Archive for March, 2011


“The rain water drips through a crack in the ceiling…”

Every day, tour groups at the National Cathedral strain to see the grotesque of a certain famously evil pop-culture character, but they never notice the charming raccoon with whom he shares a buttress gablet. On rainy days like today, the raccoon deals with this recurring slight as any sensible creature would: by translating Rilke. (The original German poem is here.)

RAINER MARIA RILKE: SOLITUDE

Solitude is like the rain.
Along toward evening, rising up again
it slips the sea above the farther plain
to heaven, where it always rains, then down
from heaven falls alone upon the town.

Then down it rains in hours queerly cast,
when alleys turn to face the looming day,
when bodies, finding nothing, have at last
from one another glumly turned away,
and when, in their despite, two lives must stay
and side by side in one shared bed repose:

then solitude into the rivers flows…


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“And you know you cannot leave her, for you touched the distant sands…”

For half a century, autodidact and occasional actor Christopher Logue has rallied all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad. “[I]t’s some of the best poetry being written in English today,” wrote Jim Lewis at Slate in 2003, “and it should be read widely and with great pleasure by anyone still interested in the art of verse.” For a few more days, New Yorkers have a rare chance to see Logue’s Homer come to life: With the poet’s approval, director Jim Milton has adapted the first 70 pages, “Kings,” for two actors on a mostly-bare stage. The production, at the Workshop Theater through April 3, is a wild, addictive hour that does remarkable justice to its source.

Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of the Homeric text through one curious advantage: his ignorance of ancient Greek. Instead, he’s basing his still-unfinished poem on English translations published between 1720 and 1950. His Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—includes scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, he cribs a passage from Paradise Lost. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, Logue calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they’re missing the point.

Known for his gleeful use of anachronism—like his description of Ajax, often cited by reviewers, as “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s Agamemnon’s line-up of champions from All Day Permanent Red, a slim volume of battle poetry published in 2003 with a title nicked from a Revlon ad:

Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Idomeneo, who:
“Come on!”
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.

Logue’s Homer resounds with cries of war, but he also crafts domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:

The armies wait.

“Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”

Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.

“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”

And giving her a kiss, He said:

“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”

When battle calls, Logue can craft a scene as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patroclea”:

The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.

Now either you like this sort of thing or you don’t. I happen to love Logue’s knack for trotting out modern gimmickry not for its own sake, but in the service of narrative— and while Logue finds humor in his ancient source, he never treats Homer like a joke. Both Homer and Logue understand, from different angles, the maddening mindset of warriors. Jim Milton concedes its relevance, too; it’s why his adaptation of “Kings” is so good.

Milton is also lucky to have two nimble actors on his stage. Dana Watkins switches effortlessly between Zeus, Odysseus, Hector, and even a hammy Hephaestus, but he’s at his best as a furious, choked-up Achilles who’s never more than half a slight away from homicide. J. Eric Cook is funny as a shrill Hera and a rash, tipsy Thersites, but he’s also weirdly touching as Thetis, Achilles’ mother. His Agamemnon is unremarkable, but perhaps deliberately so, as Logue’s text renders him a slick politician before his homesick army:

“Thank you, Greece.
As is so often true,
Silence has won the argument.
Achilles speaks as if I found you on a vase.
So leave his stone-age values to the sky.”

Although Cook doesn’t look like a warrior king, he imbues the character with the smiling certainty of a psychopath. Logue’s text helps. As the Trojan Anchises later asks, “Indeed, what sort of king excepting theirs / Would slit his daughter’s throat to start a war?”

Seeing Logue’s Homer performed by two Americans makes clear that the text might be better declaimed by actors with droll British diction; once or twice, Cook and Watkins seemed too busy recalling Logue’s lines to give them their full weight. Still, both actors possess powerful, well-trained voices, and they and the director draw from a deep well of vocal tricks and physical gestures to make this production brilliantly audience-friendly. Before Thursday night’s performance, I heard a couple in front of me whisper that they had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into, but as soon as Watkins and Cook took the stage, they were beguiled. As Logue himself put it, “[i]t was so quiet in Heaven that you could hear / The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia.”

