Sunday, February 19, 2012

Charles Dickens Takes a Canoe Ride with the Lady of Shalott

Victorians, Ladies in Nightgowns, and TV Ratings Today

The Victorians are dead --- killed by Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, and our cultural preoccupation with the mini skirt --- but long live the Victorians.  The more we deny that we are like them, the more the opposite seems to be true.  Sexual revolution?  What sexual revolution?  We don't want gays to marry or women to have abortions ("we" in the American societal sense), and while those very much can be seen as urgent, red hot ethical problems, they also are sexuality problems: some things just give us the willies, more so than the equally grand ethical problems of offshore oil drilling or how much chocolate milk our kids should drink at recess. 

Well, with or without gay marriage, it is February 2012 and Charles Dickens, that most Victorian of Victorians (down to the classic dual morality hypocrisy of his professional status as a married man and his desperate love affair with his secret mistress), has just had his 200th birthday.  Time magazine, among others venues, featured him in a fair, nicely paced overview.

And even if you are not one to cover the legs of your grand piano with drapery so that womanly shape of the carved wood doesn't excite the men folk into licentious thoughts (or worse, licentious actions), even still, as modern and liberated as we are, his books still speak to our sense of fair play and purpose.  We too, like the Victorians, wonder how to house and reform prisoners, what the exact status of women should be in relation to social liberty and moral obligation, and we even wonder, as the Victorians did, which foreign wars (if any) we can still afford to fight.  Even that classic Victorian fictional character Sherlock Holmes is as popular as ever, and in fact, just last night I was at a Sherlock Holmes themed birthday party, one that featured a continuous loop of the new BBC version being played on the high def tv.  From House, MD to the franchise with Robert Downy, Jr, Holmes seems to be on every channel.  Here's a shot of the British version, as it played at the party.

 As for the novels of Charles Dickens, they are as readable now as when he wrote them, with vivid characters, expressive range, and melodramatic plots as large and grand as anything in Harry Potter.  They are more or less free via Amazon's Kindle or any used book store or thrift store, so you might want to stick one or three in your emergency supply duffel bag for that inevitable day when an earthquake or power failure leaves us living by candlelight for a few days until the grid goes back on line.  Dickens reads marvelously aloud, and in fact, as the Time magazine article points out, when he was born half of England was still illiterate, and he wrote to be read aloud --- to be shared by all ages and all strata of society, from kids on up to the elite and educated upper classes.  If we want to think of an equivalent, I hate to say it, but it might be Steven Spielberg.  (Either that, or Shakespeare.)

While Antelope Valley College has not sponsored any panel talks or symposia on the great and lasting Mr. Dickens (partly because I forgot to schedule any), we are still actively considering his era and legacy.

On Friday March 2nd the Faculty Professional Development Committee, better known by its old name of Flex, sponsors an event that will look at another famous Victorian, King Arthur's Lady of Shalott, a character revived (or we might say invented whole cloth) by the poet Tennyson.  She was the "it" girl of the Victorian era, at least for painters, and her portrait by John William Waterhouse remains one of the crowd favorites at London's Tate Britain.

This image above shows the most famous of the Victorian-era Shalotts but there have been many more, including photographic ones, banana boat ones, and weepy, syrupy reenactment ones.  Here's a screen shot from Google Images under a search for her name.

These will be too small to see here, but trust me, there are a LOT of hits when you search for her by name --- some really interesting ones, and a few versions that border on the mawkishly terrible.

Why did she provoke such a vivid and recurring response?  (And it's an especially intriguing question since she was a woman known initially only from a poem, albeit from a poem by a fellow as famous in his time as Oprah W is in ours.)  That problem is something that some of the AVC faculty hope to help us find out.  

