‘The Flame Of Life’ By Gabriele D’Annunzio

I bought this book in complete ignorance of anything buy visual and tactile beauty; as a physical object. But I wasn’t wrong in guessing that I would enjoy what would surely be some wonderfully overwrought prose.

The plot is wafer thin (Monty Python reference) and driven by issues and concerns that seem positively ridiculous. A dionysian poet named Stelio enthralls a lushly imagined Venice with his wild declamations on art and beauty. Among those enthralled a beautiful actress (former courtesan, too?) alternately called Perdita and La Foscarina. Their love (and presumably, their passionate sex, though that is never mentioned nor described) is voluptuously erotic, but it is haunted by La Foscarita’s greater knowledge of impending knowledge. Yes, she is a nearly decrepit thirty-four (I’m guessing the young genius poet is in his mid-twenties). I’ll admit, those concerns pulled me out of the narrative a bit. Maybe if he had been twenty and she was thirty-nine, I’d have seen the problem more clearly… She is also haunted by the memory of a beautiful and, needless to say, virginal singer named Donatella. Poor Perdita believes that Donatella is destined to be Stelio’s life partner.

But it’s not about plot. It’s about lengthy digressions on art and poetry and architecture and Richard Wagner’s death (which bookends the novel; placing the action around the year 1883). It’s about painfully decadent prose stylings that you will either love or that will force you set the book down before the fifth page.

‘Iraqi Nights’ & Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

On a Wednesday, I saw Dunya Mikhail at the Hill Center, where she was interviewed/conversed with the Post‘s Ron Charles. Sadly, it was the most disappointing of these events that I’ve attended. Whether it was the language barrier (Arabic being her first language and the one she writes in) or something else, the conversation never quite took off. Ron couldn’t seem to get an extended reaction nor dialogue out of her. It didn’t help that she wasn’t very familiar with the English language translations of her poetry that Ron was reading from.

I read her collection, Iraqi Nights and enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. The idea that this was a poetic take Iraq’s travails through the lens of The Arabian Nights never quite came through and some of the poems bordered on being just pithy lines.

On the following Saturday, I dragged a semi-reluctant friend for an event honoring the ninth anniversary of the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad’s ‘Street of Booksellers.’ Poets and musicians, including Dunya Mikhail, were there.

Unfortunately, there was a solid forty-five minutes of self-congratulatory back slapping by some white people that was just… too much.

This is Washington, DC and the year 2016 and we don’t need to be told that Bush’s invasions were colossally incompetent, misguided, and deceitful farces not worth the tiniest amount of the blood and treasure they cost. If you really want to drive this idea home, though, the best way would be to get out of the way and let the Iraqi artists speak through their works.

The last part of the event was a musical performance that sounded almost liturgical in chant-like signing accompanied by an oud and a piano (and wind chimes), but I left early, not because the music wasn’t wonderful (it was), but because those ridiculous opening ceremonies/lectures/chidings/backslappings had left a wound that festered and drove me out.

Fortunately, I did get to see a short video while I was still there – a video the showed the pointlessness of the opening lectures by older white people. It was a simple video. Some footage of the street, including archival footage from before the bombing, but mostly it was just focused on a man who owned a cafe on the street and had lost four of his five sons and one grandson in the bombing. Absolutely heartbreaking, especially once you realized that when he was talking about his son missing a leg, he wasn’t saying that his son was now crippled. He was saying that they couldn’t find all of his son’s body parts. When a man is telling you that story, you don’t need an anti-war lecture.

Power & Pathos & Trios

Next weekend, I’ll start working for my better half for the foreseeable future, which made using Sunday well more than usually important. At the National Gallery of Art, an exhibit called Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World was going to be winding down and having blithely ignored numerous opportunities to see it, today (or, rather, that day) needed to be the day.

00309897001_HI’m sorry, but I was disappointed. There were some wonderful pieces (a weary Herakles leaning on his club and the head of a poet), but only one that was truly powerful (a statue of the god Pan) and more than a few ‘meh’ pieces and, certainly, I didn’t feel much power nor pathos (besides alliteration, what was the ‘pathos’ supposed to be?).

You still try to get a nugget of something interesting from any exhibit and for me, that was the head of a poet. It was labelled a poet because his hair was longish and his beard full and those were the signs of a poet. philosopher, or intellectual (and, in the late ancient world covered by this period, an intellectual would frequently also be a philosopher and poet; there wasn’t so much parsingDancing-Faun of the difference back then). The idea was that they were less influenced by vanities, so let their hairs grow out. So, the idea of the shaggy poet or thinker wasn’t an invention of Parisian bohemians, nor Greenwich Village poets, nor any other group from the last two thousand years, but dates all the way back to ancient Greece.

