Christopher Bernard reviews Ernest Hilbert’s poetry collection Last One Out

FATHERS AND SONS

Last One Out

Poems by Ernest Hilbert

Measure Press

Poet Ernest Hilbert, photo by Daniel Mitchell

One of the peculiar benefits of “postmodernism” (a misleading term, as we never left modernity; if anything, are deeper in it than ever) has been that the modernist wars between “free” and “closed” verse have become increasingly irrelevant. “Closed verse” took a beating under the onslaughts of the Poundians, “projective” versifiers, Beats, confessional poets, “language” poets, etc., till the inevitable conservative backlash. Now there seems to be an uneasy truce between ageing surrealists, the conversational poets of the Midwest (enshrined in Iowa), and the classicists of the East, with an archipelago of individualists, eccentrics, and eclectics, who like to pretend, at least, that, by picking and choosing at poetry’s magnanimous banquet, and disdaining purity and puritanism, they enjoy the best of all poetries.

There has been a resurgence of interest, among practitioners at least, in the classical forms of English verse: sonnet, villanelle, sestina, blank verse, and the like, wed to grammatical exactness, logical complexity, strict metrics, and deep metaphor. The younger generation works in the tradition of the late Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, and X. J. Kennedy; some of their better known modern-day exponents include Dana Gioia and Marion Montgomery.

Ernest Hilbert is rapidly becoming, for this reader, one of the most accomplished of these poets, with a wealth of imagination wedded to honesty of insight, integrity of vision, respect for form, and delight in the harmonies of language (including a strong appreciation for the Anglo-Saxon roots of English prosody that subtly inflects his own practices) that is second to none. His latest book, his fourth major collection, establishes him, I believe, as one of our leading poets. Reading him is not a little like the following lines about a hot summer day in downtown Philadelphia:

Stores prop open doors to lure in buyers:

Banks of icy air waft out in columns,

And I cross through one and nearly shiver.

 

As I emerge again to warmth,

I remember swimming in cedar lakes

That flashed like dirty tin in summer.

 

His new book is deeply retrospective. It begins with poems about himself as son and grandson, with a poem (titled, only half ironically, “Welcome to all the Pleasures”) about his grandfather “teaching” him to swim:

He hoisted me in summer air,

Spun me out over

 

The sluggish murk and let go.

I swear the river had no bottom.

 

This surge of terror and pleasure enwrapped ecstatically, with just enough of a gap between them for perception to piece through, as one is tossed into being out of oblivion, is captured more than once in these poems.

From Grandpa’s brutal lesson in confronting life, we are soon in the bright presence of Hilbert’s father practicing on the local church organ:

His eyeglasses lit from the bulb,

Bearded, he eased his bulk onto the bench,

Rifling folders of music in manuscript.

 

The huge organ rumbled in chorales,

Roared enormous chords, stopping midway

Through a passage, consigning a long resonance

 

From transept into the beamed vault of the nave . . .

 

while the young Ernest:

. . . explored while he scribbled notes on the sheets,

At times a subtle oath or cheerful “ha!”

While working on his Bach transcriptions.

. . .

Never before would I have been so low

To the floor and childlike, not at services

With the adults. It felt like a discovery.

 

The discoveries open into a lifetime.

 

One of the book’s finest poems is the climactic one in this deeply personal visit to his past contained in the book’s earliest section: “Great Bay Estuary,” set in the present but reliving similar boat trips with his father decades before:

Chuckling gulls luft up to swipe and hang

In muggy air over the riverside’s

Deadfall—jagged white as a splintered ice-flow.

A tern goes and returns like a boomerang

Across the scene.

 

In the poems that follow, we engage with neighborhoods in the poet’s home city and visits to the Chelsea Hotel in New York City:

We made love here,

Face down in summer

 

River for hours,

Pulled toward

 

Softening surf

Of a warmer ocean.

 

Snow-rigged galleons

Of cloud curl apart

 

Far above the city.

They perish and astound.

 

Then onward to the jazzing streets of New Orleans; to a glacier he bracingly clambers up; to the Sinai peninsula and a graveyard of blasted military vehicles, where:

The tank’s heavy as a dune,

Its patina matured to match the neighboring rocks . . .

