so much music to the lesser realm of caterwaul.

 

To my ear, the rigid tonal structures of western music, while pleasing, seem an artifact of a lost age I often appreciate as a tourist. It requires little from me but a credit card, suspension of disbelief and a cultural predisposition to sit still for three acts. That’s not derogatory; it’s in the nature of Western art forms. “The Sound of Music” is entertaining. It pits romance and the diatonic scale against Nazis and monastic vows. While reinterpreting history is one of the basic mythic devices of western theater, the more complex differentiation isn’t about historical melodrama and artistic interpretation, but between attractive and beautiful. Attractive has a broader range, or conversely beautiful has a deeper, narrower range. Both are noble human endeavors. What is easy or pretty draws us away from the unpleasantness of our lives; what is demanding and transformative takes us back to something that may be less pleasing, but more a more demanding useful truth.

 

I have lived in a fortuitously peculiar period. The sonic variety of our collective musical mind has been infected by recordings. People like me, born in the 1950s, have heard more different types of music than perhaps any other generation before us. We have heard it and responded to it, but been physically present for proportionally very few actual performances. Radios, records, CDs, tapes, television, movies, MTV, iPods, download and YouTube provide a constantly changing kaleidoscopic soundscape possessing both novelty and historical delicacy. As with most things, we know more than we have experienced. The Nazis came and went before I was born. Race, jazz, poverty and class struggle have remained part of the conversation of my lifetime; I’d like to consider “Summertime” from America’s first major opera “Porgy and Bess” and the notion of expressive caterwauling.
Like the performance of most operas, a performance of “Porgy and Bess remains precious. More people have seen Lady Gaga perform “Monster Ball” in its two years of touring than the combined audiences for every performance of “Porgy and Bess”. “Porgy and Bess” is another of America’s awkward masterpieces. It has an unaccountably erratic history of productions, enjoying limited runs in 1935, 1942, 1952 and notably 1976 as a revival by Houston Grand Opera. The 1959 film version was a production melodrama nearly more dramatic than the script. It too is assumed to be well known, but also seldom seen. The film was never given wide theatrical release and was shown only once on network television in 1967. Like many, I claim to having seen it and recall scenes and songs, including “Summertime”.

 

Most operas exist in the repertoire of storage. They are an antithesis of ‘popular’ music, to most people there are musical fragments or costumes that are almost recognizable. Mel Blanc may probably be the most recognized voice of the Valkyrie for the overwhelming majority of Americans. By nature opera is caricature; in America opera is an intellectual cartoon. It represents pure music with extensively trained performers and a demand for educated attention that is expensive in many ways audiences are not often willing to purchase. Nonetheless Americans assume operas will exist whether or not they like them, understand them, or attend their performances. As an opera George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has struggled to find an audience identity outside of its composer’s roots in Tin Pan Alley, the Jazz Age and Broadway shows.

 

George Gershwin published his first hit song at seventeen. He had some classical piano lessons and positive experiences in that realm, but found his immediate future and fortune in popular music. He wrote Al Jolson’s black face signature “Sewanee” in 1917. He wrote songs for theatrical productions that were primarily musical reviews, song and dance, chorus, comics and hits. He understood his audience, the task of the song, and wrote to its commercial potential. The term “selling a song” came from this Tin Pan Alley period.

 

The piano industry reached its peak in the 1920s then declined with the Great Depression. Until the crash, pianos were the most common ‘must have’ item for every household, school and public business. Even today, a hundred years later, that prevalence of pianos remains part of our cultural memory. We aren’t surprised if a piano player appears in Western movie, in fact they’re cliché. Nor does it strain our imaginations when the Little Rascals rescue someone from piano practice to play football, when Mickey Rooney sits down to write the show to put on, or in the background music for tenement scene, dive bars, or cocktail parties comes as the trebly sound of a nearby piano player. We not surprised to find a piano anywhere. Legendarily in the 1920’s there were so many composers sitting at pianos picking out so many different songs at the same time on West 28th Street that it sounded like beating tin pans as opposed to music, Tin Pan Alley. Pianos and sheet music were a profitable industry, those without a trainable daughter or son purchased player pianos. Gershwin both wrote songs families could sing around a piano and arranged songs for piano rolls. He was extraordinarily successful at it.

 

Like all people of ambition he aspired to something more without the knowledge of what shape that would take. Like many from immigrant families, he recognized it would demand acculturation, invention and energy. He flourished with the jazz age, studied in Paris, and saw his “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” performed at Carnegie Hall. The music he composed for “Porgy and Bess” was in some aspects the culmination of his successes. It possessed sweeping themes and singable tunes. Gershwin’s seasonal “Summertime” was composed for “Porgy and Bess”.