Unfortunately, “Kings” is tantalizingly brief. The show, which clocks in at 75 minutes, ends with howls of war just as the audience is dying to see (even though they know) how it all plays out. I hope the empty seats in the tiny Workshop Theater don’t dissuade director Jim Milton from further adapting Logue. Drearily, the Poetry Foundation can use its $185 million boon to build a $21 million headquarters and publish reams of mediocre verse, but a staging of Logue can’t fill 65 seats in midtown Manhattan. That says less about Logue than it does about the mannered insider-ism of the poetry scene, and Logue himself knows it.

“[N]one of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence,” Logue told the Paris Review in 1993. His contemporaries are missing out. If you’re near New York, you have nine days to get to the Workshop Theater, see “Kings,” and hear how poetry sounds with a mouth full of blood.

“And the little wheel runs on faith…”

If you’ve ever owned a hamster, then you know how easily these creatures succumb to ontological and epistemological crises, especially when they look in a mirror. In this case, the mirror is Walters 71.170, a medieval artifact that also repays human scrutiny.

A HAMSTER CONSIDERS AN IVORY MIRROR COVER FROM MEDIEVAL FRANCE

Is this the wheel rabbanim learn
In serifed murmurs to discern
How beasts on every fourthwise spoke
Revolve by fours, but do not turn?

Is this the wheel the brahmin broke
When, himmel-eyed, she dared invoke
Her patient, wisdomed groom, then beamed
To bow her head for Roman stroke?

Is this the wheel a consul schemed
To wreathe with kaisers crudely dreamed
Who whirled their luckless lots away,
Yet leave one lady long esteemed?

Is this wheel the suras say
Was made of silver, not of clay,
And spelt like ash across the sky
To lift a grazing flock to pray?

Four beasts about the border fly;
Within, the aging never die.
For wheels in wheels I long to burn,
But which, the beast, the blest, am I?

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“Fortune prevailing across the western ocean…”

[This post originally ran on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, but since life is conspiring to prevent me from writing new stuff, I present…a rerun!]

On St. Patrick’s Day, my block is a riot of counterfeit green. My neighbors, the locals, and crowds of outsiders embarrass and degrade themselves, and the sidewalks are rampant with bellowing drunks: “I’m not Irish, but I’m Irish today! Wooooo!” As the Irish economy continues to shrink, an international day of blarney may be unseemly, but there’s no better time to fall back on the Pogues.

With their drinking songs, tin-whistle ditties, and rousing odes to old-school Irishness, the Pogues are the sons of a more squalid age. Shane MacGowan, their lead singer and most prolific lyricist, has long exemplified the beer-blasted Irishman: profane, incoherent, staggering, sad, by turns violent and wistful, poetic and crass. By mumbling through lines like “Jimmy played harmonica in the pub where I was born,” MacGowan reinforced the image of a culture of cackling, chaotic brawlers whose sole goal in drinking themselves to death was to get in on the first round in Hell.

So yes, the Pogues have cultivated a cartoonish image, but they deserve credit for a more profound accomplishment: they were the unlikely vanguard of Irish internationalism before all that “Celtic Tiger” hype took hold. You can see it in their lyrics, which include references not only to Cuchullain and Cromwell but also to Rhineland mythology, the works of Jean Genet, and, in a funny folk cover, Jesse James. Sure, the Pogues eulogize Irish novelist Christy Brown as “a man of renown from Dingle to Down,” but they also sing about Gallipoli, they invoke Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” and they even flirt with Coleridge. They croon about being lost in Louisiana, they bemoan being down and out in Nepal, and they dabble in Spanish history, offering the only ode to Federico Garcia Lorca in which a crass reference to “the faggot poet” could possibly be seen as sympathetic.