 

Another has lost its turtle-like turret,

A hollow half-shell, dish for rare rainfall,

And one last, at an angle to the rest,

 

Its glacis plate sunk in sand, probing smoothbore

Angled down, as if to acknowledge

A long-ago blow and loss, and bows forever.

 

To Leningrad, and Shostakovich’s browbeating Seventh Symphony; to London and an antiquarian bookseller’s meeting, where:

Lord Markham appears to doze, looks drowsily

From his marble recess to Bayswater

And the Serpentine, undaunted, ignored.

 

And a man’s:

. . . voice ebbs in the breeze. Cell phones chirp.

Airliners roar overhead. Pigeons startle themselves.

. . .

His lips move for a while. He gestures dreamily

With his silver prize, his wife looking on,

And the sun burns through marble clouds,

Pools the rims of his glasses with mercury.

 

Woven through these journeys outward are those inward, wayward visits of memory from a squeezed tube of sunscreen (“It dreams like a bay in the humid light / Still promising summers already gone”), to visits of a commonly felt dread, a paranoia of the double-bind that has an uncomfortable basis in contemporary reality many reading this passage are likely to recognize:

You feel as if you’re being stalked

Today and don’t know who to trust.

. . .

           “The system cannot be unlocked.

           Your password has expired and must

           Be changed.” “You must log in with your

           Password in order to make a change.”

 

To the sheer sensuous joys of living, blazons to beer and martinis, and ocean floating:

I float for years, it seems, toes out

Small planes drone down the coast

 

To tow out ads for bars and bands or beer

As proud sea birds screech loud and strut . . .

 

To the oldest avatars of the inescapable past:

 

In the house, at night, I wait for a ghost

To present itself in the creaking halls.

. . .

But no ghost, not yet. When I rise at night

For the bathroom, past the empty spare rooms,

 

I feel a boy’s fingers, faint as snow, on my wrist.

 

Having begun with memories from childhood, of his father and grandfather, the collection ends with the poet as father, beginning with a gentle paean to his wife and ending with celebrations of his young infant son. And son meets son.

I always expect rich, fine gifts from Hilbert, and always get more than I expected. There are few weaknesses: perhaps a tendency to the portentous (there are perhaps one or two too many references to “darkness” and “kings”), and sometimes the gravitas is more than is warranted; the work might be leavened by a lighter, swifter touch here and there. But these are quibbles; one can make the same points about Milton.

Last One Out is elegant and athletic, eloquent and brave, deeply thought and felt; the work of someone who, if we survive, may well become one of our classics. Poems like these helped make me fall in love with poetry when I was a teenager. May they have the same effect on some young reader today.


Christopher Bernard’s fourth collection of poems, The Socialist’s Garden of Verses, will appear in spring 2020. His third novel, Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Café, will appear in January 2020.

Christopher Bernard reviews Eunice Odio’s new collection The Fire’s Journey Part III: The Cathedral’s Work

EXPLOSION IN THE CATHEDRAL

 

The Fire’s Journey: Part III: The Cathedral’s Work

By Eunice Odio

Translated by Keith Ekiss with Sonia P. Ticas and Mauricio Espinoza

Tavern Books

 

Eunice Odio

 

A review by Christopher Bernard

 

 

Eunice Odio, considered by many to be Costa Rica’s greatest twentieth-century poet, spent most of her life in Mexico City and published volumes of poetry as well as essays and short fiction; her most important work being El tránsito de fuego, “The Fire’s Journey,” which (and in particular the third part under review) brings to my mind, along with the psychological themes of C.G. Jung, the prophetic books of William Blake, with their wealth of creative mythology, epic dimensions, obscure allusiveness, complex rhetoric and intellectual demands, and even some of their political implications. The poem thus far (the concluding part four is slated for future release) has been brought into frequently brilliant English by Odio’s translator, the poet Keith Ekiss, with help from Sonia P. Ticas and Mauricio Espinoza – we are in their debt for bringing so much of the work of this poet finally to the attention of anglophone readers.

