31 July 2014

30 July 2014

Haiku 2014/211

hermetically sealed
climate-controlled work spaces
dream of dawn breezes

29 July 2014

West Edge Opera: Hydrogen Jukebox


Last Sunday I went to Berkeley to hear the first of three performances by West Edge Opera (formerly the Berkeley Opera) of the Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg free-form opera Hydrogen Jukebox, staged in the large glass-walled lobby of the Ed Roberts Campus right near the Ashby BART station. The unconventional space is used resourcefully. The show started at the fairly awkward time of 5:00. What's really awkward is that there were no assigned seats, yet company General Director Mark Streshinsky and director Elkhanah Pulitzer stood in front of the rows of chairs talking to the assembling audience until almost the start of the performance, which meant that either you were stumbling around looking for a seat, disturbing those trying to listen, or you were hanging courteously to the side while less considerate sorts grabbed all the decent seats, or you had to actually sit in your seat so that you didn't block the view of those behind you, even though you might prefer to spare your backside by standing until the performance started; and even if you prefer to avoid this sort of pre-performance chat you were forced to listen or to risk having your seat nabbed by someone else.

The excellent musicians (David Moschler conducting and on keyboards, Ben Malkevitch on keyboards, Audrey Jackson on flute and soprano saxophone, Cory Wright on soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet, and Doug Chin and Lily Sevier on percussion) were seated in the balconies above the stage, though I believe it was Moschler who descended via ladder to play the piano for the end of the first act, Ginsberg's great poem Wichita Vortex Sutra. The performance was originally listed as being about an hour and fifteen minutes, no intermission (which is what I'd expected from the CD, but that apparently had been cut), but was actually two hours with an intermission. Though the piece is clearly structured for an intermission after the Wichita Vortex Sutra, I think it would have worked better to perform it straight through – it wouldn't be much longer than 90 minutes, and the audience was notably slow to settle down and listen after the break.

There were six excellent singers, whom I will discuss momentarily. There was also the non-singing role of the Narrator, played by actor Howard Swain. I don't know if it was the actor's conception of his part, or the director's, or some combination thereof, but I have seldom hated an individual performance as much as I hated his. In the opening he's wearing a stars-and-stripes top hat and a long black coat, long dark red scarf, and dark glasses, cigarette dangling from his lips – all very too cool for school, the complete picture of The Poet as douchebag poseur. He gawks and gapes awkwardly and obviously, he gestures too broadly and clumsily, when marijuana cigarettes are mentioned he has a cartoonishly large rolled-up joint: everything is overdone attitude and fakely theatrical posing. Yes, I realize that this corresponds to a part of Ginsberg's public persona, but it's not what makes his work interesting and worthwhile and memorable; in fact, as Milosz said of him, to see his worth you must look past his "journalistic clichés, [his] beard and beads and [his] dress of a rebel of another epoch." Swain speaks all his lines in a generic rant, an assumed and automatic attempt at the mysteries of poetic ecstasy. I winced when I realized he would be the one reciting the Wichita Vortex Sutra (whenever I listen to the recording, that is the part that makes me stop and pay close attention; I feel very fortunate to have heard Glass himself perform the piece in concert, with a recording of the then-deceased poet reading his own words); I winced at his smug little pause of distaste before naming the Republican River, I winced as he slammed through the poem's ironies, I winced as he reduced this moving and majestic poem to a pile of ham and cheese.

And about the cigarette dangling from his lips: he smokes a lot during the performance, as do the six singers, and (outside of the passing reference to smoking marijuana, which is different anyway) there is no reason for it – in fact, there is good reason not to have cigarettes at all, particularly in this work. I'm guessing the relentless smoking is an attempt to evoke (which really means, foolishly buy into an image Big Tobacco has paid a lot of money to big advertisers to foster) a sort of free-spirited past bohemia (though it should be obvious that addiction cannot symbolize freedom, particularly when you're talking about tobacco addiction, the most boring and bourgeois of all addictions). But Big Tobacco is exactly the sort of destructive, mindless, conformity-inducing, profit-at-any-cost military-industrial-capitalist behemoth that Ginsberg typified as the Old Testament's Moloch, the grim relentless god that demands constant sacrifice. And Ginsberg knew this – see his poem Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Dont Smoke).* So if you're not realizing this yourself – if you're just using cigarettes in this decorative way (the way an ad campaign would, and that is definitely not a compliment), if you don't see how Big Tobacco corrupts the political process and devastates the environment (not to mention human lives) to sell death for profit – if you don't see that Big Tobacco is one of the arms of Moloch – you're reading Ginsberg is a uselessly superficial way.

What made the Narrator, and the stupid use of cigarettes, so annoying and disappointing is that everything else was just so incredibly good. The rest of the staging was so imaginative, energetic and inventive, making ingenious use of minimal props, constantly shifting from one striking image to another (just as the poems do, and the throbbing pulse of the music), with the six singers moving in various (mostly same-sex) configurations and couplings, caressing, quicksilver, tossing torn newspapers or paper airplanes at themselves and then the audience, standing quietly as if shivering beneath a snowfall of torn paper, shadow dancing behind an American flag one minute, wrapped in the flag like the Statue of Liberty the next, one minute smiling stewardesses, then youthful companions, joyful on the road, then again huddled and homeless under the iron command of Moloch; pulling their shirts off, then back on, then stripping down to their boxer shorts. There is much repetition, particularly in the second half, of movements and motifs, which is perhaps mostly a dance-type way of impressing meaning through repetition and revision (which is also the method of the music).

