Friday, December 02, 2016

Birch season

Now that the leaves are off the trees it's the birches I'm noticing more, rather than the grander beeches, oaks, and tulip-trees in the same woods. The ones shown here are black birch (Betula lenta), not to be confused with the birches in Robert Frost's poem, which were — he insisted — gray birch (Betula populifolia). In common with other birches, their bark has prominent lenticels — horizontal pores — though these may become less visible on older specimens.

These are adaptable and malleable trees, susceptible to injury and rot but also possessing a great ability to heal themselves and keep on growing. Once they fall, though, they are quickly consumed by rot.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Rain (Pessoa and Vallejo)

It rains and keeps raining. My soul is wet from hearing it. So much rain. . .
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

I will die in Paris in the rain
on a day I already remember
I will die in Paris — I won't deny it —
maybe on a Thursday, like today, in autumn
— César Vallejo, from "Black Stone on a White Stone"

This afternoon it is raining, as never before; and I
have no desire to live, my heart.

This afternoon is sweet. Why shouldn't it be?
Dressed in grace and pain; dressed like a woman.

This afternoon in Lima it is raining. And I recall
the cruel caverns of my ingratitude;
my block of ice over her poppy,
stronger than her “Don’t be like that!”
— César Vallejo, from "Dregs"

It's hailing so hard, as if to make me remember
and augment the pearls
that I've recovered from the very snout
of every storm.

Don't let this rain dry up.
Not unless it's given to me
to fall now into it, or to be buried
drenched in the water
that wells up from every fire.

How far will this rain reach in me?
I'm afraid I'll be left with one side dry;
I'm afraid it will cease, without having tasted me
in the droughts of incredible vocal cords,
through which
to make harmony,
one must always rise, never descend!
Don't we in fact rise by descending?

Sing, rain, on the still-sealess coast!
— César Vallejo, Trilce, lxxvii

The Pessoa translation is by Richard Zenith; the first Vallejo translation is a mash-up of several versions and the second is by Clayton Eshleman but with modifications. The translation from Trilce is mine, but with borrowings from the versions of David Smith (Grossman, 1973) and Clayton Eshleman. The image is a detail from a photograph of César Vallejo by Juan Domingo Córdoba.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Hour of lead (2)

Citing no evidence, our president-elect — and how ashamed, how defiled one feels, personally and as a citizen, having to call him that — has proclaimed himself the legitimate winner of the 2016 popular vote, alleging that millions of votes for his opponent were fraudulently cast. That no one worthy of respect takes his claim seriously makes no difference; we're in a post-truth condition and it suffices to merely make an assertion, no matter how implausible. Those who believe him can fall back on a simple syllogism: America is a country of and for white Christians, the Republican candidate positioned himself as the candidate of that country, therefore he must have won the popular vote. Being non-white, or non-Christian, and calling oneself an American, is, so the logic goes, itself fraudulent, so the technicalities of whether there was actually any significant voter fraud (there wasn't) are quite beside the point. Those with a vested interest in believing this argument — or pretending to — will be untroubled by doubt.

It's going to be a long four years.

Previous post:
Hour of lead

Monday, November 21, 2016

The One Thing We Must Keep Alive

This rousing song by Los Lobos has been one of my favorites for more than thirty years. The video for it has a corny '80s feel to it now (not to mention the poor digital transfer), but it's worth a look if only for the footage of David Hidalgo and the rest of the band. In three verses and a bridge "Will the Wolf Survive?" manages to be about a lot of different things: wolves (at least as a metaphor), migrant workers and their families, cultural survival, and the truth: "something they must keep alive." (Of all of those things, wolves would now appear to be the least endangered.)

Los Lobos are still very much active, in a line-up that is unchanged except for the addition of a young and very able drummer; I saw them last night on a double-bill with the great Mavis Staples (who was in very fine form). They didn't play this song, nor did I catch any overt allusions in their music to recent political developments, but their presence itself was a reminder that there's more than one way to be American. The band switches comfortably from English to Spanish in their songs and they're perfectly capable of playing traditional norteño styles of music, but they identify as "a band from East L.A.," and they happen to be one of the great rock and blues bands of the last forty years.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Goya's great series of prints Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War) is renowned for its depiction of the horrors of the Peninsular War, but many of the later prints in the series in fact capture the postwar chill that set in with the restoration of Fernando VII, who threw out the relatively enlightened Spanish constitution that had been promulgated in 1812 and began a wholesale persecution of liberals and the press. (Like the rest of Los desastres, these images remained unpublished during Goya's lifetime.)

The print at the top of the page is captioned simply "The Results"; Robert Hughes, in his book on the artist, glosses it thus: "a flock of Goya's nightmare bats, the lay and Church parasites that accompany Fernando, is descending on prostrate Spain." The one below bears the inscription "Against the Common Good."