After finishing the exhibit, I kept wandering around the museum, stopping in some galleries to look at some nineteenth century landscapes. I walked towards one of the atriums when a woman walked in front of me, handed me a program and asked me if I was here for the concert.

Naturally, I said, yes.

Apparently, the National Gallery of Art had spent the previous two days doing several concerts a day in order to complete a cycle, as it were, of Beethoven’s trios. This particular concert would be his final string trios (which were actually early works; he moved on to string quartets after composing these).

The first one was a string trio in G Major and the players ended the trio so abruptly that we (the audience) was stunned into sudden and sustained applause. It was a very odd moment, as if a long silence had been ended by an invisible man suddenly clapping in our ear. We kept to our feet not because the performance was good (though it was), but because shock impelled us.

The second trio, in D Major, had a menuetto as its penultimate movement and I just loved it. Beethoven should have done more dances.

The third, in his famed C Minor key, was surprisingly upbeat for a chamber piece in a minor key.

The acoustics felt good, which is not always the case in there. The sound was clear and very, very bright, with the inevitable echo being an inconsequential factor.

Just an awesome coincidence that I walked in on it.

Chinese New Year Concert

The Shenzen Symphony Orchestra played at the Kennedy Center for several nights of performances to ring in the Year of the Monkey. Honestly, I bought the ticket because it was immensely cheap, but it turned out to be a great night.

ShenzenSome music based on regional folk music by Yuankai Bao was a great listen. Bucolic, pastoral, folksy. Very enjoyable. The Yellow River Concerto by Xinghai Xian left me a little underwhelmed though.

Violinist Dan Zhu was absolutely amazing. He played in Carmen Fantasie (if you’ve heard that famous Carmen music on NPR, it probably wasn’t from the original opera, but one of two orchestral arrangements on themes from Carmen; this was the one by Franz Waxman) and his bowing was wonderful powerfully and masculine.

The Peony Pavilion is a Kunqu Opera. I’d never heard of it either. It’s something between western opera and Chinese opera and musical theater. Some of the singing by the male lead was done in a falsetto that sounded odd to my ears and to many of the other in the audience (but that doesn’t excuse some of the juvenile responses; thought folks get a pass for giggling at some of the lines: Let me shower your thirsting flower is not subtle innuendo).

And then there were excerpts from Turandot. Even if you’re not an opera fan (and I am an opera fan), it’s hard not to be moved by a stirring, romantic aria by Puccini. It goes right to your heart and makes you want to stand up and pour it all out.

Platonism In Boethius

Actually, it’s more Plato, than Platonism, which is arguably something different than the the ideas of Plato. Arguably.

I have a strange attachment to Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy. Over a decade ago, my Aunt Petey was in a coma and she was taken off, to use the sterile, clinical phrasing, nutrition and hydration and then brought to her eldest son’s home, where the family gathered and waited.

At one point, I stood beside her bed and started reading aloud from Consolations. Maybe because I was reading it anyway or maybe because it was written by a man waiting to die. Maybe I just thought my family would think me extra super smart if I did it. Maybe I was just killing time, even as my aunt was killing time in a far more literal sense. I honestly don’t remember why.

But whatever my motivations, certainly, something like that burns a particular work onto the brain.

When I read Gorgias, I was unexpectedly hit by some parallels. There are some obvious between the Beothius of Consolations (the only Boethius that I know) and the Plato I know from his broader corpus (though I haven’t read all of Plato): their lack of respect for poetry (which, granted, was more like theater or even pagan ritual at the time) and the fact that the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues, including Gorgias, is always in a state of waiting to be taken away to die, much as my Boethius is in a cell, waiting for eventual punishment (which turned out to be execution, as he suspected).

Gorgias had an unexpected metaphysical aspect, as Socrates argued for the scales of justice righting themselves in the world hereafter as a way for the correct path – the best life, as it were – to be finally rewarded, even if lots of bad things happened to good people in this one, along with some pretty awful people seemingly to live pretty fun loving and enjoyable existences. In the Consolations, the figure of Philosophy (a woman, by the way) seems to take Socrates’ role and lead Boethius to the realization that his unjust accusers are, for this metaphysical reason, ultimately less happy than a just and good man, even if he is about to be tortured and killed.

Monday Morning Staff Meeting – How Liberal Is Your ‘Hood?