 

The third part of Odio’s monumental epic of creation of self and world can be read (thanks to the translator’s helpful introduction) without having read the first two, “Integration of the Parents” and “Creation of Myself.” But it would be disingenuous not to recommend doing so; a little homework in this regard can go a long way to warming the reader to the poet’s unique symbolic vocabulary, her rhetorical leaps and rapid shifts, and often elliptical lyrical flights. We enter a forest, with few paths opened for us, and dense with meanings, some of a deceptive clarity and simplicity, many evocatively obscure, under a skyscape of clouds and twilight and peopled by often only half-seen characters, of misty outlines and gigantic presence, forcefully symbolic, willful, fierce, like figures in a dream whose demands leave us unable either to wake up or sleep on.

 

I won’t pretend this part is as easy to take in as the earlier ones. Despite the cascades of brilliant details that illuminate every page, the poem can seem willfully obscure and confusing on first reading, though it unlocks its meanings less reluctantly upon reacquaintance.

 

The epic’s first two parts brought us the chaos and void of the beginning of all things, the cloudy retort of the void and the womb, followed by the creation of the poem’s central character, a poet, god, creator and sufferer named Ion, named after the complex figure from Greek mythology of notoriously ambiguous identity and birth.

 

Part three, “The Cathedral’s Work” (itself divided into three parts: “All Things Created,” “Opposite Dreams” [though “Opposing Dreams” might have made its contents plainer] and “The Cathedral’s Work”) throws us into a world that is in some obscure sense Ion’s responsibility: he partly creates, or at least assembles it, even as he is created by it. He (for Ion is definitely male) is called on by various members of the world to provide them with essential things: a horse, a bird, a stone; from the stone a column, a vault, a wall, an apse; in the end a cathedral.

 

Ion is at once namer of the world (for from his words beings come) and dreamer of the world:

 

4th MAN

Who is the man who sleeps?

 

5th MAN

A vagabond flung on the morning,

who else could he be?

 

6th MAN

Who is this ragged man?

 

7th MAN

I know the one who sleeps

 

3rd MAN

You know the one who lies asleep?

 

7th MAN

He is the maker of all things

 

Ion works in Gemini-like tandem with an older brother figure, introduced in part two, with whom he has a conflicted but essential relationship, Daedalus, named after the Greek inventor and builder of Minos’ famed labyrinth and the wings by which he and his son Icarus flew, escaping Crete – the “patron saint” of technology and distant, troubling father of Silicon Valley.

Various, obscure figures appear throughout the book – appear and usually disappear, never to be heard from again, at least in part three: for example, Gune and Andros (female and male humans) who open this part of the poem by asking Ion to help them, in their endless labor on the earth, by providing them with

 

A beast of uncontainable body—

an animal that’s gentle within

like a tree’s orbit in its shadow

firm outside

fully born in all its extremities

 

ivory hooves, curved and narrow

 

the voice long

 

reaching the pastoral stars without faltering;

hills and laborers hear it up high

 

all throughout

 

our afternoon

 

And Ion sends Daedalus to search and capture a creature that will meet their needs, and Daedalus goes forth and steals a horse:

 

. . . a flash, long as God’s syllables

and strong as day.

 

. . .

 

. . . so male, so transparently young

so exactly the heat of my thought.

 

. . .

 

The horse is truth.

 

There is a companion and helpmate in creation named Arkhos (his name based on the Greek root meaning “in the beginning,” although he appears to be a “son” of Ion).

 

There is Shed – a woman, though something like a female principle, a Jungian “anima” figure, who craves of Ion the knowledge of “what she wants.” There is Nebo the Seer, and a chorus of children, and a group of unnamed men (alluded to above) who demand to see the “bird” Ion has created from the word “bird” (“pajaro” in Spanish), then use the “stone,” which Ion found with Daedalus’s help, to kill it.

 

And there are many others, some only mentioned, others appearing and speaking: the father of Ion, Odon, as well as other sons of Odon, including Thauma (ancient Greek for marvel or wonder) and Logos (Greek for reason or “the Word,” as it appears in the opening lines of the Gospel According to John).

