Saturday, May 22, 2010

Day Six-The Train (from 12 Last Days of the Soviet Union)

The Train
by Douglas Messerli
For years I believed that traveling by train, particularly long distances, was somehow romantic. Perhaps I had seen too many movies, or had been too strongly influenced by my favorite childhood reading, a book wherein a young boy took a train ride with his mother to meet up with the father in a faraway state. Those trains, the trains of the 1950s Hitchcock films and within my little Golden Book were glorious machines which combined dark green (one of my favorite colors) trimmed with oxblood accessories. Trains, particularly in which one had sleeping quarters, seemed like a little hotel on wheels, all of which thoroughly satisfied my peripatetic predilections.

So, when we were told that we would be traveling via overnight train from Leningrad to Vilnius, I was thrilled. Even after we waited in the cold night for hours until the train arrived, and had crawled up the stairs into what was clearly a derelict version of any train I might have conjured up, I still tingled with the excitement of such a voyage. Each sleeping room contained four beds, and I, having spent much of my adolescence at the top level of a bunk bed, opted for the upper space.

On this train there was nowhere else to sit. The narrow halls contained only a couple drop-down stools, upon which even the smallest child might feel ill-at-ease. Accordingly, we sat in foursomes on our beds, chatting until we all were ready for sleep.

The gentle sway of the train soon lulled me into dreams. After a short while, however, I woke up with a headache, an array of uncomfortable odors in my nose. A couple of guys in our party had purchased a large bunch of garlic in Leningrad, and it hung from our ceiling. I love garlic, but this huge floral-like composition had clearly been soaked in some kind of herb or spice, and stank something awful. The next door bathroom—more an open privy than a toilet—added its own rankness.

I attempted to put it out of my mind, and let the rhythm of the rails lull me into sleep once again. A few hours later, however, I awoke in a fit of coughing, by throat inflamed, by nose and eyes dripping. Was I getting a cold? It hardly mattered, for I felt as sick as if I had contracted some rare disease. I lay in the dark for a long while, but could no longer even doze, and, finally, I could no longer bear the prone position.

Slowly, as quietly as I could, I sat up, gathered my bag of books and papers and jumped to floor, slipping out into the narrow hall, at the far end of which sat the carriage conductor. I tried as best I could to find some comfort on the tiny pull-down stool, but could hardly balance on the spot, let alone battle book and cough. I was miserable and wondered how I would withstand the rest of the tour. Had I been transformed into a vampire?

Seeing my discomfort, the conductor came forward, speaking Russian and waving his middle finger in a signal of “follow me.” Given my “humpty-dumpty” position I had little choice, even though I was somewhat fearful of where I might be taken.

At the far end of the train car was a little door I had not previously noticed. He opened it, and I peeped in, discovering what was clearly his small office, consisting of a desk and a tiny bookcase shoved against walls covered over with magazine clippings and photographs. He signaled for me to sit, and I did, trying to convey my sincere appreciation for his kind act. I took out my notebook and began to write.

After a few minutes of observing my actions, he imitated my insistent penmanship and shrugged his shoulders as if asking what it was I was writing. I pointed to him and smiled. “I’m writing of your act of kindness in my notes,” I pointlessly reported.

But something friendly must have been conveyed, for he soon came forward, asking me a question in Russian. I shook my head, obviously not comprehending a word he had said. He came closer and for a single moment I wondered what was in store. He pointed to a small figure of Christ pasted to his wall, and to another reproduction of a painting of Mary.

“Christ,” I responded, which brought a smile to his face, having interpreted my head-shaking as agreement.

“Christos,” he proudly agreed.

“Yes, Christos. Da, Christos,” I responded.

Suddenly he pointed to another figure a few feet away from the religious iconography, just as proud of displaying this clipping as he had been of his statements of faith.

I put on my glasses and carefully surveyed the figure: Einstein!

“Einstein?” I laughed.

“Da, Einstein,” he laughed back.