Here is the write-up from the Flex booklet.  Though the primary audience is supposed to be AVC staff members earning service credit, everybody in the community will be welcome, students first of all, and one will NOT need to be any kind of an expert to enjoy the fun and magic of this evening.  Here's the description:

As part of Women's History Month, we'll explore a powerful and iconic fictional character --- the Lady of Shallot --- from Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous Arthurian poem. How might she function for feminist reflection with students? How has her image reverberated through culture since the time of Tennyson's poem? What does the Lady of Shallot, and her usage in the culture, say about the state of women's equality today? Included in the evening’s activities will be panel reflections, an interview with a Lady of Shallot impersonator, plus live music inspired by the Lady. 

Presenters: Dr. Rachel Jennings, Santi Tafarella, Melanie Jeffrey, Lynn McDonie, Rhona Memmer, and Nicelle Davis. 

The event happens at 7 pm on Friday, March 2nd, in SSV 151, better known as the Board room.  It is free and open to the public.  I really wish I could see this, but I'll be in Chicago at a poetry event.  Too bad, since I even have something just right to wear . . . something left over from my attendance at the above-mentioned Victorian party last night.  Hmm, maybe I can hope for a late-spring revival of another Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.

Merry Flex Nights to all, and to all a good night.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Nazca Lines of Susan Davis

a Day of Pairs and Spares, Insights and Intersections

My church hosts a social function titled "pairs and spares" --- I am sure the term is not original to them --- that allows couples and those without partners to share food and fellowship in a happy, safe, non-judgmental venue.  I like that term a lot and it describes my days recently, where everything seems to be coming to me in matched pairs.

For example, I was looking for a Charles Olson quotation and found it in a journal entry from 12 years ago, where it was a companion to a clipping from Archaeology magazine.  On the desert plains of Peru large-scale earth art ("geoglyphs") called the Nazca Lines spell out diagrams in stone, and the quotation I needed was paired with a shot of an archaeologist, Persis Clarkson, on site at this stony location.  When making that journal page collage, I had hoped to go there, and while as of now I have never made it, life ain't over yet --- I may make it yet.

But in having that journal open on my desk, before I could copy out the quotation, I got called by the doorbell to accept a package.  It was a book titled A Global History of Architecture, and was a gift from a kind friend trying to help me finish an article I am stalled on.  When I began to flip through it, what did the book fall open to first?  That same historical feature in Peru, Nazca Lines.
In the top photo is a hummingbird and at the bottom, a monkey, created in stone many hundreds of feet tall.  Some of the readers of this blog of a certain age will remember Erich von Daniken and his notion that these were made by (or are signals to) extraterrestrials.  Frankly, humans are so clever (and so filled with the spirit of image creation) that I don't need UFOs to explain these marks away with outside intervention.  We can do it fine, and I take them at face value: these are things that a now-lost culture made on their own, and made quite well.  It represents the human spirit and is not a UFO landing field, it's a hummingbird.  This was not an anomaly at all.  In fact, Michael Light would say we still are making art like this today --- now we just call it an open-pit copper mine.

Another odd pairing today was the original painting Chatterton, done by Henry Wallis in 1856 and now in the collection of Tate Britain in London, and an advertisement for an art exhibition.  AVC's Santi Tafarella is organized a book (or maybe a website) (or maybe a blog) about the Romantic-era painter James Barry, and in looking at Barry's influence on other painters, I had a copy of Wallis's dramatic scene out today, also on the work table.

Victorians liked their art to tell stories.  The plot in this painting is that Chatterton, a plagiarizing poet, has been found out.  As shown here, his gorgeous, almost sexual body is now deceased, since Chatterton himself has committed suicide in his garret.  We have come in on the scene, too late to act but with the body still untouched.  It makes for great visual drama, and in person, this is a very moving and popular work.  When I taught in London last year, it was one of the favorites of the students on our tour of the Tate.  The actual suicide was a hundred years in the past by the point this painting had been made, but the story lives on, as I discovered today in a magazine I was reading at breakfast.

The parallel is even more delicious because the ad comes from a journal called Modern Painters, and that title is used ironically, nearly in finger quotes, since it was the title of a book by Victorian critic John Ruskin --- indeed, Ruskin wrote about that very same Wallis painting this ad quotes.