 

The relationship between Ion and these creatures remains tantalizingly ambiguous: are they separate creations (as it would seem at least some of them must be) or were they in some sense willed into creation by Ion? Ion himself does not seem to know: we may be in the presence of a god whose unconscious is as willful, wayward, yet fruitful, as the unconscious impulses of human beings. He calls himself “pluranimous” and, at one point, “possessed,” as by demons: “The Name of the Word is Legion”: he is single yet plural, one yet many, his many parts in conflict; a crowd of loneliness.

 

The climax of the poem is the creation of the Cathedral – a work of worship, containment and illumination for the spirit – but which is contaminated by a demonic presence (perhaps Ion’s “shadow,” to use the Jungian term) and must be demolished stone by stone, then rebuilt into its intended splendor in part three’s closing pages:

 

The sky pauses when you pass by, pure

unpredictable presence of the air, Cathedral,

capital of the heights, a straight delirious flower.

 

The sky pauses

when you pass by, as you become visible ecstasy

 

. . .

 

Oh, Cathedral, oh palace of flight!

Oh, edifice on its journey through dawn!

 

_____

 

Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.

 

Christopher Bernard reviews Cal Berkeley Performances’ show 17c

Scene from 17c, by Big Dance Theater

BURNING DIARIES

 

A review by Christopher Bernard

 

17c

Big Dance Theater

Zellerbach Playhouse

Berkeley, California

 

Diaries: those curious amalgams of introspection, examination of conscience, honesty (or the lack of it), performance of the self in the mirror of the mind, costumery of the soul, writing of one’s own story, exhibitionism, exploration, assassination, and secrecy. Some claim the modern diary—part narcissistic parade before oneself, part genuine confession of faults, part self-indulgence, part self-flagellation, which today has morphed, from the soul communing with itself into social networks’ exhibitionism and the genius for banality of writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard—was invented by Samuel Pepys.

Pepys was a Londoner, an administrator in the Royal Navy, and member of Parliament, who kept a regular diary for ten years, between 1660 and 1669, between the ages of 27 and 36, which was discovered and published to instant, and continuing, fascination by the public. People have been poking at Pepys ever since, with multiple editions, the earlier ones bowdlerized, the more recent ones even more complete than some might want, and including an online version, www.pepysdiary.com, which provides a typical entry for the day on which you visit (on the day I visited, it was the entry for December 14, 1665), and is constantly being annotated by fans and others.

One can find little to pity the poor fellow after exhibiting his own weaknesses with as much relish as this philandering, self-absorbed, self-promoting, epicene, self-deceiving, obsessive recorder of his own misbehavior—even if he never meant it to be read or (heaven forbid!) published!

Of course this begs the question haunting all diarists before and since: doesn’t every diarist secretly hope to be read, published, honored, become “famous”? (Full disclosure: I have been myself a more or less regular diarist since I was eleven.) Of course we do! We lie if we claim otherwise; at the very least, we hope some particular person will look it over with a sympathetic eye: a parent, a lover, oneself when old, God.

We rarely daydream about a critic, scholar, artist, interrogater who, though in all good humor, is as frank about you, sir, as you seem to be about yourself.

Which brings us to 17c, which, as part of its stimulating, and much-needed, RADICAL Women’s Work series, Cal Performances brought into town in mid-December: Big Dance Theater’s award-winning, dry-eyed exploration, witty send-up, and political meditation on Pepys’ voluminous self-revelation. And after the wave of political gains by progressive women in the last elections, it could hardly be more timely or more welcome.

The smart, juicy, often funny piece plays with dance, monodrama, dialogue, music, sketch comedy, play-within-a-play and mime to create a good-humored but well-deserved deconstruction of the life, as self-depicted, of the legendary diarist—and notorious disrespecter of women.

Pepys lays himself completely open to a feminist interrogation of his life: a compulsive philanderer, he is caught at least once by his wife in flagrante with the family maid, and he describes, briefly but indubitably, a rape. Both incidents appear in the piece, the first in an extended reading, updated to modern argot, in a very funny monolog by Paul Lazar, the second in a brief, devastating recitation of one of the diary’s darkest entries. Though, unfortunately, not its darkest.

