Casting at the Crossroads

In the show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, there is a canvas called Exhu which, after a search online for images, one comes across reproductions racked serially — like slides in a light box or more appropriately like stencilled graffiti. In the show the AGO has hung this vital piece in a corner spot but wouldn't it have been superb to be greeted by the depiction of the Orisha of the crossroads at the entrance to the show — to serve his traditional function of opening the way?

bell hooks in her essay which first appeared in Art in America on Basquiat ("Altars of Sacrifice: Re-membering Basquiat" reprinted in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations) draws on the work of David Napier (Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology) to comment astutely on the strange being just out of range, the exotic not being completely alien. She reads this liminal position as presenting for the black male subject (and by implication others subjected to assimilation) a bind. She offers this observation on Basquiat:

For the white art world to recognize Basquiat, he had to sacrifice those parts of himself they would not be interested in or fascinated by. Black but assimilated, Basquiat claimed the space of the exotic as though it were a new frontier, waiting only to be colonized. He made of that cultural space within whiteness (the land of the exotic) a location where he would be re-membered in history even as he simultaneously created art the unsparingly interrogates such mutilation and self-distortion.
Re-membered: limbs reattached.

And with what painting would one want to end a circuit? bell hooks offers up Riding with Death. This is why:
Napier invitges us to consider possession as "truly an avant-guarde activity, in that those in trance are empowered to go to the periphery of what is and can be known, to explore the boundaries, and to return unharmed." No such spirit of possession guarded Jean-Michel Basquiat in his life. Napper [sic] reports that "people in trance do not — as performance artists in the West sometimes do — leave wounded bodies in the human world." Basquiat must go down in history as one of the wounded. Yet his art will stand as the testimony that declares with a vengeance: we are more than our pain. That is why I am most moved by the one Basquiat painting that juxtaposes the paradigm of ritual sacrifice with that of ritual recovery and return.

In entitling the show Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's the Time there is a big risk of obliterating history, presenting the work as a motley collection, eschewing the temporal dimension opened by experiencing and reading the art. The wonder of a second and third viewing is to be able to visit with the paintings in an order that makes a sense: begin with Exhu and end with Riding with Death. One does visit with the paintings. Very much in the vein of communing with invoked spirits in a setting where one remains unharmed. But open to hurt.

And so for day 1271

Of Decal Dazzle

Duco, the automotive lacquer, Wikipedia informs us, was used by Jackson Pollock in his paintings. Why you may ask has this piqued my interest. A few lines from a poem by Clive James from his set of seven verse letters to friends published under the rubric of Fan-Mail report on the cars at the Indy 500. A particular passage from the letter to Martin Amis compares the decals on the cars to the illustrations of the Book of Kells. Duco figures in the passage.

The heart-throb Dayglo pulse and the Duco preen
Of decals filled the view with charms and spells
As densely drawn and brilliant as the Book of Kells.
In case you are wondering about the appropriateness of the comparison, allow me to quote a little from the DayGlo propaganda:
We're proud of our heritage and the role our fluorescents played in pop culture history. From the days of disco to punk rock and pop-art posters to graffiti on the Berlin wall - no matter the trend, no matter the event, DayGlo was there, making things brighter, bolder, and so much cooler!
It's that exuberance that James captures in his verse letter from Indianapolis. Some would consider reproducing the Book of Kells in DayGlo colours a Celtic nightmare. For others it would be a gorgeous culture clash.

And so for day 1270

Parsing Transcriptions

"Last Day" Timothy Liu in Say Goodnight

Empty vases left in every room
of the house. Those backyard bulbs
releasing a company of spears —
each tulip's guarded flame
a color only the gardener knows.
A company of spears / guarded flame. Praetorian images come to mind thanks to the lineation.

"The tree looks like a dog barking at heaven" is my rendition in compliance with the tradition of one sentence haiku. I went looking on line and found much variation in the lineation of various transcriptions of the Jack Kerouac poem as recited in the suite "American Haikus" and recorded on the album Blues and Haikus.
The tree looks. Like a dog. Barking at Heaven.

The tree looks like a dog, barking at heaven

The tree looks
- like a dog
Barking at Heaven

The tree looks like a dog/ barking at heaven.

The tree
looks like a dog,
barking at heaven.

( this centred version transcribed by Miray Nair )
Like different spears each providing a sport. Each marks what was heard at a given moment through a different ear. Empty vases to be filled. Whose flowers only knowing readers can imagine.

