Archive for April, 2012

“Pity the Beautiful”: The necessary angel and the sound of light

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

From music to words

A postcard in the mail, telling me Dana Gioia‘s new book, Pity the Beautiful, is officially out. It’s the first collection since he stepped down as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009.  The postcard, with an amiable handwritten note from Mary Gioia,  invited me to a reading and discussion at Kepler’s in Menlo Park on Wednesday, May 2, at 7 p.m.  (Another one, on May 15, will take place at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco.)

I already wrote about Dana’s ghost story here, and a little about the book itself here, and about the magical evening in Santa Rosa, when Dana read some of the poems to me and his wife Mary here.

I was intrigued that the new book is dedicated to Morten Lauridsen, with the words “the necessary angel” beneath the composer’s name.  Some years ago Dana sent me Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – a marvel.  I’d never heard of the composer before Dana’s introduction – he’s largely overlooked in the MSM, though widely performed in choral music circles.

The composer said in an interview with Bruce Duffie:

I’m getting all this mail on the Lux Aeterna, because it’s a large cycle; every one of the five movements relates to light, a universal symbol in so many ways. It was a great deal of pleasure to write that particular cycle, and I wrote it as my mother was in the process of dying, so it was a way of, as so many artists do, of dealing with that kind of a situation in an artistic way. … On Lux Aeterna and so many of my works, I like the immediacy — to draw my listener in immediately, to hold their attention, to transport them, to do something to do them on some level, whether it’s excite them, or move them, or elate them, or whatever.

Necessary angel on left

The connection is no surprise, really.  Dana began his studies at Stanford with aspirations to become a composer.  Since changing directions towards poetry and business (he has an M.B.A.), he has created the libretti for two operas – Alva Henderson‘s Nosferatu, and Paul Salerni‘s Tony Caruso’s Last Broadcast. Fewer know Dana was one of the champions of Derrière Guard, founded by the composer Stefania de Kenessey.

Lauridsen got a National Medal of Arts in 2007 – during Dana’s term as chairman of the NEA.  Then Dana stepped down and became the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California – where Lauridsen has been a professor of composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music for more than three decades.

So Dana has at last returned to poetry full time.  The new collection has many fine poems, and a few translations.  The title poem is likely to get the most notice, but I know the one I’ll remember is the three-part “Special Treatments Ward”:



So this is where the children come to die,
hidden on the hospital’s highest floor.
They wear their bandages like uniforms
and pull their IV rigs along the hall
with slow and careful steps. Or bald and pale,
they lie in bright pajamas on their beds,
watching another world on a screen.

The mothers spend their nights inside the ward,
sleeping on chairs that fold out into beds,
too small to lie in comfort. Soon they slip
beside their children, as if they might mesh
those small bruised bodies back into their flesh.
Instinctively they feel that love so strong
protects a child. Each morning proves them wrong.

No one chooses to be here. We play the parts
that we are given – horrible as they are.
We try to play them well, whatever that means.
We need to talk though talking breaks our hearts.
The doctors come and go like oracles,
their manner cool, omniscient, and oblique.
There is a word that no one ever speaks.


I put this poem aside twelve years ago
because I could not bear remembering
the faces it evoked, and every line
seemed – still seems – so inadequate and grim.

What right had I whose son had walked away
to speak for those who died? And I’ll admit
I wanted to forget. I’d lost one child
and couldn’t bear to watch another die.

Not just the silent boy who shared our room,
but even the bird-thin figures dimly glimpsed
shuffling deliberately, disjointedly
like ancient soldiers after a parade.

Whatever strength the task required I lacked.
No well-stitched words could suture shut these wounds.
And so I stopped …
But there are poems we do not choose to write.


The children visit me, not just in dream,
appearing suddenly, silently –
insistent, unprovoked, unwelcome.

They’ve taken off their milky bandages
to show the raw, red lesions they still bear.
Risen they are healed but not made whole.