For all the comedy, tragedy, and farce of Pepys’ depiction of his own life, the soul of 17c is not to be found there: that lies in the invisible words, the burning diaries, of Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth, or Bess, performed with grace and wit in a 2017 Bessie Award-winning performance by Elizabeth DeMent.

Bess’s silence plays in counterpoint to Pepys’ logorrhea. And the two come together in clash to reconciliation, to clash again, to bedward bliss to masculine displays of economic power parading as acts of contrition, until the fatal day comes when the diarist’s profound cruelty goes on display for all to see: when he discovers that Bess is also keeping a diary, rips out the pages one at a time, and at last burns them all. And he is not even ashamed to report it, though the irony of his action seems lost on him. He never seems to occur to him that the only way to spare himself eternal exposure would be to destroy his own.

The script sometimes suffers from a certain intellectual myopia (the claims in the introductory monologue that life and existence are “meaningless” are tendentious at best; my own response to such contemporary shibboleths is “prove it”) and from moral anachronism: that Pepys married Elizabeth when she was fourteen needs richer exploration than a flippant self-righteousness.

The otherwise intensely clever script was written and adapted by Anne-B Parson, and includes texts from Euripides, Eugène Ionesco, and Claire Tomalin as well as from the unperformed playwright and contemporary of Pepys, Margaret Cavendish, a stripped-down version of whose satirical and “radical feminist” play, The Convent of Pleasures, was performed as a play-within-a-play. Some of 17c’s most entertaining and perceptive scenes are based on the often wonderfully weird visitor comments from www.pepysdiary.com. The other players included sprightly Kourtney Rutherford and Cynthia Hopkins and a wittily voguing Mikéah Jennings.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On a personal note, Christopher Bernard was inspired to create this poem about Samuel Pepys after seeing 17c:

 

I Do Not Love Thee, Samuel Pepys

 

By Christopher Bernard

 

I do not love thee, Samuel Pepys.

Alas, and zounds! I cannot see

what all those readers see in thee.

Thou givest me, always, the creeps.

 

Inventor of the diary

as paper version of FB

in the seventeenth century,

I’ll give you that, most willingly.

 

But nothing more. He sows who reaps.

You are too close to that which keeps

me up all night. He dreams he leaps,

to drown, who can’t escape the deep.

 

We laugh, we glare.

But will we dare

when we’re laid bare,

and Samuel peeps?

 

He falls who cannot rise; he sleeps.

But acts are hard, and words are cheap.

I do not love thee, cannot bear thee.

In thee I see me, Samuel Pepys.

_____

Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.

Christopher Bernard reviews ‘Custodians of Beauty’ from Pavel Zustiak and the Palissimo Company at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

 

Viktor De La Fuente, Justin Morrison, and Emma Judkins in Custodians of Beauty (Photo by Liz Lynch)

Viktor De La Fuente, Justin Morrison, and Emma Judkins in Custodians of Beauty (Photo by Liz Lynch)

 

A review by Christopher Bernard

For beauty is nothing

but the beginning of terror . . .

—Rilke

Custodians of Beauty

Pavel Zuštiak and Palissimo Company

Zellerbach Playhouse

Berkeley, California

One of the many peculiarities of our post-postmodern age (though a clearer term for it would be “hypermodern”) has been the attempt to deconstruct (a polite word for “demolish”) certain terms of value that have come down to us through the ages of Western civilization: “truth,” “goodness,” “equality,” “freedom,” “liberal,” “democracy,” and the like.

One of the terms that has received special scrutiny in certain purviews of academia (where such demolitions are practiced, frequently under the innocent eyes of college students) has been “beauty.”

I always ask myself why such demolitions are performed: why would anyone want to deconstruct “truth” or “freedom” or “love”? Why would someone want to destroy “beauty”?

Knowing who will gain by such demolitions is often more fruitful than knowing who will lose. For, if we lost “beauty,” most people, I think, would agree that we would lose much that makes life worth living. But who would gain by it? One can understand why some feminists might, with good cause, resent “beauty,” since “beauty” has been used against women by men since the beginning of time: men have a weakness in worshiping beautiful women and despising ugly ones. And the most beautiful woman in the world knows that her beauty is only temporary: it is only a matter of time before she will lose it and fall into the worthless category of the ugly.