Then he turned, almost as if embarrassed, and left me alone. I wrote a bit more in my journal, read some of my book, and waited for the morning to come and the others to wake.

Every once in a while the conductor returned as if to check on my well-being, which, in turn, somewhat troubled me. Was he trying to see if I had finally abandoned his comfy hole so that he might return? I certainly felt happy in this little spot, but I had no intention of putting him out of his little kingdom, and soon after I returned to the hall, standing near the window to look out at the vast white landscape lit up the rising sun over what I presumed was Belarus.

Finally, the sun inched up a little higher in the sky, and my travel companions begin, one by one, to emerge, congregating in the little wafer of space in which I stood.

“You’re up early,” the first to appear noted.

“Couldn’t sleep,” I grumbled.

“The smell is something terrible, isn’t it?”

“Unbearable, in my case.”

“Guess we shouldn’t of bought that garlic, but my mother insisted I bring some back.”

“I’m supposed to bring some Russian dolls for my Grandmother! Haven’t seen any yet.”

When our tour guide appeared, she reported that she had just been told there was nothing to eat. “They forgot to load food on the train in Leningrad,” she groaned.

I was nearly famished, and dreaded the hours we still had until we reached Vilnius.

Some time after, however, we were told to gather in the dining car. The cooks had discovered some beets, and, indeed, we witnessed a couple of bunches of beets laid out in the connecting links between cars.

We all eagerly crowded into the tables, where we were each served a bowl of borscht. At the bottom of each bowl sat a small piece of something that looked a little bit like meat. None of us dared say what we all feared. Yet that borscht was absolutely delicious, better that anything we had yet eaten in the Soviet Union. My cold melted away with each sip of the hot concoction, and by the time we reached Vilnius I felt much better.

As we left the train, I shook the hand of the obliging conductor, wishing him well. He once more beamed in quiet delight.

Los Angeles, May 19, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Day Four-Lives of the Artists, from 12 Last Days of the Soviet Union

Ostap Dragomoschenko

Arkadii Dragomoschenko in the Sun & Moon offices
with Ostap's painting, "The Wrestlers"

Lives of the Artists
by Douglas Messerli

Despite the apparent restriction of Soviet tourist hotels for Russian citizens, poet-friend Arkadii Dragomoschenko joined us each day at dinner in the hotel dining room. His company was a joyful one, and he kept us abreast of Russian events and traditions. Clark Coolidge, Lyn, and I talked with Arkadii everyday on various subjects. I particularly remember when the conversation turned to Women's Liberation, which was dismissed out of hand by both Arkadii and his wife, Zina. "We want to be pampered and not have to work," she declared.

Near the end of our stay, Arkadii invited us to a party at his son's art studio/apartment. The dilapidated space was like something out of the 1920s and 1930s collective housing, a place shared by four or five artists, each occupying a small corner. I recall a woman artist having only a small walking passage, a couple of artists sharing what might one day have been a bedroom. Ostap shared the so-called "living-room." Several of his paintings had been tacked to the walls.
Each of us, as expected, had purchased vodka and other foods (chips and candies) from the tourist shops, where, once again, Russian citizens were not permitted.

Zina had made a dish of chicken drums and wings soaked for days in a hot vinegar sauce, and served cold. The huge bowl of chicken, most of us realized, must have taken her several days, working with other women friends, to accumulate from the almost-always empty food stores. If it was not the best food I had ever consumed, it was, nonetheless, a veritable feast, given her few resources.

Ostap was a handsome young man, proud of his slightly abstracted figures on canvas. I was particularly taken by the brightly colored painting of two beefy wrestlers, and when I expressed my appreciation of the work, the artist immediately took it down from the wall, rolled it up, and handed it to me as a gift. I tried to pay for it, but he refused. Today, after these many years, it still hangs in my offices, tacked to the walls as it originally was, in his studio.

