Poet A.E. Stallings in Athens: the children recall school bombings, massacres, and drownings at sea

November 20th, 2017
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A girl named Aqdas recalls those lost at sea.

Migrants have arrived in Greece since Hesiod’s time. Certainly, tales of treacherous Aegean crossings fill the pages of Homer. The poet A.E. Stallings has been a student of the classics since her Oxford days, but Homer and Hesiod didn’t prepare her for the hands-on experience of volunteering with refugees during the disaster that has engulfed Europe.

An Afghan girl recalls drownings

My article on her heroic work with migrants, “Crossing Borders” is currently the lead story at the Poetry Foundation website. I met the Athens-based Alicia Stallings, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, at last spring’s West Chester Poetry Conference, where we discussed her experience being at ground series of the immigration crisis.

An excerpt:

She would meet refugees at the disembarking areas and, with her friends, pass out shoes and serve food. Facebook groups spread the news that 2,500 people had arrived at Piraeus, survivors of the dinghies that washed ashore at the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, and were moving on to Athens. Or that 20 families had arrived in the port and needed sleeping bags, clean clothes, food.

“It was quite unreal. Two thousand people walking out of a war zone, with muddy feet, poorly dressed,” Stallings said. “Some with wounds, others in fur coats or rags. If you had anything you would wear it. Some people would be coming out with wheelchairs; some were carried out. Others came with a dog or cat. Some had a taxi waiting to take them to a hotel. Others would be walking to Hungary.”

These were the lucky ones. As Stallings wrote in an epigram with a title almost as long as the poem itself: “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Epigrams were often the form she chose to express the horror and humanity of what was happening around her. “I wanted them to be sharp,” she explains. “Something that had distance, irony. The reality was too overwhelming for a sonnet. These are real people. The situation is bad enough that you don’t have to poetify,” she said, stressing the last word with a little self-mockery.

On land, the adults were bored and anxious, and the children more so. “The worst part is being in limbo and waiting. The uncertainty is really unbearable for people,” said Stallings. “This is their life. Instead of finishing their law degrees, they’re wearing ill-fitting shoes.” She remembered, in particular, a Syrian graduate student who felt his youth was being frittered away. From “The City”:

“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.”

“The saddest cases are men in their twenties. They don’t want to fight for Assad or ISIS. Their youth is being eaten—and they don’t know what will happen.”

Stallings and her friends brought supplies—crayons, Play-Doh, markers, bubbles, and pipe cleaners—to keep the restless kids busy as they waited day after day to learn their fate. “We’re the artists, we’re the painters, we’re the poets. We can do this,” she said. “I’m a mother; I can yell at kids in four languages.”

The Play-Doh, markers, and crayons ushered in a new era for the children. They may not have been eloquent in their native tongue, but were eloquent on paper. One drew a massacre he had witnessed and more than one drew those who have drowned at sea. Others illustrated bombings, one with the word “Assad” written on the aircraft. They made a case for immigration more heart-rending than any politician’s speeches.

Read the whole article here. Images courtesy A.E. Stallings and the “True Colors” Facebook page.

Children and adults are afraid of the sea now.

A Syrian boy recalls a school bombing.

The same Syrian boy recalls the maiming of a teacher at his school.

A child depicts a Turkish vessel firing a water cannon to try to sink a dinghy

Nobel prizewinner Liu Xiaobo is dead, his widow under house arrest. Now it’s illegal to sing songs about him, too.

November 18th, 2017
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We’ve written before about Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo (here and here and here, among other places), who died last July in police custody from late-stage liver cancer, which received very, very late treatment from the Chinese authorities. They had ignored the increasingly desperate pleas for his treatment. His widow is still under house arrest. But that’s not enough. Now they arresting people who sing songs about the writer, poet, and human rights activist. The latest from Radio Free Asia:

The memory lives on: Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia

A Chinese musician detained since last September for singing about late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo has been formally arrested, while his collaborator has been forced to leave the city, where he has a job and a family, a rights lawyer said on Tuesday.