One common argument is that “beauty” creates “ugliness,” and that if we lost “beauty” as a value, we would lose “ugliness” as a pejorative. This, however, remains to be proved. It strikes me as, at best, unlikely: without “beauty” we would not lose “ugliness.” We would merely end up with nothing.

Which brings us to the modern dance performance, “Custodians of Beauty,” by Pavel Zuštiak and the NewYork‒based Palissimo Company, which was performed over a recent weekend in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances’ dance series.

This dance clearly belongs to the ongoing discussion of the meaning and value of beauty. “Custodians of Beauty” takes its title seriously and with less irony than one might have expected. Zuštiak’s dance is (as I read it) about exploring the boundaries of what we think of as “beautiful” and “ugly,” and breaking threw them, in order to find “beauty” where we might least expect to find it: for example, in industrial noise, in half-broken bodies, in mind-numbing repetition, pointless posturing and semaphores of nonsense, in asexual forms of nudity, in inelegance, cross-dressing, smoke and darkness and embarrassment and silliness and shame. There is even some dancing that pretends hard not to be—as dance is, for some of us, the very definition of classic forms of beauty.

And it almost succeeds. Though that “almost” is a bit wider than one might have hoped.

The roughly hour and a half work is broken into some fifteen to twenty scenelets, performed against two large movable  panels, one of them a greenish-gray, the other a heavy scarlet red scored over with Cy Twombly-like marks and scratches. The three dancers dance before and between the screens, often making alphabet-like shapes, or taking enigmatic poses, or deaf-mute signing; their shadows thrown in dramatic shadows against them, creating phantom crowds.

At one point the three appear, seminude, wrapped in and around each other, with rumps thrust in the air like mushrooms and, in a long choreographic tour de force, role together complexly across the stage, uncoiling limbs and exposing torsos without once revealing their faces, until at the very last moment they rise to a stand and turn to the audience, defiantly human after recapitulating an evolution from some primordial fungus.

Other scenes include words spoken, screened, sung: a song based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, words spoken to the audience (in one instance, three audience members were invited to the stage, and stood, awkwardly but good-naturedly, defying us to think them less worthy of attention than the dancers they momentarily replaced), words screened against the back wall; taken from what appear to be typical comments after an avant-garde dance performances, and echoing no doubt what some in the current audience were thinking or would share with each other after the show: “What was that? Did it mean anything? I almost . . . liked it.” This dance certainly displayed a good-natured sense of humor.

At one point the smoke machine was put to use, and a cloud of steam rose in the dimly lit auditorium, slowly dissipating over the audience’s heads. At another point, an enormous black screen was pulled over the heads of the audience, from the front row to the back, one row at a time by the audience themselves after being initiated by the dancers.

At another point, an extravagant shadow was thrown against the back screen and a man in a dress appeared, mincing grandly in defiance of classic attitudes of masculine beauty (always more conservative than the feminine).

And there was a spoof of a grand finale, as the three dancers trembled and shook and pogoed around the stage to dance-club music like wound-up puppets, before a coda where, in half-seen shadows, one of the male dancers strenuously waved a huge, indecipherable banner, though whether in triumph or in futile defiance we will never know.

I found my best experience of this dance while writing about it: while watching it, on the other hand, I often felt vaguely irritated, despite the first feeling of intrigue as each part began, then out-stayed its welcome. The dance as a whole would have been a feast if, so to speak, it had been closer to a snack; as it was, it felt undernourished, repetitious, and thin; editing it down to an hour would probably strengthen its overall effect. Also it was not quite as original as it intended: these motives and these moves I have encountered more than once since deconstruction’s hey-day in the 1980s and the advent of “antidance” in Europe over the last decade or more.

Pavel Zuštiak provided “direction, choreography and olfactory design” (though, to be frank, I failed to detect any untoward smells, good or bad), the simple but effective lighting was by Joe Levasseur, and the eerie, sometimes deliberately needling, and (when called for) effectively ironic music was by Christian Frederickson. The able, brave and vulnerable dancers were Viktor De La Fuente, Emma Judkins, and Justin Morrison.