Often, the Pogues depart from folk ditties to dabble in tunes that evoke Guinness-flecked spaghetti Westerns or Celticized Bernstein soundtracks, and they throw themselves into the Cole Porter songbook without explanation or apology. Listen to “House of the Gods” and you’ll get a sense of how much thought goes into making such clangy, boisterous, intoxicating music. MacGowan’s goofy song about meeting a transvestite hooker on a Thai beach includes an opening and closing flourish that’s wonderfully wry: it’s a high-strung, ironic rendition of the melody from “You Still Believe in Me,” a sincere love song by—who else?—the Beach Boys.

Of course, the Pogues can be plainly sincere, especially when singing about squandered dreams. “Fairytale of New York,” MacGowan’s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, has become a lachrymose Christmas favorite, but its popularity overshadows the superior “Thousands are Sailing,” guitarist Phillip Chevron’s bittersweet tale of Irish immigration:

In Manhattan’s desert twilight,
In the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first men on the moon,

And “The Blackbird” broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet,
And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps
I danced up and down the street.

Chevron’s characterization of the Irish as both celebrating and fleeing their “fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies” combines regret, wistfulness, superstition, and self-loathing; that’s the sort of artistry that makes the Pogues more than a novelty band with a repertoire of drinking songs. Only a lyricist who’s seen the rest of the world could think so clearly and write so eloquently about Ireland’s place within it.

Granted, the Pogues are improbable spokesmen for Irish internationalism—and not only because half the band is actually English. Watch the documentary If I Should Fall From Grace and marvel at footage of Shane MacGowan—drunken, petulant, rotten-toothed, and suicidal. Could this incoherent bum really be the literate soul who wrote the Pogues’ most poignant songs? Did he really go to Thailand, Nepal, New York, and Mississippi? Is there really a Rain Street where he observed Ireland in all its Chaucerian glory, or was the whole business born of drugs and booze?

Who knows? Today, raise a few pints to the Pogues. When a world full of expats looked back with nostalgia, the Pogues looked beyond Irish shores. If you just need to drink and be raucous and weepy, they gave you a suitable soundtrack. If you aspire to be worldly and wise, they gave you good songs for that, too.

“Mais nous pouvons faire ce que nous voulons…”

This snake on the northwest tower has long creeped me out. It’s one thing to fulfill your nature; it’s quite another to chalk up every impulse to giddy antiquarianism.

APOLOGIA

Heo cwaeð: “Seo naedre bepaehte me ond ic aett.”
—Gen. 3:13 (British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv)

We rede the Saxons sympathised with snakes:
On broach and bract they turve and intertwine
But buckle when modernity awakes;
All laud the wyrm who weaves a wulfish vine.

In retsel-books and wrixled words we find
The Saxons, ever lacertine, bestirred
To grammar-craft, whose duple pronouns bind;
So sundered lives were woven with a word.

(A scene: Some god-forsook Northumbrish monk,
Emboldened by an asp to double think,
Professes wit and unk and unker-unk,
But shrinks from git and ink and inker-ink.)

Now I, who raveled precedent relate,
Propose that we be litchwise intertraced;
The wulf and adder gleam on plink and plait,
Yet no immortal lepus ever graced

The lapidated latch of art divine,
So spurn your sallow scrafe, forget the sun.
For you the relic, I the blessid shrine;
In wit and work alike, we two are one.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“In my blue heaven, there’s a bottle of Pontchartrain…”

I’ve never known what alligators dream. Apparently, it’s simple: “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”

CANAL STREET

When George leans back and waives his wyrmbent blade,
     When golden Joan rolls up her banns of war,
When late Ignatius lutes his last crusade,
     When Roch counts no more crutches by the door,
Then daub our brow with dust—but not today,
     As saints salaam to every passing king
And all our sins are snatched and strewn away
     Like bright, beloved beads that slip their string.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)