And so for day 1269


Robert Bringhurst makes a convincing case for taking up a vocation in a lecture given at the University of Victoria, British Columbia in 1998 under the title "The Vocation of Being, The Text of the Whole" available in The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks.

In the beginning, a vocation isn't much. Just perhaps a nagging interest that blossoms as habitual attention. It matures into continuous, compassionate, active, multivalent curiosity. Curiosity like that has a peculiar effect. It produces, over time, a sense of intellectual responsibility. And that produces in its turn a nonconforming and nonconfining sense of identity. In other words, it is whole. A job is always a fragment. Vocation is whole.
I am with him until the division into whole and fragment. I am all for challenging alienated and alienating labour. However, if vocation is a calling, it is invariably split off from a unified identity. The call must emanate from somewhere. Aside from the topology of call and response that seems at the very least to require a fractured subject, there is something else niggling.

Let us pay careful attention to the course traced out: in the beginning, the beginning; in the end, the whole. We move from beginning to an implied end. It's not stated explicitly but there is a cycling. At the very least a generative progression (which becomes clearer later on with the introduction of a twin theme of social and biological reproduction). Even if we are not pressed into accepting some intellectual ecology whose principle axis is reproduction, we must read very carefully (with perhaps some of that lauded habitual attention) to notice that Bringhurst is not saying that vocation is the whole. It is whole in the sense of being hale and hard: healthy. But the one sentence about jobs sneaks in an echo of "the" to balance its "a fragment". You just want to reach the definite article to complete the symmetry: a fragment; the whole.

If this seems like too much work, then you probably experience reading as a job. Or listening is not habitually attentive. Oddly it is to a listening-informed reading that Bringhurst in his forward brings us to by example.
It's the elders I mostly want to listen to, and the elders are always mostly gone: Greek and Chinese poets and philosophers; Haida and Navajo mythtellers; Baghdadi and Florentine craftsmen polishing their fine syllabic inlays centuries ago. Where their voices have survived, it is because they took their own dictation or someone did it for them. Sitting down to read them, we are free to move as slowly as we please — and to travel at that speed through all the worlds they enfold. Paper is two-dimensional space, but as soon as language dances on the paper, it becomes a form of time.
Sometimes I want to hear the youth. Like Adam Gopnick on kidspeak in The New Yorker.
For the sake of economy, we have to leave a lot of information out of everything we say, and one of our special human abilities is to make that economy itself eloquent and informative. Kidspeak is a classic instance of compression in balance with concision. What sounds limited and repetitive to the outsider is, to the knowing listener, as nuanced as a Henry James passage.
Irony. In crowd. Apart.

Called to a vocation. To ask syllabic [silver?] inlay.

And so for day 1268

On Tulips, Vanitas, and Collecting

The collector speaks.

The conversation moves on to a painting she has just bought. A bunch of tulips arranged in a crystal vase, their white petals streaked with yellow and pink. One of the petals has fallen off already onto the lace-trimmed tablecloth. A dewdrop glitters on it. A vanitas painting, the dealer called it, portraying the transience of life. In the background, on the same tablecloth, one can discern the shapes of an hourglass and a crumbled piece of bread.
The narrative voice is that of Catherine the Great in Eva Stachniak's novel Empress of the Night.

I am reminded of the lovely plates in Anna Pavord's The Tulip. In particular, the reproduction of the painting by Jean Michel Picart (1600-1682) in the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge. I learn that there are two Picart flower paintings in the Fitzwilliam and both have the motif of some petal or bloom fallen from the main bouquet to litter the tabletop. But perhaps the happiest trouvaille on the trail of tulips and vanitas is the art of Rachel Ruysch (1643-1706). Many of the paintings of massed flowers including sporty tulips attributed to Ruysch are to be found on Pinterest. One can be considered an anti-vanitas.

It has to one side of the main arrangement a little plug of primula and to the other side a nest with blue eggs. It unfortunately doesn't appear in the list of works by Rachel Ruysch that are generally accepted as autograph by the Netherlands Institute for Art History in a listing graciously located on Wikipedia. There are other paintings with nests. Which leads me to recall Gay Bilson's cookbook Plenty: Digressions on Food which has pictures of nests she has collected and of which she says in an interview with Penelope Debelle "Nests have no value and are not found at auctions. This is one of the great pleasures of collecting them."

Look at all this confusion of twigs my magpieing has assembled.

And so for day 1267

Long S of the Sun

I was taken with the fluidity and eaſe with which I could accuſstom myſelf to the long s in the Scholar Press 1969 imprint of a facsimile edition of Jonathan Swift's A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining The English Tongue (1712). Much to my delight I discovered that Unicode has made provision in its Latin characters for the long s.