_____

Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.

 

Christopher Bernard reviews the San Francisco MoMa’s Etel Adnan exhibit

 

 

Explosion Florale

 

OLD JOY

 

A review by Christopher Bernard

New Work

Etel Adnan

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Until January 6, 2019

It is tempting to call Etel Adnan a contemporary instance of the “late bloomer”: someone whose work came into its own after most people’s lives have begun winding down.

But it may be more accurate to call us, in this instance, the “late bloomers,” almost scandalously delayed, as we have been, in recognizing what has been blossoming vigorously among us all this time.

Because, at 93, Adnan is finally receiving her due for a body of work she has been creating for more than half a century and continues to create, oblivious to age, at a dazzling rate.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit (curated with particular perceptiveness and sensitivity by Eungie Joo, the museum’s curator of contemporary art) succeeds admirably in introducing us to Etel Adnan’s spirit and gifts in oil painting, tapestries, and ink drawings (she is also an important poet, novelist, and playwright, but more about that later).

The oils paintings (fifteen in all, and all created this year) dominate the show: small, powerfully composed color-field works, with flat, brilliantly balanced colored geometric forms (anchoring squares and sun-like circles dominating some, dramatic valley and mountain forms dominating others, and sinuous root and mineral-like shapes dominating yet others), that consistently fascinate the eye, both stimulating and calming the emotions, with the economy that is achieved in only the maturest art.

Adnan’s simple forms indeed display the care and practice of a long lifetime, their economy balanced with vitality and the artist’s subtle and invigorating sense of color and tone. One looks at these paintings of an unsurpassed simplicity impressed by how they also manage to be so dynamic.

Adnan’s ongoing recognition has included retrospectives in major galleries, appearances in important exhibits of work by woman artists in New York and in Europe, including dOCUMENTA (13), and two magnificently produced monographs published this year. This is her first exhibition at SFMOMA, in the Bay Area where she lived for many years – years, appositely for this exhibit, when she discovered herself as an artist. In fact this museum is an important source of Adnan’s deceptively naïve and childlike aesthetic, as it houses the Djerassi collection of Paul Klee, whose work (and that collection in particular), had enormous early influence on her own art, as the artist herself has attested.

It is worth noting that Adnan is not only an artist of concentrated grace but, having begun her creative life as a philosopher and poet (in French and, later, English), is now accepted as one of the most innovative and influential modern writers from the Arab world.

Etel Adnan’s life spans several continents: born of a Turkish father and Greek mother in Beirut (where she was educated in French; French becoming her first “literary” language), she won a scholarship in 1949 to the Sorbonne in Paris, where she met the writer André Gide and studied under philosophers Gaston Bachelard and Etienne Souriau. Six years later she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue doctoral work in esthetics at the University of California, Berkeley. During her years in the Bay Area, she began experimenting with painting and drawing, creating her first leporellos (a specialty of the artist’s), books made of long, folded paper opening out like long friezes, in which Adnan incorporates both poetry and art.

Late in the 1960s, while teaching philosophy, Adnan also began designing tapestries, two of which are on view here. In the early 1970s she returned to Beirut, where she edited a leading newspaper’s culture section. With the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon, she settled briefly in Paris, later returning to the Bay Area where she published her award-winning first novel, Sitt Marie Rose, her most read and translated book.

Adnan lived just north of San Francisco, near the foot of Mt. Tamalpais. The mountain, which dominates the northern skyline across from the Golden Gate (I can see it from my window even as I write this), became, in its many moods of shadow, sun, and rain, one of the most important motifs in both her poetry and painting, as clearly evidenced in this show. She lived, wrote, and painted in that place for a number of years before, now in her nineties, finally settling permanently in Paris.

The show’s two tapestries (one from 1968, a ragged dance of oranges and yellows broken by rivers of blue; the other, a swirl of blossoms and petals against an azure and purple background, titled “Explosion Florale,” designed in 1968 and completed in 2018) are amoebic swathes of shape and color. The drawings in the three leporellos display dramatic flourishes of ink and energetic marks of an almost ecstatic joyfulness.