Singer-songwriters Xu Lin and Liu Sifang were being held in Nansha and Jiangxi respectively after they wrote songs for Liu, who died in police custody of late-stage liver cancer in July.

Xu Lin was formally arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” on Nov. 2 while fellow singer activist, Liu Sifang, was released on bail.

“Without regular contact with his family and a lawyer, Xu Lin is at risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a recent statement.

Rights lawyer Sui Muqing visited Xu in the Nansha Detention Center in Guangdong’s provincial capital Guangzhou on Monday, he said. “Picking quarrels and stirring up trouble is a charge pinned on dissidents and rights activists for what they say,” he said.

“The charge of picking quarrels and stirring up trouble has become one of the main charges used to crack down on freedom of speech,” Sui said. “Most people who get detained for posting something online are charged with this offense.”

Sui said Xu had requested not to have a lawyer, following a pattern set by other detained activists who strike a deal to plead “guilty” in return for more lenient treatment.

Xu top, Liu bottom

But Sui said Xu didn’t want to use up resources needed by others.

“The main reason was that he didn’t want to take up resources available to other people, not that he was refusing to hire a lawyer,” he said.

“She isn’t allowed to have contact with anyone outside the family, nor can she give interviews to the foreign media,” she said.

“The family have been very worried ever since they received the notice of formal arrest.”

She said Xu Lin hasn’t committed any crime.

“This case is all about the policing of free speech, in the spirit of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party’s 19th congress [last month],” she said.

Meanwhile, Liu Sifang, in spite of being released on bail on the same charge, has now been forced to leave Foshan, where he lives with his wife and works at a private school, Sui said.

Next they’ll make the signs illegal.

“He lives with his wife in Foshan, and they both work at a private educational establishment there,” Sui said. “He had barely been back at work a few days when the Foshan state security police starting telling him to leave town.”

“Not directly, of course, but they put pressure on him via his employer, who had no choice but to tell him to leave,” he said.

Liu Xiaobo died weeks after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, and repeated requests from his family to seek medical treatment overseas were ignored.

His wife Liu Xia, who has never been charged with any crime, remains under house arrest and continual police surveillance in spite of continued international calls for her unconditional release.

Police have since detained a number of activists who staged memorials in Liu’s honor, including Zhuo Yuzhen, detained in Guangdong’s riverside town of Jiangmen for taking part in a seashore memorial a month after Liu’s passing.

Zhuo Yuzhen, who hails from the southeastern province of Fujian, was formally arrested by police from his hometown and has been sent back to Guangdong to face investigation and prosecution.

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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Richard Rorty: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.”

November 15th, 2017
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“His most characteristic gesture was that shrug, accompanied by the hint of a shy and mysterious grin.”

The Book Haven wrote about Richard Rorty a few weeks ago, in connection with his online interview for Entitled OpinionsHe’s been called the most famous philosopher of the late twentieth century, but, as Crispin Sartwell points out, that doesn’t mean much in an era when most people couldn’t name a single contemporary philosopher (and I wouldn’t know him myself had not Czesław Miłosz mentioned him to me as a friend). Said Sartwell: “But within academia, he was as famous as anyone, which in his case involved being almost universally hated: both envied (he was the first and is still one of the few philosophers ever to get a MacArthur) and attacked relentlessly.”

Sartwell ought to know. Rorty was his dissertation advisor for more than five years in the 1980s and they developed an Oedipal relationship that he’s grateful for today. “He kicked my ass all day every day for years on end,” he writes, over at Splice Today

“I think he was wrong about everything, but at least he was wrong in an interesting and extremely bold way that was exemplary of its moment and helped create it. The academic philosophy of now, often hyper-specialized and extremely competent—isn’t usually brave enough even to be wrong.” Maybe that’s what Rorty himself meant when he said: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.” 

A few excerpts from Sarwell’s essay:

His shrug was famous.

In the early 1990s I saw him give a lecture to an auditorium full of eminent thinkers and grad students at the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. After he was done giving them his thoughts on pragmatism and truth, they fired away at him for the better part of an hour. Some asked questions. Most simply reviled him and everything he stood for, so hostile that they could barely express themselves coherently.