According to Michael Armstrong Roche, in Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment,
With his left hand the cleric writes something contra el bien general, while with his right he points up, signifying he acts in the name of God... "Common good" is an expression rooted in the Liberal political tradition; the cleric may therefore be drafting laws restoring Old Regime privileges on Fernando VII's return to power in 1814.
The third print is captioned "Truth Died," and is interpreted as representing the burial of the 1812 Constitution.

The final image asks, of the same allegorical figure, "Will She Rise Again?"

Here's Hughes:
Lovely bare-breasted Truth begins to shine again, to move, while those who would bury her recoil in confusion, clutching their shovels and books. A feverish and tentative hope is reborn in Goya's darkness.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Planxty in their prime

Universal Music Ireland has released a modestly-priced CD & DVD package devoted to my favorite Irish trad band, Planxty. Entitled Between the Jigs and the Reels: A Retrospective, it doesn't appear to be officially available in the US thus far, but it can be obtained from Ireland or the UK without much difficulty if you look around. As far as I can tell, all of the tracks on the CD have been released previously (though a couple were new to me), but it's nice to have them together. The DVD is a different story: it's more than two hours and forty minutes of wonderful archival footage of the band during its heyday (the footage spans the years 1972 to 1982), and although some of it has been out there in one form or another much of it I had never seen. (A disclaimer warns that some of the archival material may have imperfections because of the quality of the source material, but I didn't find that to be an issue at all.)

Planxty last reunited for a series of concerts in 2005, and word is that it's unlikely that they will do so again, although all of the original members — Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, and Liam O'Flynn — are still around and performing, sometimes in various combinations with each other. If their work together has run its course then this retrospective is a nice summing-up.

Below: Planxty from 1973 performing "Raggle Taggle Gypsy," with the famous transition into "Tabhair dom do lámh." Leagues O'Toole describes this arrangement as "possibly the first ever attempt to play a folk song straight into a traditional tune by an ensemble of Irish musicians."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On Horned Beasts, and Dilemmas

Teju Cole:
Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone.
"A Time for Refusal," The New York Times, November 11, 2016


Teju Cole's essay on the recent election, Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, and the dangers of accommodating oneself to evil seems to me both brilliantly framed and right on the money, but if the new president-elect has even heard of the late Romanian-born French playwright he certainly doesn't care about him (or about Teju Cole), and the same is undoubtedly true of the bulk of his supporters. So in a sense this will no doubt be viewed as just one more laughable example of the cluelessness of the intellectual elite, who amuse themselves with literary allusions while middle-class Americans seek to lift the stone off their backs (or at least, shift it to the other side).

It raises, though, the more general question of what the response of artists and intellectuals should be to these events, and how we need to "frame our discourse" (to fall once more into the alienating jargon) to reach beyond our own rarefied sphere. What is our responsibility in the face of a state of emergency? Do we politicize art and inquiry, perhaps channel it into digestible mass-propaganda, or do we insist on the inviolability of our domains, on the pursuit of art for art's sake? (And let's not forget that those who are likely to be seizing the reins in Washington have little use for art or education at all, except of the most banal kind.)

It seems inescapable to me that we are going to have to live with the tension between the two impulses. We cannot blind ourselves to what is happening and to our responsibilities, but neither can we debase our work. We shouldn't be arrogant about what we've studied or created, but we also shouldn't be apologetic for it. (Nor should we make the all-too-frequent mistake of assuming that blue-collar Americans, or people who don't have college diplomas, are necessarily unsophisticated or incapable of originality and insight.) We will need new energies and new ideas; we can't afford to be complacent.


Attempting to maintain that this past election wasn't in part about race and other cultural issues strikes me as inadequate as attempting to maintain that it was only about those factors. History doesn't come packaged in neat little narratives to suit our need for self-justification. Political scientists will and should, of course, sift through the results to try to determine what really happened and why, but public life isn't a controlled experiment, nor is there any way to easily disentangle the complex influences of the past on our present ideologies and behavior. It seems to me, nevertheless, entirely defensible to reserve some of the focus for what might be called either the moral or the individual level, that is, to examine the ways in which individuals both prominent and ordinary have spoken and acted in bad faith (not just in one party or faction, to be sure). Given that the president-elect largely owes his entry into politics to a lie — the suggestion, eagerly embraced by those who view America as a country fundamentally for and of white people, that Barack Obama wasn't eligible to serve as president at all — there seems to be much to consider in this light. Since I'm neither an organizer nor a street-fighter it's an avenue of particular interest to me.


Also from the Times this week is an article by Kirk Semple, entitled "Fleeing Gangs, Central American Families Surge Toward U.S.," about the reasons that have led not just individuals but entire families to leave their native countries and head north. One wonders if those — and they are many — who will show little sympathy for the plight of these refugees would have been equally indifferent to those who fled for their lives from Russian pogroms or famine in Ireland in the past. But no, one doesn't wonder; of course they would have.