In fact, the note struck by Etel Adnan’s work over the years, whether in paint, drawing, tapestry, or words (and a disclosure is due here: I have known Etel Adnan since she lived in the Bay Area, and have been following her career in writing and art for a long time), is the very note she strikes in person: an overflowing of love and affection, joy and gratitude for the life and people around her, for everyone who meets her, and for those who are lucky enough to enjoy a greatness of spirit that radiates like so many suns from her art.

It is only right that the Bay Area, one of her many homes, and the one where she discovered herself as an artist, should celebrate this triumphant art that rose among us.

There are a few artists who blossomed throughout a long lifetime, rising to ever greater heights in their great age: Titian, Matisse, Picasso, Michelangelo, Renoir, Rembrandt. Only time will tell, of course, but to this select number it may one day seem perfectly appropriate, even obvious, to add the name Etel Adnan.

The museum store offers for sale, along with the monographs mentioned above, three of Adnan’s most recent books: Premonition, Night, and Surge – thought-provoking, beautifully written works of philosophical prose poetry as accessible and enlivening in words as her art is in form and color.

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Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.

 

Poem from Christopher Bernard

W. E. S. Owen: Sambre-Oise Canal, November 4, 1918

 

                        Afterward—little spring become prattling rill

                        grown rushing stream through the Shropshire meadows,

                        flower-dappled, by damp shade trees

                        and fragrant fields littered with picnic laughter,

                        brotherly sniping, early loves, later loving, faith

                        won, and lost, then won again, and then lost again—

                        until it stepped into the garish sun

                        above an annihilated plain,

                        and the cool water filled with the casings

                        of spent shells and the crimson tunics

                        of lost boys and the stench of war,

                        the purer air rent with shouting

                        and the drunken symphony of the guns—

                        after the warm and witty words flowing

                        from a young man scratching over his knapsack

                        by candlelight or gaslight

                        or a glow of Vereys and flares—

                        after the warm life and the flowing life and the life-like seas of words

                        opening on that other life that always happens elsewhere—

                        the single bullet riving the early morning air

                        on the bank of the canal where all of that stream was flowing—

 

                        the stop of it all, in the mud, like a hammer.

 

                        A stunned silence in the throbbing of the guns.

 

                        An unbelief in a no choice but to believe.

 

                        So it—now man, young or old, no longer—falls—

                        like Nineveh, Ur, and rich Babylon—

                        back into the darkness,

                        a face fading into the waters of an infinite silence:

                        it was.

 

Christopher Bernard reviews Sasha Waltz and Guests’ performance of Korper at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall

THE PERILS OF THE FLESH

 

Sasha Waltz & Guests: Körper

Sasha Waltz & Guests: Körper

 

Körper

Sasha Waltz & Guests

Zellerbach Hall

Berkeley, California

 

As part of their much-welcome “Women’s Work” series, Cal Performances recently brought Sasha Waltz & Guests’ provocative dance “Körper” to Berkeley. “Women’s Work,” the latest instalment (titled with definite tongue in cheek) in the “Berkeley RADICAL” series, brings a much-needed corrective to what has too often been a male-dominated world.

As an unapologetic straight white Eurocentric male myself (to put my cards smartly on the table), I applaud, and cheer, the impulse behind this. The modern world has been over-driven by testosterone since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and the autocratic isms that have followed, beginning not least with capitalism, and has left us careening toward an Armageddon of our own making. More than ever before, the world needs a woman’s touch – the deep generosity of woman’s concern for the vulnerable, for others besides themselves; an essentialism that I suspect not even the most deep-dyed feminist will deny, at least privately. What bothers me about feminism, however, is that it too often has bought into the masculinist, and hubristic, assumptions of liberalism, voluntarism, individualism, modernity and the Enlightenment project, and by doing so merely has strengthened the chains that bind us all. Some feminists do not seem to realize that their liberation – and our salvation – requires that we overcome, and replace, modernity itself. Otherwise it will not be merely our souls that are lost.

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