One person who attacked relentlessly was the quasi-celebrity philosopher Thelma Lavine, who had hosted the PBS series Socrates to Sartre. She was operating with a walker and an oxygen tank by then. I don’t remember exactly what she said but the spirit was this: “You are enemy of all that is good and true, a philosophical anti-Christ here to bring our civilization to an apocalypse”: a last-gasp defense of truth and Plato and all things decent. After that, well-known philosophers came after him one by one or in gangs. He responded in clipped one-line provocations, half Jean-Paul Sartre and half Bill Belichick.

Later at the banquet I asked him how he got through things like that. He just gave the notorious Rorty shrug. “I’ve seen it before,” he said. “They seem to enjoy it.” It didn’t seem to me like Lavine was enjoying herself, but Rorty certainly was.

***

His position was Socratic: you’d come to him with your big notions, essential ideas, revolutionary consciousness, scientific foundations and he’d use the whole toolkit from Willard Van Orman Quine to Jacques Derrida to let the air out of your tires. His most characteristic gesture was that shrug, accompanied by the hint of a shy and mysterious grin, as if underneath the pointed or even whimsical formulation there was a huge structure of ideas and arguments that he was holding back. As a matter of fact, there was.

***

“He kicked my ass all day every day for years on end.”

One thing his many detractors didn’t know was that he was always, semi-secretly, a sweet man, even to a young whippersnapper trying to refute him at every turn, and even as he became a loathed superstar with many demands on his time. As a thinker and writer, Rorty was a real swashbuckler, as bold as could readily be imagined, but one-on-one he was almost unbelievably shy. He found it terrifyingly difficult to greet people in the hall or at a reception, but opened up when happily absorbed in argument, and was completely or even maddeningly self-possessed in front of an audience. He was an extraordinarily gentle man but an extraordinarily aggressive thinker: really, quite the human conundrum.

Nevertheless, one of the most charming things about Rorty—as he showed in that auditorium—was that he delighted in attacks. He was some years past his breakthrough book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) when I was working with him, and was drafting Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, now widely regarded as his most characteristic work. One day in the middle of lunch in his office the phone rang and, as one did, he held up his hand and said, “Just a minute.” Then he launched into an elaborate description of CIS and a lovely assessment of how his own work was changing, how he was so far beyond Mirror of Nature, ready to kill the world. I hadn’t known before that what he was working on. It took me 15 minutes to spin out that it was Rorty’s college buddy, the equally eminent Richard Bernstein, on the other end.

Then he’s off the phone and I start arguing with him about his “literary turn” nonsense. He didn’t respond to my attacks except to give me the in-process bibliography. I read it all. (I can’t find that one. I must have chucked it when I was done.) But the most memorable thing about that phone call was that Rorty rummaged around on his desk and read aloud a couple of the most vicious criticisms of himself, as he and Bernstein cackled (cackling came through clearly on a land line).

***

With Robert Harrison for one of his last interviews.

But Lord the Rort had some critical acuity when he wasn’t just shrugging at an auditorium full of people. … In doing that, he showed me exactly what the highest level of active intellectual life really is, what you have to know to toss off apparently casual provocations and make them stick; he slowly revealed how much machinery was underneath his performance art. I’d been reading harder than anyone I knew since I started getting serious at 12, but in my 20s in the 1980s I didn’t see how knowing what he knew was even possible. He had more or less the whole history of Western philosophy and literature, with little pockets of expertise in all sorts of scholarly byways.

Read the whole thing here. Or listen to the podcast interview here. Or both.

Photographer Margo Davis and “the landscape of the face”

November 14th, 2017
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Photo by Margo Davis, of course.

Loyal readers of these pages know the legendary self-effacement and humility of the Book Haven. You should. We keep telling you about it. But we are shedding our accustomed modesty and shyness for a brief holiday.

Humble Moi no more! Now it’s Glamorous Moi! Elegant Moi! For we have had our photograph taken by the esteemed Margo Davis, whose artistic focus is fine arts portraiture.