The evening was absolutely splendid, but I could not help but feel some sorrow for these young artists, who lived perhaps not so differently from young New York artists in frigid, walk-up lofts in the early 1950s. But each of their spaces was so tiny it seemed that one might become claustrophobic if they all turned up on the same day to work. Perhaps they had planned it out that they would paint, draw, or sculpt at different times during the week. Yet they all seemed excited and proud to be able to show their art to a new audience whom we represented. Several works were purchased by members of our group. It was, in short, one of the most joyous evenings of our stay in Leningrad.

Los Angeles, March 18, 2010

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Present Only: An Interview with Marjorie Perloff

Present Only
by Douglas Messerli
Marjorie, we've known each other for about 35 years, and over that time I've read almost every book you've written. It appears to me, in retrospect, that you have almost had a kind of platonic love affair with every author about whom you've written. Do you have a favorite "lover"?

MARJORIE: These are questions Gertrude Stein would want us to ask. (TPOI, 76)

I mean, you seem almost swept up by literature, swept away as it were.

MARJORIE: The line between sense and nonsense is, of course, a narrow one. (TPOI, 77)

I recall the period in which you seemed almost to devour Wittgenstein.

MARJORIE: Time stood still: I had no thought for the next day or week, or year, I don't recall wondering what New York and our new house would be like, where I would go to school, and so on. (TVP, 66-67)

You began with figures you yourself might now describe as rather traditional, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell. When I met you, you had just completed a biography of Frank O'Hara, a definite shift in poetic form and subject. Can you describe what happened to you that led to that shift?

MARJORIE: To call the bats "disgusting" is to neutralize their force; anyone, after all, can deal with a set of "disgusting old rags." It is at this point that the poet can stand up and announce, both to the friend(s) with him on his Tuscan terrace, as well as to the reader, "In China the bat is a symbol of happiness." (PL, 113)

And then, almost in the next breath, you shifted again, incorporating European poets—Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Beckett and others as well as Americans such as Stein, Williams, Pound, Ashbery, Cage and Antin. I was in the course in which you were working on this book, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, a breathtaking experience!

MARJORIE: But isn't philosophy itself a specialized discourse with its own technical vocabulary? And, by analogy, isn't literary theory such a discourse? ...Philosophical analysis does not give us any new facts (says Wittgenstein). Accordingly, its language games cannot have a specific technical vocabulary and so the bifurcation between philosophy (or poetry) as "high" discourse, in which a certain vocabulary is de riguer, and ordinary language—language that even the most arcane philosopher engages in when he or she asks what time it is or when the next train is due to leave—breaks down. (WL, 72)

And yet, as breathtaking as that assimilation of 20th century poetics was, it wasn't separated, necessarily, from popular culture. I recall you writing on a soap opera, for instance, in The New Republic.

MARJORIE: I think this is a very important point. What Fredric Jameson refers to as the "warehouse of cultural cliché" is perhaps accurately viewed as "a giant laboratory of the poem," a laboratory in which art, in all its forms, worked to meet the challenge of the new science. This meant, of course, a radical questioning of existing modes of representation. (TFM, 75)

Precisely. Your work has been of one piece, whether you write on collage, advertising slogans, visual art, fiction (Joyce, Creeley, Elfride Jelinek, for example), history, philosophy, or poetry.

MARJORIE: The poets' repeated denial of "normal" word order or syntactic integrity, their introduction of arcane vocabulary and difficult, indeed confusing reference, functions, I think, to mime the coming to awareness of the mind in the face of the endless information glut that surrounds us. (RA, 173)

Well, but one could say, and I am not, only playing the Devil's advocate, your own prolificacy has contributed to that.

MARJORIE: To tell a story is to find a way—sometimes the only way—of knowing one's world. But since, in the view of many of our poets, as in the view of comparable fiction writers, the world doesn't—indeed shouldn't make sense, the gnosis which is narration remains fragmentary. (TDOTI, 161)

Are you suggesting that in all this vast array of writing you have been trying to tell the same story, how we mean, how we approach and use language to signify our lives?

