Hirshhorn, Zola Jesus, Green Screens & The Sublime

October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

A beautiful woman at the Hirhhorn standing in front a wall that reads 'Sanity'

A beautiful woman at the Hirhhorn standing in front a wall that reads ‘Sanity’

Friday night was ‘Hirshhorn After Hours,’ which we went to four years ago. We loved it and I’ve kept checking for it, but this the first time I’ve seen it come back.

It was done for the opening of two exhibitions, Days of Endless Time and The Hub of Things. The former is a new exhibition of video installations and the latter was a somewhat disappointing curation of art from the existing collection.

The Hub of Things is advertised as a fresh look at some of the best works from the collection, but the selection and arrangement and overall curation just didn’t make any sense to me. I expect an exhibit to be something beyond ‘hey look at this cool stuff,’ but for me, this didn’t rise above that.

Days of Endless Time was cool, though. The first two installations were very affecting, especially the very first one, which featured a cellist with her back to us playing on an impossibly green plateau among the Swiss Alps. When she played, the sound echoed back, sometimes nearly perfectly, what she just played. The description of the piece (Su-Mei Tse’s L’Echo) talked about ‘the sublime.’ As soon as I saw that word – sublime – it really clicked. It’s a very Romantic vision of the sublime. Think of Wordsworth visits to the Alps or the Swiss born Rousseau’s (who is really the link between the Enlightenment and the Romantics) book about his walks or also Kant’s idea of the sublime (the noble sublime and the beautiful sublime; not really the terrifying sublime, in this case).

The singer Zola Jesus played outside. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t any dancing, but I liked her music. It was sort of the bastard child of Faith and the Muse and the Cranes playing a combination of Tori Amos covers and gothic noise musical settings of the final, scribbled ramblings of a poisonously suicidal Taylor Swift.

Also, there was done objection to the wearing of my super awesome Speed Racer t-shirt. But then a security guard walked up to me and yadda yadda I sang the Speed Racer theme song and there was general agreement that my super awesome Speed Racer t-shirt is super awesome.

The D.C. Manual Of Style And Usage

October 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Very important tool for the future when writing about this great city, courtesy of the Washington City Paper – The D.C. Manual of Style and Usage

Though I will still use the term ‘DMV’ to refer to the region.

Les Fêtes De l’Hymen Et De l’Amour Ou Les Dieux d’Égypte

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

lesfetes_banner_text_EditThis was my first time back to see the Opera Lafayette in five years. Probably because it’s been five years since they were offering really cheap tickets (for their twentieth anniversary, they offered twenty dollar tickets; five years ago, for their fifteenth anniversary there were, you guessed it, fifteen dollar tickets; hopefully, I can go back before their twenty-fifth anniversary).

In this eighteenth century opera-ballet by Jean-Philippe Rameau, the word ‘pleasures’ (plaisirs) kept coming up. ‘Pleasure’ was even a character in the slightly connected tableaus that made up the work. Pleasure, really, is what it’s all about. The music, the plots (such as they are) are all about sensuous, though rarely actively erotic, pleasures. It’s like a massive, pleasure generating machine. You can almost see elegantly dressed figures in mid-eighteenth century garb walking about an immaculate garden discussing the pleasure of love and poetry and music and dance.

A classical Indian dance troupe was incorporated into the work and it was absolutely seamless. It blended with the faint orientalism of the work and, unless you already knew, the average viewer would not have guessed that this wasn’t a regular part of any production of the work.

Six dancers played ‘water’ or, to be more specific, the Nile River. Even when they were not the focus, they were also moving in an undulating fashion to represent their liquid nature and their biggest solo dance was the highlight of the show, but later, some contemporary, hip hop style dancing was briefly thrown. While it put a smile on my face, it also took me out of the piece. I was no longer sitting in a bower next a French noblewoman, watching Rameau’s latest piece, but something modern staged for me in Washington, DC.

Anyway, go see it if you can. And while I’m not about to place Rameau above Lully, I do now count myself a fan.

Mary Szybist At The Hill Center

October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

9781555976354Ron Charles, the Washington Post book editor, remains a good, if somewhat charmless host for these conversations with poets at the Hill Center. I’d seen Edward Hirsch earlier in the year and I’ll gladly see more in this series.

Szybist was given more opportunities to read her poems than Hirsch was and she has a wonderful voice for reading her own poems, emphasizing their gem-like (though not precious) qualities. She really is an amazing writer of poems. And though Incarnadine is a clear whole – with the theme of the Annunciation tying everything together – it’s best to be read slowly, one poem at time, over the course of a week or more. Slow reading, as it were. Their lapidary nature demands a gentle pace. When I tried to read them too quickly, I almost felt as if I were suffering from eye strain. Charles made a wonderful point when he compared her very carefully poetic style (this sounds bad; it sounds precious; but it’s really not at all) to John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets. Donne is especially relevant because of the deeply religious – the deeply Catholic – nature of her writing, despite having rather suddenly lost her faith as an adolescent (though, when I asked, she admitted that she still sometimes goes to Mass with her husband). Dickinson, too. Unlike Linda Pastan, Szambist does have that erotic, lapidary quality of Dickinson (though is less elliptical).

In addition to writing for slow reading, she spoke slowly and carefully in response to questions. Almost tentative. Which I can relate to (it’s something I can tend to do and it frustrates the heck out of my wife).

If I have a complaint about the collection, and I am not sure that I do, it is that it is almost but not quite a concept book. The ones that break from the concept, such as the gentle love poem (after a fashion) to an (the) octopus, are wonderful, but why not make the whole book so closely interwoven as ninety percent of it already is?