With connections like this crackling around me like static electricity, I nearly wanted to run through the house and start looking under all of the sofa cushions, in the hopes that if I found a ten dollar bill, there would be a matching mate for it behind a chair or inside a book.

Certainly I have been blessed with more than my share of good luck in recent days.  In New Orleans over the weekend I was talking with my friend Mike Guista about our respective families, and how one can try to reconcile the less admirable parts of family history, such as the fact that some of the folks on my dad's side of the equation used to think that the South was the right side in the Civil War.  Whoa, boy.  Now that is some heavy karma to live down --- I am lucky not to have been reincarnated as a bug.  (Maybe it's still coming, in another life cycle.)  I did not know it, but the President of the Confederacy, Jeff Davis, had died in New Orleans, and so as we were photographing historic buildings like this one....

... it was quite a surprise to come across this heartfelt (if wrong-headed) monument.

He died at the house of a man named Judge Fenner, and is buried now in Richmond.  Sorting my pictures from the trip and thinking about my family's allegiance to Jeff Davis reminded me that I have been meaning for some time to talk about a book by a different, completely unrelated Davis, a woman who teaches at UC Irvine whose recent book of poetry really has stayed with me.

Her name is Susan Davis and the book, shown here, is her first, out from plucky publishers Moon Tide Press.

Pyrotechnics in modern writing (as in current painting or even third-generation punk bands) can dazzle, but then (like real fireworks) die out too quickly.  Hers is a much quieter voice, a voice of steady, unpretentious wisdom that brings to mind all those still-relevant expressions of my grandmother's, such as "still waters run deep."  We know that one can be bounded in a nutshell and still count oneself king of infinite space --- Emily Dickinson among others taught us that --- but still, to see it in action, reminds me all over again why I like the work of Walker Evans over Diane Arbus when it comes down to it, or why I still prefer my wooden tripod to a carbon graphite model.  Here is such a simple thing, yet told with such insight and sincerity, I really wish it were something of mine:

   Answering Machine

I wanted the old-fashioned kind with cassettes you keep ---
Ben screaming it's a girl to his uncle,
a love-hello from someone in love with someone else now.
The were selves in us --- passing
in the way daughters give up hand games, then diaries.

It goes on, not about buying an answering machine, but into a very tender and honest memory of the poet's late father, and about all of the selves we each can be (like the layered voices left behind on an answering machine tape, though not so didactically presented).  It ends, speaking of her father and his death-bed moments of honesty and love, "who was this other man, / and how many times had he wanted to get out?"  It is a moment of great insight and grace, especially since the poem could have turned aside to fault him for being too stingy with love in other situations, or even just to stay in the moment and confine itself to remarks about Best Buy.

Another example of this is when Susan Davis in a poem titled "Purity" starts out not with TS Eliot ("April is the cruelest month") but with a surprising declaration: "April brings Santa Ana winds and babies."  (Maybe I just relate since mine is an April birthday.)

Here is a short, true poem.  "Sometimes you feel like cooking a big meal for ten people, / and sometimes you just want to go to bed with tea and a story / written by someone you love.  Or you just want to go to bed / with someone you love.  Or you just want to go to bed."

Writing like this is much harder to do than it looks.  It is easy to write about the car crashes and the drunk uncles, the abusive priest or the bitchy ex-.  Even one of my own current book subjects, aviation in Antarctica, comes with an automatic National Geographic cachet.  (Just ask Werner Herzog, who apparently is there now, making his third movie with Antarctic footage in it.)  It is a harder --- and greater --- art to write (as she does) about hospital waiting rooms, flying coach-class across the country, being a sister, or exploring the pain of a divorce on a page that places no blame and doesn't even try to get even.

This is book shares with us work of humility and generosity.  In my new architecture book that has the Nazca Lines in it, the authors say that the purpose of the drawings (as they call them) is unknown "but celestial orientation and ritual walks" have "both been suggested."  That seems to make the ultimate pairing then: congratulations to Susan Davis on her first book, one that can help us stay oriented to the correct stars as we make our pilgrimages through the decades.