Ascertaining -- OED "to make (a thing) objectively certain, to fix"

The Proposal is addressed to the Lord Treasurer. I like the audacity of Swift in pressing his case.

However I muſt venture to affirm, that if Genius and Learning be not encouraged under your LORDSHIP'S Administration, you are the moſt inexuſable Perſon alive.
Swift quite judicious goes on by way of appeal to His Lordship's other virtues which would be defective without his support for corrections and improvements. For Swift points out that not only the Arts and Letters are to share His Lordship's influence and protection but that some future glory may emerge.
Beſides, who knows, but ſome true Genius may happen to ariſe under Your Miniſtry, exhortus ut aetherius Sol.
The Latin tag is culled from Lucretius (Book III of De Rerum Natura) and although it references the glory of the sun in surpassing the light of the stars it hints at mortality and so is befitting Swift's theme that a man's honour and reputation are entrusted to writing that must be deciphered in later ages which task of deciphering benefits from safeguarding language from the corruption induced by change and fashion and the passage of generations.
Even Epicurus went, his light of life
Run out, the man in genius who o'er-topped
The human race, extinguishing all others,
As sun, in ether arisen, all the stars

Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. William Ellery Leonard. E. P. Dutton. 1916
Or in the rendering by A.C. Stallings in the Penguin edition:
Even great Epicurus, once the light of life had run
Its course, perished, the very man whose brilliance outshone
The human race, eclipsing all, just as the burning sun,
Risen, snuffs out all the stars. So who are you to balk
And whine at death? [...]
Swift proposed the establishment of an academy. To what end in this 21st century, in this day and age of the networked expertise where the long ſ is remembered in code and other marvels assist the hunter-gatherer scholar looking for references? Consider Miscellaneous extracts and fragments, on interesting and instructive subjects chiefly from works at present out of print: including some account of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and eminent men connected therewith [ed.] by M. (1839)

As identified by Google Books in its digitalization, "M." is "Maria Baldwin". This is the name associated with the Harvard copy which entered the library February 14, 1931 acquired under the Charles William Eliot Fund The metadata associated with the Google digitalization of the Bodleian copy makes no attribution.

Whatever copy one consults, under the Trinity College (Cambridge) entry one finds a paragraph devoted to Sir Isaac Newton which reads in part
Never was there a motto more applicable than two lines of Lucretius, to this great man:&mdash
"Qui genus humanum ingenio superavit, et omnes
 Perstrinxit stellas, exortus ut aetherius sol."
Neither in the sun nor in the stars, the mystery of M. remains. Who was Maria Baldwin? All that can be ascertained is that M or Maria most likely had in mind the inscription on the pedestal of the 1755 statue of Newton in the Ante-Chapel Trinity College, Cambridge. The pedestal modestly claims on his behalf "Qui genus humanum ingenio superavit" - "Who surpassed the human race in genius". Note no space for the long s in this single line ...

And so for day 1266

Sticking to Travel: Burr-love

3 Figures from Anne Michaels Skin Divers taken out of order.

Minarets of burdock
Thus begins "Wild Horses".

For the longest time, I was captivated by the junction of architecture and botany in this image. And almost equally as long, I felt a tension between the slender pointed tower of "minarets" and the globe-like burr (which resembles more the onion-dome features of Russian Orthodox churches) until at long last it appeared that the relation between the tower and the plant as a whole might make the image cohere. Alas. Not. I still view in my mind's eye burdock as a great branching plant not at all like a slender single tower. Yet as Amy Lowell gives us the evening primrose "comrade of the stars", Anne Michaels arrests the imagination with calls to prayer that stick.

All love is time travel.
From the closing lines of "Fontanelles" (last poem in the book) which is a trip through embryology and geology in a set of variations on ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Let us take advantage of the figure (Fontanelles allow for rapid stretching and deformation of the neurocranium as the brain expands faster than the surrounding bone can grow.) to add more material to the theme of time travel from another source, characters from Peter Ackroyd, English Music
Instead we discussed what he used to call 'English music', by which he meant not only music itself but also English history, English literature and English painting. With him one subject always led to another and he would break off from a discussion of William Byrd or Henry Purcell in order to tell me about Tennyson and Browning; he would turn from the work of Samuel Johnson to the painting of Thomas Gainsborough, from pavans and galliards to odes and sonnets, from the London of Daniel Defoe to the London of Charles Dickens. and in my imagination, as he talked, all these things comprised one world which I believed to be still living &madash; even in this small room where we sat.
[... pages and pages later ...]
For what is time but the very passage of music from generation to generation?
And the means to time travel through love ... reading of course and writing too.
Colette said, when one we love dies
there's no reason to stop
writing them letters.
And snipping the burdock into the shape of a minaret.