MARJORIE: Comparison and contrast, in any case, can make a poetry class learn to differentiate between enigmas that cannot be resolved because the poet has no answers and those that are, more properly, surface difficulties, easily penetrable on a second or third reading. (D, 256)

Well that is, of course, what makes you such a brilliant teacher in the classroom. And then we do have this "prolificacy," this vast array of writers, artists, and thinkers about whom you've written to turn to, to compare and contrast. It is, in some respects, the very vastness of your life's project that has made it so essential to us.

MARJORIE: Then we went to the japanise pavilion, were you could see the silk spinning. There was a japanise lady to selling sings. ...Then we went to the city of light there is a round room and on one side on the wall is the hole city of New York in front the empirestate building then every thing is lighted and a man talks and then it gets night and everybody turns down the light and you can see the eleveters so nice through the windows. Then it gets much lighter and it is day and you can see the subways very good. (TVP, 124)

Yes, I can see your fascination with life, with how things look and mean, began even as a child.

MARJORIE: Your (Messerli's) syntax has no truck with what Yeats called "the natural words in the natural order"; on the contrary, it is the sound associations here that domesticate the "lust / er of facts" and determine the nature of the "lullaby." (TDOTI, 230)

True. And that does return us to the subject of your "lust(er) of life" and your deep love of a particular man.

MARJORIE: As always, my greatest debt is to Joseph K. Perloff. By no means a "common reader," he is nevertheless the other reader who forces me to take those important detours and sideroads that Wittgenstein talks about in the Philosophical Investigations. (PL, xii)

Tell me Marjorie, is there some great project you wish you might have accomplished or that you still intend to work on in the future?

MARJORIE: Suppose X and Y are out sailing and X says to Y, who is steering the boat, "Watch out! We're about to hit some rocks?" In that case, "Rocks are emitted by sentences to the eye," which immediately starts to scan the same grammatical construction. (WL, 215)

Are you suggesting that any project might naturally lead to another, and on and on. That, in a sense, your project, your vast affair with meaning, can never end?

MARJORIE: Perhaps the best way to think of a text like this one is to think of it as an X-ray. (TFM)

Thank you Marjorie. It's been illuminating.

All of Perloff's answers were randomly selected from eight of her books:

TPOI The Poetics of Indeterminacy
PL Poetic License
TFM The Futurist Moment
RA Radical Artifice
TDOTI The Dance of the Intellect
WL Wittgenstein's Ladder
TVP The Vienna Paradox
D Differentials

Los Angeles, February 21, 2010
This interview was performed at the event titled "Marjorie Perloff: Reconfiguring the Avant-Garde," on Thursday, February 25, 2010, at Chapman University, Orange, California.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Kier Peters' "Past Present Future Tense" and "Still in Love"

from "Past Present Future Tense" in Austin, Texas
Every so often, I check out the Google entries for my persona, Kier Peters, the pseudonym I use for my playwriting.

I recently found a nice review in Opera News of my Still in Love opera, composed by Michael Kowalski and performed in New York City several years ago.

I also found a photograph of the Humdrum Collective performance of the play, on which that opera was based, "Past Present Future Tense," from their 2006 production in Austin, Texas

Opera News /Recordings

KOWALSKI and PETERS: Still in Love
The Postindustrial Players: Grahn; Purnhagen; Bond, cello; Kowalski, synthesizer. English text only. Equilibrium EQ6

Billed as "a chamber music drama," Still in Love, with music by Michael Kowalski and text by Kier Peters from his own play, unfolds in three short acts, each with its own distinctive mode of story-telling. In the first and most inventive section, the two characters spar with each other, spinning out, in rapid-fire alternation, a chain of events set in motion by the man's indifference to the woman's pollen allergy. The dialogue cleverly slips from a discussion of her asthma patterns ("I'm nearly dead by the end of July") into a fanciful, jointly-woven scenario, which rapidly becomes an international jaunt ("We fly into Orly," "I take a night train to Nice") featuring mutual adultery with the same person. The second section is a fuller exploration of this couple's fraught relationship, with conventional, real-time interaction replacing the shared narrative of the first act. Fortunately, the brisk pace of the lines (mainly sung, with some speaking in rhythm) and the imaginative instrumentation (cello and synthesizer, which is employed variously as vibes, harpsichord, lute, piano and Fender Rhodes) prevent the proceedings from descending into soap opera.