The notable photographer and I met in an elevator, some years ago. We were both on our way to visit Marilyn Yalom, who was hosting the Middlebrook Salon at her lovely Russian Hill home. Margo was memorable. She was wearing a black leather jacket, with her hair characteristically short, and she spoke in a rapid-fire Connecticut accent (not New York, as my imprecise ear thought).

We’ve seen each other since – usually at Marilyn’s home. So naturally Marilyn recommended her as the perfect photographer for my once-every-seven-years photograph. Marilyn was correct, as she so often is.

Humble Moi is not the easiest client to photograph. I panic and freeze before the camera and my eyes bug out and go glassy. But Margo just kept talking, and she kept snapping, too. She talks about getting to know her photographic subjects as “a waltz between two people trying to do something in the way of a portrait.”

Margo, in color.

“You have to spend time,” she said. “This is not a journalistic activity, an in-and-out thing.” The result of her efforts above.

Margo has spoken in the past about being drawn to the “landscape of the face.” As a young photographer, she recalled: “When I was going through my proof sheets I realized I was really gravitating toward portraiture. And from that point on, I think I started moving in closer towards peoples’ faces. It was a process, it wasn’t something that happened overnight.”

Margo always uses natural light, and is known primarily for her black-and-white portrait photography, because, she’s said, “you’re already in an abstraction process, because the real world is in color.” In black and white, she’s photograph such celebrities as Saul Bellow, Maxine Kingston and Ursula K. Le Guin as well as average people in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America. But in my case she clearly made a colorful exception. In the quick tour she gave me of her home, I fell in love with her black-and-white portrait of an Angor Wat monk. He looks just as uncomfortable in front of the camera as I was, meditation notwithstanding.

An especial focus for her work has been Antigua in the Caribbean, as well as Africa: “I borrowed the methodology of an ethnographer: participant-observation, becoming part of the fabric of the culture,” she has said.

My favorite guy. He looks nervous, too.

“Being married to an Antiguan [her former husband Gregson Davis] and returning there often, I was able to work with this axiom in mind; the importance of getting to really know people.”

She has taught photography at Stanford University forever, as well as the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

By my count, she’s up to half a dozen photography books now. Her newest book this year is Antigua 1967-1973 from Nazraeli Press. Previous books include: Antigua Pride, Edition One Press, 2013; Under One Sky, Stanford University Press, 2004; The Stanford Album: A Photographic History, 1885 – 1945 (Stanford, 1989); Antigua Black: Portrait of an Island People (1973); and Women Writers of the West Coast (1983), with text by Marilyn Yalom.

Margo’s work is in major museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Cantor Art Center at Stanford, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Writer’s block? You’re not alone. Dorothy Parker sends you a telegram…

November 11th, 2017
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Overwhelmed? You’re not alone. So was Dorothy Parker. The witty writer penned hundreds of poems and short stories, and was also a popular book critic for The New Yorker. She even tried her hand at screenwriting – and two of the scripts she co-wrote won Oscars. The wisecracking writer, critic, and satirist, was also one of the leading lights at the legendary Algonquin Table circle of writers, columnists, and hard-drinking journalists who gathered daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan.

No wonder she couldn’t get everything done. Here’s a 1945 telegram she sent to her editor at Viking, Pascal Covici. And it’s for all of you readers, too, as you struggle to catch up with deadlines over the weekend.

Lena Herzog on photography: “It stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

November 9th, 2017
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“When I see an image come through in my developer, it stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

Lena at work

Lena Herzog is a visual artist and photographer who develops thoughts and ideas as well as images. In his introduction to their conversation, Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison suggests that her camera follows Joseph Conrad’s aesthetic creed to “render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.” The interview is available on Entitled Opinions new channel over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here.

Harrison and Herzog discuss the cultural transition to digital photography and Herzog’s penchant for a ghostly or alchemical – or even sacramental – approach to creating images. Herzog usually works with pre-digital cameras, where latent images are transformed into visible ones with emulsions in a darkroom.