A few I recognize, untouched by years.
I cannot name them – their faces pale and gray
like ashes fallen from a distant fire.

What use am I to them, almost a stranger?
I cannot wake them from their satin beds.
Why do they seek me? They never speak.

And vagrant sorrow cannot bless the dead.


(Meet you at the reading on Wednesday at Kepler’s.  And if you’re too far away, check out these 2011 interviews with Dana and Martin Perlich here.  Below, Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium – he says “it’s become the best-selling octavo in the history of Theodore Presser, who has been in business for over two hundred years now. We’ve had perhaps 3,000 performances of it.”)

Orwell Watch #20: Joe Loya has had enough of “playing politics”

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Joe Loya in a car.

It’s election year, and no doubt we will find much fodder for our Orwell Watch, from all points on the political spectrum.

Here’s a good catch from Joe Loya on Facebook: “Politicians decrying other politicians ‘playing politics’ with an issue has to be one of the goofiest moral spectacles on the planet. What are they supposed to play? Badminton? Third base? (Sen. McCain, Prez. Obama plays politics because he is a politician, like you!) These knuckleheads sound as stupid as if they bemoaned cellists playing cellos, or basketball players tossing basketballs in baskets, or race car drivers driving race cars. I mean, c’mon, ‘politic’ is right there in the word ‘politician.’ Dummies!”

He was, of course, challenged:  Is a smoker wrong for telling someone not to smoke?  Shouldn’t a murderer warn a kid not to murder?

Da Man

His rebuttal:  “All I’m saying is if I applied for the job of dishwasher and then the other dishwasher tried to make me appear morally inferior to them for washing dishes while they are also washing dishes, all I’m saying is they are idiots for hassling me for doing what I was hired to do, what is in fact the job description in the title ‘dishwasher.'”

What can we add?

The Orwell Watch.  Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #19: End the war.

Orwell Watch #18: “Back to the Middle Ages” – an era that “exceeds expectations”

Orwell Watch #17: The 10th anniversary of 9/11 – prepare for an avalanche of buzzwords

Orwell Watch #15, #14: Jens Stoltenberg’s graceful words, a few of our graceless ones

Orwell Watch #13, continued: “The American people”

Orwell Watch #13: More daily offenses.

Orwell Watch #12: There is no faculty lounge. Get over it.

Orwell Watch #11: One man’s lonely war against cliché

Orwell Watch #10: Literary criticism, or cut-and-paste?

Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…”

Orwell Watch #8: “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”

Orwell Watch #6: “Like” and the culture of vagueness

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner: Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3: Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

Elif Batuman: “Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.”

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

"Why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way."

I somehow missed the kerfuffle about Mike Daisey’s “monologue” about the terrible working conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”  Another chapter in the long history of fabricated memories, which became the subject of a painful retraction last month.

Over at The Rumpus, author Elif Batuman had a very different take on the matter.

Is the truth more compelling than any attempt to fictionalize it?  “That’s what I always tell myself when I’m being fact-checked, and some detail I was attached to turns out not to be true,” she told interviewer Sean Carman.  “I’m initially disappointed, and maybe discouraged that now there’s more work for me to do, but I know that 99.9% of the time there’s actually something there, in the truth, that’s more interesting than whatever I or anyone else can make up.

“When you invent something, you’re drawing on reservoirs of knowledge that you already have. It’s only when you’re faithful to the truth that something can come to you from the outside.  … something maybe less neat but richer and stranger.”

In general, she’s more interested in the audience for fibs, rather than the fibbers themselves, and  “figuring out why and how anyone believed it – why they needed to believe it”:

He did his homework. (Russia's first color portrait, 1908)

They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want.  The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth. But I mean, why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way.

When you’re reading a novel, I think the reason you care about how any given plot turns out is that you take it as a data point in the big story of how the world works. Does such-and-such a kind of guy get the girl in the end? Does adultery ever bring happiness? How do winners become winners?

