Saturday, June 25, 2005

A Diamond Ring

Your orbs are hollow
invisible behind
your clip-on lunettes
I hope those Armanis
are UV-filtered

or else the retinas
can smoke and burn
like wet rope-net
in a driftwood fire
the ocular humor
congealing like
soft-boiled eggs

Once in a blue
moon things can
line up this way
one body like
an umbrella
sheltering another
We rarely encounter
anything more
perfect and complete
than this alignment

My eye's apple
my life's sunshine
are considered clichés

A moment before
there appears
a flash a flaring
brilliance at a point
on the circumference
the flickering rim
as though the new moon's
edge had caught fire
the so-called
third contact
or what solar observers
informally term
the diamond ring

It blazes forth
like a hole in one's sight
too bright for the mind
to attribute a color

While looking away
to spare your eyes
you'll see that the sky
is imbued with a violet
that it possesses
at no other time

In a benighted age
the apparition
traversing the heaven
of a long-haired star
or the horrible specter
of this unforeseen twilight
would awake fear and fire
Wouldn't the earth die
without the sunshine?
What knowledge is possible
without Truth's light?
How could one bear
to be forsaken by God?
What has occluded
the warmth of your love?

This no less predictable
and sudden reverse
has destroyed my mind's peace

As the sun gives the energy
on which all life depends
as the sun is Truth's light
the very medium of knowledge
as the sun is God's face
turned away from the many
So your love is the hope
without which I am lost
and blinded in darkness

(June 23-25, 2005)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A Complaint

Has a glassmaker set up shop in my ribcage?
My thorax is not zoned for that.
Though in perfect health, I choose my steps as carefully
as an invalid. I can feel something fragile lodged in my chest.
A shock could upset it. It could spill,
like an egg cup supporting a soft-boiled egg
or a brimming wineglass. If I had to guess, I'd say
that it is valuable and hard to replace.

Any carelessness or inattention will cause it to break.
And then what would I be left with? A few fragments,
like puzzle pieces, stored in a kitchen drawer with the intention
of gluing it back together some afternoon should I find the time.
I'd have that, and my consciousness of the loss of it.

(June 22, 2005)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Neoclassicism and Romanticism

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc (Françoise Poncelle), 1823.

Continuing with an account of my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month: after the Ancient Egyptian tour, I joined a tour of some works by French Impressionists. I can pass along a few highlights.

The first stops on the tour of the galleries housing nineteenth-century French painting were before works by Ingres and Delacroix, in order to illustrate the styles of two important schools in the years that preceded the emergence of Impressionism.

Ingres was offered as the representative of the neoclassical style in painting: every detail is carefully reproduced on the canvas -- note for instance the details in the complex pattern on the multicolored cloth in the painting above; drawn lines give a definite shape to every element depicted; the brushstroke is hidden so as to create a smooth, illusionistic surface, and furthermore the surface is heavily varnished to give it a slick, glossy finish.

The neoclassical outlook emphasized a hierarchy of genres, organized by the nobility and importance of subject matter. At the top of the neoclassical hierarchy: scenes from history, legend, and myth. Below those subjects in importance were portraits – usually, in this period, of aristocrats or merchants and their families, since they were the ones who could afford to hire someone to paint them; then landscapes; then “genre scenes,” meaning scenes from everyday life or colorful, sometimes pathetic, scenes from the lives of commoners or peasants. Because of his renown for and success with portraits, though, Ingres actually didn’t make many paintings at the top of the neoclassical hierarchy. His time was taken up with all of the lucrative portrait commissions that he received.

The particular portraits by Ingres that our tour group examined were of a husband and wife. Reproduced above is that of Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc (Françoise Poncelle, 1788-1839). Ingres's work is considered to represent the pinnacle of the neoclassical style in portraiture, the style that dominated academic training in painting and the annual salon shows that were the most prestigious opportunities for exhibition. Yet this particular portrait was controversial for some liberties that it took with, or distortions that it introduced to, the depiction of its subject. Some critics at the time complained that Ingres had made a monster of his subject by distorting her anatomy in the service of composition: her left arm was said to be unnaturally elongated while her right arm is stunted. To some, her forehead appeared to be truncated, as though her skull were of inadequate size to house a normal human brain. And notice her fingers, which according to the complaint are tapered to a grotesque degree. I leave it to you whether you accept these criticisms – whether the artist has painted a misshapen monster.

The Romantic school in French painting, another nineteenth-century predecessor to Impressionism, attempted to challenge the neoclassical stranglehold on the Academy and the salon. Where neoclassicism placed drawing and the line at the center of composition, Romantic painters tended to favor the expressive use of color, and the building up of forms with brushstrokes rather than insisting on clear lines and adherence to definite underdrawing. In contrast to the neoclassical imperative to hide the brushstroke, Romanticism tends to leave it showing – a tendency, along with the free and expressive use of color, that would later receive even more attention and emphasis among the Impressionists. I think that it would be correct to say that landscape was a more important topic for the Romantics than for the neoclassical painters, though the latter had their own approach to landscape painting: to depict classical ruins in natural settings intended to evoke picturesque Italian landscape, or else the grandeur of ancient civilization. But the Impressionists owe more to the Romantic treatment of landscape as a field of activity for the imagination and as a reflection, in external nature, of what in human inner nature corresponds to the beauty and sublimity of the world.