The two discuss how many cultures have believed that photographs steal the soul. Have millions of digital images eroded meaning from places and people? Walter Benjamin said that photography is one of the most powerful instruments of desacralization of the world, so Harrison and Herzog discuss the over-familiarization of images of landscapes and objects, in an era when we live in oceans of images.

Herzog argues that the images capture the “inner state of being” of the photographer: “Five photographers are in a trench, they pop out, they take a picture if the same event, they pop back in. They come out with completely different images. Remember the picture of the naked girl at the napalm bombing during the Vietnam War? It’s Nick Ut’s very famous iconic image. On that bridge stood half a dozen photographers, including a photographer from the New York Times who was far more famous at the time. None of them produced images that stuck with us. They were shooting at the same time with the same group of Vietnamese running towards them. This is an extraordinary and fascinating aspect of photography.”

Listen to the whole interview here.

Potent Quotes

“About five billion people who have cellphones can produce fairly competent images. They’re okay, but okay is not enough.”

“The procedures that I work with go back to dawn of photography, but not for sentimental reasons. It’s just because they’re better. … The possibilities are enormous. When I see an image come through in my developer, it stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

“We are three dimensional creatures. We don’t have the companionship and camaraderie with files, with zeroes and ones. Even when you see an image that is perfectly perfect, which is very high-resolution digital, there is something about it that doesn’t speak to us.”

“One of the reasons that I use all these complicated technologies and techniques and large-format cameras is because I want to take special care. It should not be offhand, it should not be careless how I photograph.”

“The mystical part of it is not only that mechanically I can reproduce the astonishing likeness of the world, but also mechanically I can reproduce how I feel, how I see the world. … It not only registers the event, but the photographer’s inner state of being.”

“When an object or a thing or a person is over-familiarized, something happens to it, something in our perception of it happens, and we lose the mystery, the expectations. For me, that’s why celebrities are absolutely uninteresting. Familiar to us, and yet they have become completely unfamiliar because there is a veil of familiarization that holds us back from true understanding. To look at it afresh, to pay attention to it carefully, is a task right now.”

 

“Touching the good”: on Richard Wilbur – and Charlee Wilbur gets the last word

November 7th, 2017
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Richard and Charlee Wilbur getting married, 1942.

Death doesn’t offer many satisfactions, but there’s a notable one in the death of the late Richard Wilbur, the most perfect poet in the English language. I was gratified by the outpouring of love for his poetry from many unexpected quarters – one can’t quite call him “neglected,” but he certainly didn’t command the notice he merited. How often was he recognized as America’s foremost living poet? Moreover, he was as great a human being as he was a poet.

But one friend needed no selling, on that point in particular. Wrote Sam Gwynn: “I knew him for almost 50 years, and he was always the same–courtly, courteous, and civilized. He showed a lot of us how to live as both a person and as a poet.”

The praise continues over at First Thingswhere a friend A.M. Juster (we’ve written about his translations of Petrarch here) has written (not entirely warmly) about  Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg‘s new biography, Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study.  From the essay, “To Imagine Excellence”:

Although friendly with most of his poetic contemporaries, Wilbur resisted the trendy temptations of his time. Unlike Adrienne Rich, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, and many others, he did not succumb to the pressure to abandon formal verse for free verse. Like Elizabeth Bishop, he refused to put his life on display in the manner of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and the “confessional” poets who were his peers. His work often displays joy and optimism, qualities in short supply among contemporary poets..

Juster: a Petrarch lover, too.

These qualities caused him to be largely ignored, and occasionally criticized, by the academy and the poetry establishment. In 1964 Leslie Fiedler complained that “there is no passion and no insanity” in Wilbur’s verse. Adam Kirsch, a critic whose work I usually admire, criticized Wilbur’s Collected Poems, 1943–2004 for employing “a style so elaborately formal that the most awful subjects are sublimated into irony, or even black comedy.”

These charges of bloodlessness and clumsiness lack merit. Even in the gorgeous “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” is the unexpected violence of the phrase “the punctual rape of every blessèd day.”

Well you can read that whole poem here. It is gorgeous.