Just because a book is labeled as a novel, you don’t assume it happened in La La land and has nothing to do with reality. It just means that the novelist has processed, consolidated, or edited his experiences and observations, to tell a story. Which obviously happens in a memoir, too. It’s a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. That’s why I find it weird when you walk into a bookstore the most privileged distinction is between fiction and nonfiction.

When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, he did a ton of historical research about Napoleon – he spent ages in archives, reading letters and diaries, many of them written by his wife’s relatives. In general, in his career, he borrowed a lot of plot details from the lives of his in-laws. I bet if Tolstoy was writing now in America, there would be a lot of pressure on him to do War and Peace as a nonfiction book – like, tracing the domestic and personal life of his wife’s grandmother through journals and letters, interwoven with his own philosophical musings about the Napoleonic wars. But Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.

Final excerpt:

We hear a lot these days about two opposing tendencies in literature. On the one hand, there’s a tendency away from the novel, toward nonfiction. On the other hand, there’s a tendency away from objective journalism, toward memoiristic or essayistic nonfiction. They’re opposing tendencies, but they both reflect an anxiety about how much we can trust facts. We expect facts to give us objective truth, but objective truth keeps eluding us. We move away from the novel, because the novel isn’t factual; but in our nonfiction writing, we feel constantly compelled to cast doubt on our access to objective facts. We hire teams of fact-checkers to track them down. Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.

Read the whole thing here.


National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward: “I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina”

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Self-effacing star at Stanford (Photo: Adam Johnson)

When author Jesmyn Ward was named the winner of the 2011 National Book Award at the awards ceremony a few months ago, she covered her face with her hands.  She had believed the earlier notification that she was a finalist to be “a joke or a scam,” but winning seemed even farther beyond the reach of a girl who came from a “rural, southern, mostly poor” Mississippi town.

She didn’t take her hands from her face, or respond to the applause, or move to accept the award for her novel Salvage the Bones. Her publicist finally grabbed her by the shoulders and shouted her name at her.

National Book Award winner?  “I still haven’t come to terms with it – I still hesitate to say it,” the Hurricane Katrina survivor told an audience Monday night at Stanford.

In a world of self-promotion, Ward’s modesty and humility were downright charming.

Author Elizabeth Tallent‘s introduction to the reading included this snippet from Ward’s interview in The Missoulian:

I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina. …  After the hurricane, I didn’t write anything for around two-and-a-half years. I didn’t realize how it had affected me at the time. I was here with my family for the hurricane.  So not only did I have to deal with the experience of surviving the hurricane, being out in the hurricane when it was going on, but with the residual terror in the knowledge that a storm like that can take away everything your family has within a matter of hours. I had to contend with all that, and the rebuilding process.

We got hit by the worst of the storm. After the rubble was cleared away, it just looked like things disappeared. There was a gas station there, and it’s not there anymore.  And the trailer park there, it’s not there anymore. I had no hope during that time. So I needed enough time to pass beyond Katrina to see that people would come back and they would rebuild.

The New York Times review called the book “a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale.” One author, fellow Southerner Ken Wells, said that she writes like “an angel with a knife to your throat.”

But great books affect people in different ways. For Tallent, reading Salvage the Bones resulted in a different understanding:  “I realized I needed a dog in my life again.”

So she credits author Ward – and the novel’s white pit bull named China (“on a shortlist of great dogs in literature”) – for the shelter dog she recently acquired.  Tallent said that although Ward had been a Stegner fellow from 2008-10, “we all think of it as five minutes ago.”

During the question-and-answer period following the reading, Ward was asked if she had ever envisioned herself as a successful novelist.  “It was my dream. I didn’t think I would ever be good enough.”

Ward’s memories of Stanford are nuanced and complex: “Much of my years here was feeling overwhelmed, that I didn’t deserve to be here.”

Monday’s applause for her work is gravy:  “I’m coming back to Stanford as the person I wanted to be as an undergraduate.”