In the third and final section, events of the two previous acts are summarized and brought up to date after-the-fact, complete with a "Once upon a time" opener. (It makes sense that Peters' play, upon which the piece is based, is entitled Past Present Future Tense.) This intriguing, wholly original work is well acted and sung by soprano Karen Grahn and baritone Gregory Purnhagen, although Grahn's sound becomes thin and breathy in her upper register, and both occasionally sacrifice perfect intonation to the drama at hand. Composer Kowalski on synthesizer is joined by cellist Yari Bond; they function as two additional characters and contribute to the proceedings considerably. Still in Love chronicles a turbulent but devoted partnership in an unusual and light-hearted way and is well worth investigating by those hungry for something different.

Joshua Rosenblum

Sunday, May 2, 2010

12 Last Days of the Soviet Union: Day Five--Hurry, Hurry

Hurry, Hurry
by Douglas Messerli
On our last day in Leningrad we were given a tour of the grand Hermitage Museum. I do not like tours, and this had one signified everything I hated about them.

We were first taken to see some of the classic paintings, particularly the Rembrandts. I was dazzled by his The Sacrifice of Isaac, but I believe we were all appalled by the realization that some of these paintings were shown in direct sunlight. I also recalled how only two or three years earlier, a insane attacker had thrown sulfuric acid upon the canvas of Rembrandt's Danaë at The Hermitage before cutting it twice through with a knife.

How long might these great works last in such a situation, we pondered. Was there anything that might be done? Certainly any comments we might make would be pointless, as our guide hurriedly rushed us in and out of rooms.

By the time we reached the modernist collections, mostly of great European art, we were literarily being run from room to room as if simply glimpsing paintings was the purpose of museum-going.

Clark Coolidge and I, fascinated by some of the art we had never before seen by Gauguin, Matisse, Kandinsky, Picasso, and French modernists, refused to budge upon the guide's call for us to "Hurry, Hurry," and after some time, the distressed woman returned again and again into the rooms were we straggled, growling at us to hurry along. We stubbornly refused, as she grew more and more agitated.

"We want to see the art," we insisted. Her sour look seemed to indicate that the art was not there for us to "see," whatever that might mean. We were meant, clearly, simply to witness it, to observe the great troves of riches that Soviet government had accumulated for the common man. Dare the everyday Russian take his time observing it, however. It was as if the art were there simply as a kind of shrine, evidence of the Soviet's nationalization of the Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and modern art collections of figures such as Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.

The more our guide stamped her foot and insisted that we hurry, the more entrenched Clark and I became in our viewing, and I remember staring for long periods at works that I might never have noticed in my usual run-throughs of galleries.

In that sense, what began as a kind of challenge to the busy guide, turned the visit into an intense viewing of art, that revealed works, sometimes by rather minor French artists, in new contexts. Suddenly I could understand why, for example, Albert Marquet or Camille Pisarro, were interesting artists.

"Hurry, hurry," she clapped her hands as if were some misbehaving children. We clapped back and wandered slowly from room to room until she returned once more to scold us.
We left the Hermitage somewhat disappointed, but knowing we had learned, perhaps, more than she had intended us to.

Again, we realized why our Russian friends sometimes behaved what first seemed somewhat churlishly with regard to personal movement. It was payback for the thousands of daily reminders that ingress and egress were always delimited and controlled.

Los Angeles, May Day, 2010