And so for day 1265

Teaching the World to Dance


Screenplay by by Stephen Beresford.

I laughed. I cried.

Two scenes were standout. Jonathan Blake (played by Dominic West) dance number. It's on fire. A rousing rendition of Bread and Roses. Simply stirring.

Why would such a film arouse such emotion?
Margaret Thatcher
Miners' Strike
Lesbians and Gays
Shadow of AIDS

David Denby in The New Yorker concludes

During the past thirty years, gays have fought their way toward greater equality, but the miners, who were defeated in the 1984-85 strike, have, like other union workers in England and the United States, continued to lose power. “Pride” ends on a note of triumph, but it leaves a long sigh of regret in its wake. Solidarity rarely outlasts the grinding movements of money and power.
He faults the film for not pointing out the irony. I chafe at the suggestion.

The Federation of International Employers tells a slightly different story. Decline in trade union membership in Western Europe but
Many of the regions where trade unionism has grown have been production centres for outsourced goods and services. As the supply of available skilled labour in Asia and South America declines workers have begun to assert their economic power. [This has] been strengthened by improvements in communications via the social media – which have made it much easier to organise industrial action. This has become such a problem that China has been forced to introduce legal restrictions on “the use of the Internet to disturb social order”.
In Canada need I mention Unifor? The question remains open if gay liberation can survive its mainstreaming and rekindle its alliances with organized labour and progressive forces. So Denby's remarks make me mindful less of the weakness of trade unionism and more wistful for the radical roots of gay and lesbian organizing.
HOW WE GOT GAY takes us into the gay rights movement of the 21st century. Now the movement has evolved into a powerful network of disciplined, top-down, media-savvy, Ivy League-staffed organizations that know how to operate the levers of power.

These new gay organizations co-opt conventional political weapons: self-selected candidates, political action committees, black-tie fund-raisers, research institutes and lobbyists. In the words of Fred Sainz, director of Communications at the Human Rights Campaign, “we sell gay rights the way Kellogg’s sells cereal”.
And someday that "we" will include pinko economists who will provide an analysis of the value chain that brings cereal and civil rights to a spot near you.

I have hope. Tears. Laughter. And Dance. That's how I was in '85 and how I remain.

And so for day 1264

Trip Tips

Mitch Cullin. A Slight Trick of the Mind.

We find a Sherlock Holmes in advanced age. And the novel raises existential questions about memory and loss. But also about love. Is our protagonist able to love? Is he able to express love? Are we like him?

There is poignancy in his remembering his long deceased friend and collaborator, Dr. Watson.

You know, I never did call him Watson — he was John, simply John.
We take him at his word. We believe him capable of signs of affection. And yet his is not the most reliable of voices. Frustration is the dominant key and we fall into identification at our peril. For example, later in the novel, we are almost seduced by his exasperation with a travelling companion into his deduction that all travel is better on the way out.
[I]n those moments, he missed the hours of reserve that had previously marked their travels. Still, he was aware that return trips being always more tedious than a voyage's beginning (the initial departure, in which everything then encountered was wonderfully singular, and each subsequent destination offering a multitude of discoveries); so whenever heading back, it was better to nap as much as possible, slumbering while miles subtracted and his oblivious body raced toward home.
It is supremely ironic that the man who repeatedly mentions his failing powers of retention should so celebrate discovery to the detriment of recall and attention to the slight alterations that time affects on any trip home through now more familiar landscapes. He has denied himself the joys of rediscovery and immersion in chance and change. What goes unsaid here is that the tedium is very much connected to a failure of memory matched with observation. Much of what is perceived as singular is produced by remembering and comparing. The really supreme irony is that we as readers notice this because of repetition (and subtle variation) of whole sections. Attentive to the displacement we are forever rewarded as if on a voyage out without return which is in the end the existential point that novel makes over and over and never quite the same way each time.

And so for day 1263


"Bluebottle Jellyfish"

little deadly
that roll
in surf
one drifts
a surfer's leg
the silk
of indigo pain.
Robert Adamson Waving to Hart Crane

When I first read this poem, I was left with the image of a pattern of blue welts on skin because I had read "lace" (singular) which I took to be a reference to the delicate result of contact. A second reading and I realize that the "laces" (plural) belong to the animal inflicting the pain.

And so for day 1262