Sleep easy, Seoul. North Korea can’t “flatten” you.

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Adam Johnson: "It's still just a message." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Once again, North Korea is threatening to reduce South Korea “to ashes” – what’s more, “by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.”  A tense and nervous world is wondering what to do.

I mentioned this when I spoke tonight with Adam Johnson, author The Orphan Master’s Son, an acclaimed  novel about North Korea.

He exploded into easy laughter.  “They do that all the time!”  The usual claim is that they can level Seoul in 30 minutes, he said.

“The scary thing is, they can actually do that,” he said. “Everybody talks about the nuclear dimension, but there’s no way they can get a bomb anywhere.  All modern missiles depend on power” – and power is one thing North Korea hasn’t got.  It can’t even supply its citizens with electricity at night.

What they do have, however, is 1950s and 1960s artillery – outdated, pokey, but lots of it.  Big barrels jutting up from the ground and pointing into the air, all along the border.  “It can’t be stopped, and it’s presently aimed toward Seoul,” he said.  Seoul is within easy firing range.

I wondered if what he said was really true – so I did a little online poking around, and found this article from Popular Mechanics in 2010 – I know, I know, it’s two years old. But what do two years matter when you are dealing with weaponry from the 1950s and 1960s?

Turn out the lights when you go to bed! Satellite photo at night. The dark part is North Korea. (Photo: NASA)

First, there’s the unfortunate geography—the opponents’ capitals are just 120 miles apart, with Seoul within 35 miles of the border. The numbers only get worse, with estimates of as many as 13,000 artillery pieces positioned along that border, many of them within range and presumably aimed directly at Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities. Factor in the rate of fire of all those suspected artillery batteries, and throw in the potential launch of hundreds of missiles, and it’s easy to conclude that if North Korea is pushed hard enough, the result could be, as the New York Times put it yesterday, “the destruction of Seoul.”

The more common term for the potential fate of the South Korean capital, casually dropped on recent radio and television news reports, as well as in two separate AOL news op-eds from earlier this year, is that it would be “flattened.” Analysis from Time magazine in 2003 went so far as to gauge how long this would take: “Its conventional artillery capability would allow North Korea to flatten Seoul in the first half-hour of any confrontation.”

However, actually flattening a city is not as easy as it sounds:

“Artillery is not that lethal,” says Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is a national security analyst for ABC News. “It takes a long time for it to produce the densities of fire to go beyond terrorism and harassment.” Even in a worst-case scenario, where both U.S. and South Korean forces are somehow paralyzed or otherwise engaged, and North Korea fires its 170mm artillery batteries and 240mm rocket launchers with total impunity, the grim reality wouldn’t live up to the hype. Buildings would be perforated, fires would inevitably rage and an unknown number of people would die. Seoul would be under siege—but it wouldn’t be flattened, destroyed or leveled.

Feeling insecure

Here’s the kicker:

If this sounds like squabbling over semantics, it is. But semantics and language matter [italics mine]. The casual, and largely unsupported references to Seoul’s potential flattening punctuates the notion that [the now-deceased] Kim Jong Il is holding a city hostage. It recasts a complex strategic vulnerability as a cartoon: an entire city facing a perpetual firing squad. It also ignores physical laws, and the realities of modern warfare.

Last month, Adam told me, “In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it’s a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it’s just a message.”  So what’s the message here?

“Who knows what it means?” he said, but added, “It’s a message to bolster the regime of Kim Jong Un.  It’s sending a message to millions in North Korea.”



Legends of lucre, dreams of rule – Marco Polo, Queen Elizabeth, and Gina Lollabrigida

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

“How did he do it? And can we get some?”

That was the Age of Exploration’s takeaway on the story of King Solomon, said Steven Weitzman, author of Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom.  He was one of 18 authors speaking at Peter Stansky‘s annual “A Company of Authors,” celebrating the books published at Stanford over the previous year.  (I’ve written about Steve’s book before, here.)