The Baggs’ new biography won’t change the perceptions about Wilbur’s “almost suspiciously normal life,” he writes, “although it should dispel the sense that he shared none of the horrors and despair of his more self-revealing peers.” The biography documents his combat experience in World War II, when he witnessed the death of friends and nearly died himself.  “The book discloses early financial difficulties and the autism of one of his four children. It also reveals that he and his devoted wife went into rehab for overuse of sleep medications and maybe alcohol.”

He was throughout, writes Juster, “a singularly humble and self-effacing member of a generation of competitive and catty poets.” He continues: “When Wilbur won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a disappointed John Berryman sent him a sarcastic telegram so subtle that he missed the barb entirely. (Berryman later both clarified and apologized.) Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and others frequently denigrated Wilbur in order to lift themselves up in rankings of the greats.”

However, he bristles at the the Baggs’ speculation that Wilbur had an affair during the war years, “simply on the basis of one photograph of him posing with a woman that someone in France had sent to his wife.”

And here’s the money shot: Charlee Wilbur’s “feisty and forgiving 1945 letter” that she sent to her husband, after he warned her of the photo’s existence:

You’re a dolt! Did you really think you had to forewarn me about that picture of you and that sexy-looking French Frail? Even if I saw a picture of you actually in bed with such a babe, I shouldn’t think any other thought than—“god, I’d like to be in her shoes!” (Or out of them as the case might be.) You must remember that I have tremendous respect for your essential taste. And I also have great faith in and dependence upon our common love so that whatever you did couldn’t possibly touch the good that ties us irrevocably together.

Read the whole thing here.

Having a Rilke moment? The great poet on “the difficult work of love”

November 5th, 2017
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A portrait of Rilke by Leonid Pasternak (Boris’s dad)

A dear friend referred recently to having “a Rilke moment.” That returned me to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (trans. Stephen Mitchell), perhaps the most famous and most treasured letters of the last century. The ten letters were written to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year-old cadet at the Theresian Military Academy. He was seeking advice from the young Rilke, who was less than a decade older, for guidance on writing his own poetry. He got advice on a lot more than that.

An excerpt from the seventh letter, written on May 14, 1904:

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is –: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent –?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough. …

Whoever looks seriously will find that neither for death, which is difficult, nor for difficult love has any clarification, any solution, any hint of a path been perceived; and for both these tasks, which we carry wrapped up and hand on without opening, there is no general, agreed-upon rule that can be discovered. But in the same measure in which we begin to test life as individuals, these great things will come to meet us, the individuals, with greater intimacy. The claims that the difficult work of love makes upon our development are greater than life, and we, as beginners, are not equal to them. But if we nevertheless endure and take this love upon us as a burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in the whole easy and frivolous game behind which people have hidden from the most solemn solemnity of their being, – then a small advance and a lightening will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us. That would be much.

Roving photographer Zygmunt Malinowski spends a day with Henrik Ibsen in Norway

November 3rd, 2017
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They know how to treat theater in Norway: the National Theatre of Norway in Bergen

The Book Haven’s roving photographer and reporter, New York City’s Zygmunt Malinowski, wrote to us following his recent visit to Henrik Ibsen’s Bergen – and, as always, he documents his journey with photos, which he generously shares with Book Haven readers. (Some of his previous photographic journeys are here and here and here and here, among other places.)

From Zygmunt:

The man himself.

On the way to the northernmost part of Norway a few months ago, I had a stopover in Bergen. I was looking forward to revisiting “Bryggen,” a colorful waterfront historical area.

A few short blocks from my hotel, the street opened up into a wide plaza that ended with a stately building in art nouveau style – the National Theatre of Norway. A well-manicured lawn in front with planted flowers, shrubs, and trees on both sides added to its dignity. On one side of the green square, a large modern minimalist statue:  not surprisingly, Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright considered the father of modern theater, as well as the father of realism.

Ibsen was the first director and writer-in-residence of “Det Norske Theatre,” now the new National Theatre. He wrote several plays there, which did not earn acclaim, but nevertheless gave Ibsen much-needed experience in his craft. After he left for Italy and Germany, he wrote his most important works; Brand made him famous in his native country, and world success followed with among others: Peer Gynt, Pillars of Society, Doll’s House, Master Builder. He returned to Christiana (later, Oslo) during his late years.