Ozawa and Twain... weirdly similar hair
Ozawa and Twain… weirdly similar hair

My neighborhood (H Street, or the Atlas District), is conservative by DC standards and slightly less liberal than my old haunt of Capitol Hill/Eastern Market. But this is DC, folks. Doesn’t really get that conservative.

A little creepy, Mark.

The Kennedy Center is honoring Seiji Ozawa (who I saw conduct a mostly Dvorak program in Minneapolis).

The Sunday Paper: It’s Not Very Good

697_234On sort of defending Vanessa Place. But not really. But, yeah.

Two poets were included in the recent list of MacArthur Genius Grant winners (and yes, I know that we’re not really supposed to call them ‘genius grants’ or ‘genius awards,’ but, whatever, everyone does, so what are you clinging to? also, Ben Lerner is probably better known as a novelist, but, whatever).

If you’re looking for free tickets to concerts at the Library of Congress, you’re in luck – no more service charges from Ticketmaster! But you’re also out of luck, because they’re mostly sold out (though you can still try and get ‘rush’ tickets before the show).

And there may be a hurricane hitting me today or tomorrow. Wish me luck.


Poetry And The Police: Communications Networks In Eighteenth-Century Paris

Poetry and the PoliceI had been looking forward to this read for a while. It had been on my personal ‘must read’ list for a couple of years. You can probably guess where I’m going with this: I was a little disappointed.

Part of it is my selfness as a lover of poetry and Darnton gives little shift to the importance of poetry in and of itself.

I suppose I should summarize a little. In 1749, the police went a little crazy trying to track down the origins of some satirical poems mocking King Louis XV (and some of his ministers; his mistress, the famed Madame Pompadour [her maiden name is ‘Poisson,’ French for fish and some of the songs used that fact and… let’s just jokes about fish and the smell of a woman’s privates go way back]; and the King’s apparent cowardice in sending Bonnie Prince Charlie to die at the hands of the English). The tale goes over how very strata of society intersected with these satirical poems, usually set to popular music of the day.

But I wanted to know more about the poetry itself, its writing, and its writers. Surely it means something that poetry, literature was considered a threat. 

Also, the style of the writing of the book was a little undergraduate.

I Finally Got My Better Half To Come With Me To #LittleSalonDC

PuppetIt wasn’t that she found the idea particularly objectionable, but that she was out of town every time I went (purely coincidence, I assure you). She hemmed and hawed a little, but in the end, it was a great night and I think she enjoyed it.

Flying Guillotine Press launched new book of collaborative poetry by sixty odd writers called Breaking the Lines. I checked it out, but it wasn’t really my bag, but I did pick up another one of their books, Stephanie Balzer’s WED JAN 30 12:58:10 2013 – THU DEC 20 14:16:36 2012. There were also jam samples from PinUp Preserves, but someone I missed those.

The opening was some poetry by Lucian Mattison and… can I admit he didn’t really do it for me? From DC’s ‘Opera on Tap’ (wherein people sing opera at bars) were Kristina Riegle, Carla Rountree, and David Chavez. They actually sang from musical theater, but they were great performers, as well as being excellent singers. I even got some special attention during ‘I Hate Men,’ because when the line about men with chest hair arrived, well, I was the only person near the front with  suitably Sean Connery-esque fur. I don’t get a huge amount of attention from ladies these days, so we take what we can get, even if it’s being singled out during a song entitled, ‘I Hate Men.’ Finally, there was a vaudeville style act by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell (from Happenstance Theater) and puppetry by Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon (also occasionally from Happenstance Theater). The puppetry was absolutely magical, though it would take too long to explain, so if you live near DC, try and find a time to see it and if you don’t, well, sucks to be you.

The Gypsy Baron

A friend and I went to a small theater in Rockville to see the Victorian Lyric Opera Company (specializing, as you might expect, in nineteenth century opera) perform Richard Strauss’ The Gypsy Baron.

The plot is suitably preposterous and if all you know of this particular Strauss is the music used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ll be very surprised if you see any of his light opera or operettas. The performers and the orchestra (which was live) were amateur, but the music is so fun, it carries you along. The libretto was translated in English in (more or less) rhymed couplets. This made it rather like a traditional musical, only instead of the music being written by an irritating Andrew Lloyd Webber wannabe (or, even worse, actually trying to remake an opera), it’s by Richard Strauss.

It’s not the same as seeing a professionally produced and well-budgeted opera at the Kennedy Center, but it was fun and it scratched my itch for opera.