Explorers sought not Solomon’s wisdom but rather his fabled lucre, and many of the fantasies centered on the biblical city of Ophir, said to be rolling in pots of gold.

We still have Christopher Columbus‘s very own edition of the book of Marco Polo‘s travels.  In the spot where Polo describes the island Cipano (i.e., Japan), Columbus scrawled in the margin “Ophir.” That’s how obsessed he was.

And then he went to look for it.  Of course, that’s not where he wound up.  He found himself on the coast of Panama instead.

A hundred years later, in 1596, Doña Isabella Baretto (Steve described her as “first female admiral in history”) took control of the fleet when her husband,  Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, died in the Solomon Islands.  But when she piloted the remaining crew into the harbor of Manila, the people hailed the haughty, regal widow in the streets as … the Queen of Sheba.

See?  They were stilling thinking about Solomon, far from the shores of Panama.

The book that launched a looting

The Queen of Sheba herself plays a big role in the fantasy life of the centuries.  In 1871, an ancient ruin discovered in Zimbabwe was thought to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and hence the last remnant of Solomonic architecture, echoing the glory of the Temple of Jerusalem.  (The local inhabitants were assumed to be too inept to have devised such sophisticated buildings themselves – it had to be an outside job.)

Of course the theory was debunked, but not before it inspired H. Rider Haggard‘s 1885 King Solomon’s Mines, and not before the “Great Zimbabwe” site was thoroughly looted.  “Solomon is steeped in pop culture,” said Steve – or perhaps the other way around.

Indiana Jones is our enduring contemporary souvenir of this legend.  For another, cheesier reminder, see the youtube video below.  Nothing like yesterday’s hot cha stuff to give you a fit of the giggles today – something young people should keep in mind when they take “sexy” photos of themselves.  Think of your children.  You don’t want them to ROTFLMAO, do you?


C'est moi

“I am Richard the Second. Know ye not that?”

Famous Shakespeare scholar Stephen Orgel, author of Spectacular Performances: Essays on Theatre, Imagery, Books, and Selves in Early Modern England, recounted the famous quote in context.  The queen was examining historical documents with her archivist, William Lambarde, when her eyes fell upon one about the reign of King Richard II.

The comment came towards the end of her reign, following Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601 and his subsequent execution. He had paid the Chamberlain’s Men to perform the troupe’s old chestnut – Shakepeare’s Richard II, chronicling the travails of the histrionic monarch – at the Globe on the eve of the rebellion.

Of course, the queen was referring to Essex’s attempt to plant the theme of deposed monarchs in the public mind, lining her up for the next heave-ho.

Then Orgel told us the bit we don’t normally hear, what the queen and her archivist said afterward.

She went on to natter with the archivist, asking him if he’d like to see the portrait of the Richard II she’d found and restored, which she’d stashed away somewhere in the palace (the basement, perhaps).

C'est moi, aussi

You guessed it.  She showed him the now-famous portrait now in Westminster Abbey – it’s the only portrait of Richard II that has survived.

It bears a striking resemblance to her own coronation portrait in 1559.  “Why would Elizabeth represent herself as her tragic ancestor?” Orgel asked.  One reason came to mind: Elizabeth’s throne was far from secure; she was the bastardized child of a monstrous father and a disgraced and beheaded queen. She survived imprisonment and two childless siblings to get the throne and was forever after fighting assassination plots.

Richard II was, in fact, the last English monarch to belong to an uncontested dynasty, with an uncontested claim to the throne. He was succeeded by the upstart Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, and left the realm to the short-lived Henry V, whose infant son, Henry VI, proved a disastrous king, leading to the bloody War of the Roses – from which Elizabeth’s grandfather, the  son of a Welsh knight, Henry VII, famously picked up the crown from the battlefield and put it on his head.

Apparently Elizabeth had not thought of the more ominous associations with Richard II when she sat for her splendid portrait, glittering like all the gold in Ophir.