In 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s death, A Doll’s House was the most performed play for that year. Ibsen is said to be the most performed playwright after William Shakespeare.

All of Ibsen in 78 minutes.

The Ibsen statue erected more recently was modern. The body was elliptical, only the head was more realistic and even here the eyes were circular, like two oval slices. The sculptor rejected the romantic ideals just as Ibsen did in his works.

On the facade of the building, two large placards announced the current offering, one was for a new Ibsen production: Henrik Ibsen’s samlede verker på 78 minutter performed in Lille Scene, one of the three theatre stages, an intimate setting situated on the east side of the building.

Combining 28 of Ibsen’s plays in 78 minutes seemed like a magic act – as suggested by the graphic depiction of actors juggling top hats in the poster for the event. According to reviews, it’s “a comic marathon by dramatist Knut Naerum that offers a chance to learn all about Ibsen in one evening.” Performances continue through December.

It was good to be back in Bergen, especially since my visit occurred during one of these pleasant sunny days that led many Norwegians to stroll the boulevards and linger outdoors. Across from the statue at the corner building, smartly dressed couples enjoyed a glass of wine with their late afternoon meal on the patio at the Theatro restaurant and bar, part of the boutique Hotel Oleana.

Photos copyright Zygmunt Malinowski.

Hotel Oleana when it’s empty.

Mikhail Baryshnikov: “Water is his church, Brodsky’s church.”

November 1st, 2017
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“I remember his voice, I remember the way he read.” Screenshot from Brodsky/Baryshnikov

We’ve written before about Mikhail Baryshnikov’s acclaimed Brodsky/Baryshnikov show, which blends the renowned dancer’s movements with the poetry of his friend, the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky. (I hear rumors that the show, which debuted in the dancer’s native Riga, is coming to Berkeley, but so far it’s not showing up on any websites so far.)

However, we missed Neil Munshi’s Financial Times of London’s article, “Poetry and motion: Mikhail Baryshnikov on Joseph Brodsky”, which describes the two Russians’ long camaraderie. An excerpt:

“He loved to be by the embankment, because it reminded him of Leningrad, with the water and perspective,” Baryshnikov says. “In his poetry, there are so many poems about water, from the north to Venice, to the Hudson, to the Caribbean. He really worked on a metaphysical level about the water: the proximity, and the colour, and the essence of it. Water is his church, Brodsky’s church, because he grew up [with the] Neva River.” Baryshnikov has referred to Brodsky as his “university”, the man who gave him the higher education his dancing prevented him from receiving. Brodsky introduced him to not just the work of writers but to the writers themselves.

Screenshot from Brodsky/Baryshnikov

“He said that he was surprised how much poetry I know, which was a total exaggeration. He was trying to pay me a compliment, I don’t know why. But I would rather sit and listen to his conversations with Derek Walcott, and maybe half of it, I couldn’t understand. Or with Stephen Spender, or Czeslaw Milosz. He’d just talk about politics with Susan Sontag,” he says. Baryshnikov moved on to reading “Walcott from St Lucia, and Seamus Heaney in Ireland, or Louise Glück, in the States, or Mark Strand”.

“One of the first books Joseph gave me was a book of Mark Strand,” Baryshnikov says. “He said, ‘Mouse, have this.’ And I said, ‘Joseph, I don’t speak a word of English.’ It was at the very beginning. He said, ‘You will, and very soon, and we will read this man.’ And he was absolutely right.”  And there was always Brodsky. Baryshnikov keeps a full collection of his friend’s work in all of his homes and offices. “I always travel with one or two [of Brodsky’s] books. And some of them are still too difficult for me. I’m not pretending that I know his work inside-out at all,” he says. “I remember his voice, I remember the way he read. Sometimes he asked me to read. He said, ‘I want to hear a different voice, can you read this?’ Sometimes, I was lucky to be the first person to whom he read.”

Read the whole thing here.

Early days: Joseph Brodsky in Ann Arbor in the 1970s.


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