Glass wrote some soaring, beautiful vocal lines for the women – the three of them (sopranos Sara Duchovnay and Molly Mahoney and mezzo-soprano Nicole Takesono) were excellent throughout, but were particularly memorable in their vocalises. Like the three male singers, they threw themselves into their parts with inspiring conviction and energy. Bass Kenneth Kellogg was a commanding presence, and tenor Jonathan Blalock was smooth yet ardent. It's no criticism of them to say that baritone Efraín Solis was particularly memorable, sweet-voiced and moving, in his opening (from Iron Horse) and closing (Father Death Blues) solos.

I'm really divided about the performance, which I guess means, given how much I had been looking forward to experiencing this piece live, that honestly I was disappointed. But for all that was fun and fascinating and thought-provoking, pleasing and memorable to eye and ear and mind, there was the Narrator, dragging the whole thing down into clownish caricature.

There are two more performances, on 2 and 8 August; West Edge is also performing La Bohème (remaining performances 1 and 10 August) and Jake Heggie's operatic version of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair (3, 7, and 9 August); click here for more information or tickets.

* Dont rather than Don't is Ginsberg's spelling in the poem's title.



Haiku 2014/210

birds sing their old songs
serenading this walker
let the stars vanish

28 July 2014

Haiku 2014/209

long empty platform
train pulls in, people rush out
long empty platform

Poem of the Week 2014/31

Danse Russe

If I when my wife is sleeping

and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, –
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades, –

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

William Carlos Williams


Presumably this poem was written when the Ballet Russe was the advanced guard of the art of Dance; the title might be a whimsical little joke, contrasting the famous and accomplished troupe with the lone poet in his room; or it might be meant to associate the two, as different but connected examples of why humans dance; or, since the Ballet Russe was best known for works such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that combined an evocation of primitive humanity with the very latest artistic innovations, it may be meant to position the poet's dance also as both primitive and highly sophisticated; or, of course, it may be meant to suggest all those things, simultaneously.

The poem is written in free verse, structured as three long "if" clauses followed, after a significant line space, by a two-line "then" conclusion. The first "if" clause draws us into the speaker's household; his wife and baby are asleep, and so is the unidentified Kathleen – presumably a young woman (given her name, probably an Irish girl) who helps with the baby or the house-keeping. We are intimates now, almost conspirators, inside his home when the rest of the family is napping; given the assumption of familiarity, he doesn't need to name his wife and baby or identify Kathleen (surely we know who they are, we who are inside his home watching the three of them sleep).

So we're inside the house, yet the speaker does not describe the house, or the neighborhood. Instead he feels himself in Nature, as if he were out in the wilds instead of in a house in a small town or suburb. He describes the natural world in ecstatic language: the sun is "a flame-white disc"; it is in "silken mists / above shining trees." Alone in his home with his family, he feels himself outside of both home and family, alone in a silken and shiny world.

In the second "if" clause he describes himself in his north room. Why north? Perhaps, since he's mentioned the sun so prominently, he wants to avoid the rising sun/beginning and setting sun/ending associations of east and west; perhaps he's hinting at the traditional poetic association of the icy North with isolation and witchcraft; perhaps he simply had a room in the north of his house, and was in it when this poem first occurred to him; perhaps he just wanted the n in north to emphasize by alliteration the n in naked in the next line; or, again, perhaps it's all of those things at once, and something else besides.

He does not pretend that either he or his dance is a thing of apparent beauty; he immediately modifies his naked dancing with the adverb grotesquely. He doesn't mind, and finds his own beauty as he dances in front of the mirror, waving his shirt like a flag. What does he softly sing, surrounded by his sleeping family, feeling the beauties of the world outside? A strange and defiant chant of loneliness. He is aware of his solitude: the sun is out, it's daytime, yet his family is sleeping, giving him a brief and perhaps unexpected moment alone in the house. Lonely usually brings with it associations of sadness, but everything in the poem so far – the sun shining through mist, the trees gleaming, the speaker's wonderful sense of abandon as he dances alone – prepares us for the strange joy he finds in the condition.  He declares not only that he is lonely, but that he was born lonely, and what's more – that he is best so.

In the third "if" clause, I feel (even more strongly than in the rest of the poem) the presence of that other New Jersey poet, Walt Whitman: this is a very fleshy, exultant song of oneself. Standing before the mirror, the speaker admires his body in its grotesque dance: not only the "public" parts of it, such as his arms and face, but also the usually hidden parts, the flanks and buttocks; he celebrates them all.

All this builds up to the conclusion, separated from the rest of the poem with the gulf of a line space: "Who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?" Genius here is used not in the sense of exceptionally creative or intelligent but in its older original sense of the presiding or protective spirit of a person or place. He lives in a household with wife, child, and helper Kathleen, and in a community, but he realizes that ultimately he is alone in the world, that even his loved ones cannot fully share in who and what he is – and he's realizing the same thing about them; they too, have their grotesque, hidden, beautiful dances. He finds joy in this – that's why he's the happy genius – and in feeling that it's shared with each person there – that's why he's the happy genius of the household. Although he is solitary, he is linked with the others by his generous understanding that they, too, are separate individuals, and each has this thing, this elusive thing that is his or hers alone, this soul.

I took this poem from the anthology Solitude, selected and edited by Carmela Ciuraru, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

27 July 2014

26 July 2014

Haiku 2014/207

(see also yesterday's haiku)

moths live on birds' tears
but to them, it's just their life
we all live on tears