 

“Summertime” was originally set to a poem by DuBose Heyward from the novel Porgy by Mr. Heyward.” “Porgy and Bess” was initially described by George Gershwin as a “folk opera”, that is, inspired by common songs and rhythms and interpreted in classical musical form. No different from works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, or Aaron Copeland all contemporaries of Gershwin. It’s generally assumed “Porgy and Bess” drew melodies from spirituals and other tunes Gershwin heard traveling in the South. In preparing the music he made an extended visit to a North Carolina barrier island. (There is an alternative interpretation asserting that “Summertime” is based on Yiddish and Ukrainian lullaby melodies.) The style of symphonic composing that was Gershwin’s forte was a style of musical interpretation and invention with a long history in Western classical music dating from Bach and certainly Beethoven. It was, as Ezra Pound wrote “…what the age demanded.” [Hugh Selywn Mauberley]. The age demanded overblown nationalistic symphonic music for growing radio audiences, American music sanitized from the jazz of the Jazz Age. Unquestionably the most popular and resonant song from Gershwin’s American opera was “Summertime”.

 

Many summers ago I was driving in Austin and a local disc jockey spent a silly and obsessive two hours playing nothing but different renditions of “Summertime”. I was fortunate to have escaped that easily; there are between 25,000 and 30,000 recorded versions. But I did came away wondering what “Summertime” could mean, even to me. Today Catfish Row is like the village Pagliacci’s wagon arrives in. The Harlem Renaissance is archived, along with Vachel Lindsey’s “Congo”, the St. James Infirmary and the Cotton Club. The roar of the twenties retains perhaps an academic allure, but in its moments it was quite the wild party. Stocks soared, religion was booming business, evolution was on trial, people seemed blissfully surrounded by a bubble of debt too big to burst, and sex, race, gangsters and music met for cocktails in glamorous lounges. It was summertime as the Depression arrived in its own wagon.

Here is the first recording of “Summertime” Abbie Mitchell sings and George Gershwin plays the piano and conducts:
http://youtu.be/x0g12TrSnIE
Why this version is heard so seldom surprises me. It’s gorgeous, and not just for 1935. It feels both human and ethereal. It seems to speak in an almost ambient religious tone. However this is not the version that Gershwin decided to finally employ. Perhaps it was too ethereal to attract investors, or not in the swing fashion. He continued re-working the setting as he worked on “Porgy and Bess” making adjustments, although he clearly was pleased with the basic “Summertime” as a piece and employed it three times in the opera.

 

The next oldest recording I could locate of “Summertime” was recorded in 1936 by Billie Holiday about seven months after the show opened in New York. http://http://youtu.be/9xpq1pLk-sA . There are echoes of tawdry jazz age colors in the introduction. Then Billie Holiday’s vocal moves the song from a lullaby into an ironic despair tinged view of life and the false oblivion of childhood. The insistent tom toms and Artie Shaw’s clarinet bring a kind of faux jungle decadence that speaks to both the Porgy story and the political oblivion of the times, simultaneously containing the guarded slumber of a child and the monsters of Jim Crow and worse. By comparison to the 1935 recording this isn’t as fully realized, but it possesses qualities of expression that allow the singer and song to engage. The band allows itself to become an shorthand of clichés and within the vocal I sense a hesitancy and inexperience, which lend to the recording’s the overall effect of singing to an infant amid jostling. If that was the intended effect or not, I can’t exactly determine. The band was between styles, the singer young, but already abused, and the recording hurried in order to take advantage of what publicity there was surrounding the opening of” Porgy and Bess”. It arrives more as an etude for something larger and later, which is how the song is initially employed in the opera.

http://youtu.be/IG4nPM9uxwg

Sidney Bechet recorded “Summertime” June 8, 1939 with Teddy Bunn on guitar. Summer is the character; there may be a baby and it may or may not be sleeping. Mr. Bechet’s interpretive soprano voices some sense of an alley between Montmartre and Basin Street as the afternoon’s heat is abating. Mr.Bunn’s blues-influenced guitar counterpoints the free musical extrapolation with a feeling of languor and restraint. Already the song has traveled some distance away from Gershwin into the hands of the interpreter, and Sidney Bechet was seldom shy about taking possession of a song. “Summertime” was well on its way home from the opera.

End of Part One