Delacroix's painting The Natchez, offered in the museum tour as a representative work of Romanticism, depicts a scene from a narrative, but the scene does not originate in history, legend, or myth -- the favored sources for neoclassical scenes. Rather, it illustrates a scene from the fictional story "Atala" by Chateaubriand, written and published around the turn of the nineteenth century after Chateaubriand's visit to the "New World." The story and painting have as background the actual massacre of the native American Natchez tribe by the French in the 1700's, though the particular characters and incidents of the story are invented.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), The Natchez, 1823-35.

The story and painting both treat the plight of the native Americans with sympathy and pathos, while at the same time taking delight in the exotic quality both of the wild natural setting and the idea of the virtuous simplicity of the tribe that is being wiped out. In the context of the confrontation between neoclassicism and Romanticism, it occurs to me that the "New World" must have seemed to offer an open, unbounded space for the play of a certain kind of imagination, providing an opportunity to project one's speculation and fantasy onto a little-known but suggestive, colorful milieu. By comparison, I imagine that the weight of tradition and the multitude of existing works of art around historical and mythical subjects might have made neoclassical subjects seem a very crowded, or overworked, field. I find some visual correlatives to the openness and imaginative freedom allowed by the painting's subject matter, including the expressive, rather than strictly realistic or mimetic, use of color (note the position of the red tone in the sky in relation to the bright red blanket), and the use of an imagined, rather than an actual, landscape as the setting. In Chateaubriand's story, this scene in which the doomed Native Americans give birth to their child (also doomed) takes place by the banks of the Mississippi. But as our docent pointed out, you are not likely to find a craggy mountain of the sort visible in the upper right corner of the painting anywhere near the Mississippi River. In the treatment of the suffering of unknown, or imagined, natives in a fantasized landscape, you will see a point-of-departure for a critique of the depiction of the natives despite the element of sympathy or regret over the depredations of the Europeans. One way of posing the question: at what point does the ethical concern – the sense of conscience – diverge from the aesthetic pleasure that one derives from the exotic and savage setting and characters, and even from the delightfully poignant suffering?

More on Impressionism – Courbet, Manet, and Degas – at a later date….

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Going Out

It is important — so we agreed — to go out properly
("go out" as in "That’s not how I want to go out"):
sweetly. As friends. Remembering what we have caused each other to feel,
so as to not destroy the good things that we've had together.
What would be the point of being dishonest or cruel?
I want the meaning of our time together to survive.

I was born, I am alive now, one day I will cease to exist. I'd rather
that it mattered that I lived. Or, failing that, let me at least
not hurt the ones I most care about.

When we first started going out, we met in the middle of the Square.
You approached some bald dude first, thinking it was me.
I had joked that my hair had fallen out since the photos, and you took me at my word.
We tell these stories to each other over and over.
They are important, even if I can't quite explain why. The stories
remind us of who we are together.

We sat on the grass and talked about music and politics.
What else do you remember from that day?
In an ice-cream shop, in a secluded booth set up in a decommissioned
bank vault that had been transformed, with aquamarine paint
and some imagination, into a fantastic aquarium, like a pulsating anenome
you opened up to me — about your family in childhood and your parents’
divorce. Some topic for a first date, right? Yet something
unusual had happened: a rare event
when one has been exhausted and blunted by going out
almost at random, on the off chance.

In Literati — that's Scrabble with the name changed for licensing reasons —
You would always "go out" first. (Excuse me? "Go out?" I had to ask you
to explain. It seems that "going out," in Pennsylvanian, means what I call
"running out of letters.") In Literati, going out is good. It earns you more points.
Our rating scores are adjusted after each game. Yours goes up. Mine goes down.
The economist's "fixed pie": someone wins and someone loses every time.

Now the calendar is like the Literati board.
I am running out of tiles. In fact I am very close
to going out. I am losing you. My heart tells me what to feel: it knows.
But who has won this time? I think that you've beaten me again.

In bed, though, I would usually come first
and then my excitement would set you off.
I have found that it is better to come in than to go out.

(c. May 1-June 8, 2005)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Camel Who Dreamt That He Was a Pretty Songbird

Henri Rousseau, Scout Attacked by a Tiger, 1904.

You'd be surprised. Not even a camel enjoys the desert,
as much at home as he may be. It's not the aridity,
the paucity of annual rainfall. He is built for that.
His constitution supplies him with what he needs
for the long crossings that he makes alone.
The inner weather is far harsher.
Talk about personal dryness! It is a desert of the mind.

When I came to you, it was not like finding an oasis.
It was like finding a rainforest, so lush and lively.
Was there something to fear in the intense gaze
peering out from the fronds as in a Rousseau painting?
The camel is drawn to that glimmering fire.
"I like to stare at my prey," you once said. That's animal magnetism.
What camel, having found such a place, would ever willingly leave?

Dozing beneath some sheltering ferns, cooled by a mist that filters the sunlight,
perhaps even snoring a bit, the mesmerized camel learns of transformation.
He is actually a songbird, a full-throated bird of paradise.
No longer a hunchback, he is fit, quick on the wing, and light.
His body is perfectly formed. At spontaneous trills and melodies
he is a natural virtuoso, as though taught by God to sing.
Some drab female birds alight nearby and preen,
but he is more intrigued by a flash of orange fur,
black-striped -- the powerful Tiger, claws extended,
is creeping up the trunk. She is hungry for him.

On this new crossing, the misshapen camel will recall that wonderful dream
of fierce tigers and pretty songbirds. Such a pairing could never be,
he will think to himself. He will dismiss it as an improbable fancy,
fleeting and faithless as a mirage. The Tiger is a dangerous creature.
How could he risk it? Still, it is an amusing thought.

(May 11 - June 7, 2005)