In any case, a new (to me) poet has not so affected me since I read Fanny Howe (and the two are connected by their sometimes diffident but also deeply ingrained Catholicism). So… two thumbs up?

Charles Wright’s First Reading As U.S. Poet Laureate

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

9780374525361I saw him read at the Folger and was impressed by his warm, personable reading style. It was also the first time that I really gave his poetry a chance. At the time, I bought his collection of sestets, helpfully entitled Sestets: Poems.

A reading at the Library of Congress is a less intimate event than at the Folger but has the advantage of being free. I bought his early collection, Black Zodiac, because the first time I had ever heard of him was when he won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997 for that particular collection (the awards ceremony was shown in C-SPAN2 and 1997 was probably the year when I watched the most ‘BookTV’ on CSPAN-2).

It’s a dark book. Actually, much of his poetry is dark. Even when playful, it’s got a sort of gallows humor to it. Black Zodiac, though, has less humor and more gallows. Really, it is a pretty grim collection. It’s also got this beautiful poem entitled POEM HALF IN THE MANNER OF LI HO that is partly, or at least superficially, about the T’ang poet and his fear of never being recognized for his work, which was really a fear of death (and he did die very young) and it’s also about implacable landscapes that have no interest in our desire for immortality or, rather, our desire not to be mortal. It’s too long to write out the entire poem and just writing out a few lines or a stanza wouldn’t do it justice, but if you see this book in a bookstore or library, even if you don’t buy or check it out, at least read this one poem and tell me it’s not heartrending. The reference to the ancient China is also another reflection of the deep influence of Ezra Pound on his writing, something Wright readily admits to.

The last poem, DISJECT MEMBRA has got this throw away reference to the ‘Rev. Doctor Syntax.’ I don’t know why it is in there, but several months ago, I splurged and spent $75 on a book containing all three, book length narrative poems detailing the comic adventures of Doctor Syntax. That’s all. Tickled me pink to know who the heck ‘Rev. Doctor Syntax’ was. Unless it is a reference to something else.

Also, check out the cover. Except for those tell tale stamps, you’d swear it was by Robert Motherwell or someone like that, but it is ‘Autobiographical Essay’ by Huai Su, a calligrapher from the T’ang era.

Just as an endnote, he got a standing ovation at the end and even walked back out for an encore.

First Folger Poetry Reading Of The New Season

September 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

9780393342680It was a great lineup, featuring four poets who had all had early poems published in Bethesda’s Poet Lore: Traci Brimhall, Terrance Hayes, Cornelius Eady, and Lina Pastan. I’d seen Hayes read before, had never heard of Pastan nor Brimhall and Eady, at least partly on account of co-founding Cave Canem and having taught at American University, casts a pretty wide shadow ’round these parts. I brought with me a collection by Pastan which I had bought earlier. I chose one by Pastan for the excellent reason that it was the only one available at Barnes & Noble by any of the four poets.

The reading was briskly paced, with Poet Lore editors Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller providing engaging commentary and introduction. Hayes was probably the most engaging of the poets, with Eady (unsurprisingly) a close second.

I don’t regret getting Pastan’s collection, though. I’d picked up Traveling Light, a nicely elegiac collection with mostly short lines (though a couple of denser pieces with longer lines that almost resemble prose poems). The positive quote from NPR on the front talks about the ‘rhyming lyrics,’ but honestly, there are very few rhymes. There is a comparison with Emily Dickinson that can be(and has been) made, but Pastan is not nearly so elliptical as Dickinson. There’s a combination of a certain melancholy of growing older with a heaping dollop of the pastoral that reminds me of the Yves Bonnefoy poems I’ve been reading lately (but nothing so amazing as Bonnefoy’s poems about snow). The combination of short lines and two or three line stanzas really works for me, which is why I’m disappointed when I come to a ‘block’ poem. Subject-wise, too, the denser typographic poems tend to be more narrative and a little… I don’t know… flighty? That’s not right. But something.

But there’s something in the comparisons I’ve made. Pastan is very, very good. Really good. But she does frequently remind me of better poets, which pulls me out of the work itself.

For example:


Late September Song

With the sound of
a freight train
through the trees
the first strong wind

of autumn
makes each
sing the song
of its own


Tell me that doesn’t sound like Dickinson (though less elliptical and erotic than Dickinson’s best works)?

There is one very weak section entitled somewhere in the world that contains political poems. The poems, I’m sorry to say, are made of sentiments and conceits of the most trite variety. Sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial and then, in the last lines, thinking about one of his slaves or the 9/11 poem which avoids the terrorist attack until the very end before explaining a version of ‘it changed everything.’ It’s all basic ‘talk about something else and then BAM! as if someone will actually be surprised that you’ve changed the subject to something serious but ultimately uncontroversial.’ Punches pulled. These are the politics of checkbook liberalism outrage.

Finally, congratulations to Hayes who just won a so-called ‘Genius Grant’ (formally, a MacArthur Fellowship – this year, it’s an award of $625,000 over five years).


Awesome Article About Capitol Hill Books!

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

14881066162_e3b30b8377_zRead this post from Brightest Young Things about Capitol Hill Books (my favorite used bookstore). Seriously. And it’s got great photos, like the one I included. I mean, c’mon. Cute girls reading books. It’s like pornography that you can look at during work hours! Or in front of your wife! Unless she’s reading this, in which case, I never actually looked at any of the pictures. Also, there’s a reference the greatest ever episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

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