The Dance of Foreground, Background, and All the Figures Between

'Broadway Boogie-Woogie,' by Piet Mondrian: oil on canvas (1943)

[Image: Broadway Boogie-Woogie (oil on canvas, 1943), by Piet Mondrian. For more details, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The art of living is based on rhythm — on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all the aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, “the dance of life”… The real function of the dance is — metamorphosis. One can dance to sorrow or to joy; one can even dance abstractly… But the point is that, by the mere act of dancing, the elements which compose it are transformed; the dance is an end in itself, just like life. The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn. It is also the first thing a patient has to learn when he confronts the analyst. It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.

(Henry Miller [source])


About Angels and About Trees

Where do angels
fly in the firmament,
and how many can dance
on the head of a pin?

Well, I don’t care
about that pin dance,
what I know is that
they rest, sometimes,
in the tops of the trees

and you can see them,
or almost see them,
or, anyway, think: what a
wonderful idea.

I have lost as you and
others have possibly lost a
beloved one,
and wonder, where are they now?

The trees, anyway, are
miraculous, full of
angels (ideas); even
empty they are a
good place to look, to put
the heart at rest — all those
leaves breathing the air, so

peaceful and diligent, and certainly
ready to be
the resting place of
strange, winged creatures
that we, in this world, have loved.

(Mary Oliver [source])


Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. The flight extended like a fluttering banner, an unfurled oriflamme, in either direction as far as I could see. Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Over my head I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

After half an hour, the last of the stragglers had vanished into the trees. I stood with difficulty, bashed by the unexpectedness of this beauty, and my spread lungs roared. My eyes pricked from the effort of trying to trace a feathered dot’s passage through a weft of limbs. Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?

(Annie Dillard [source])

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Weekend Music Break: Joey Alexander, “My Favorite Things”

James Gulliver Hancock: Joey Alexander's 'My Favorite Things'

[Image: Album art by James Gulliver Hancock, for Joey Alexander’s debut, My Favorite Things (2015).]

One of the most famous descriptions of some unlikely cultural phenomenon or another goes like this, taking various specific forms depending on the phenomenon in question:

Sir, [phenomenon] is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Joey AlexanderThe original comes from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, quoting SJ himself. There, the phenomenon is “a woman’s preaching.” But it’s hard for me not to think of the quip in connection with Joey Alexander’s jazz piano work. Because — beautifully fluid, virtuosic, inspired, inspiring though it may be — at the time he recorded and released this debut album a few months ago, he was all of eleven years old. The photo at right (click it to enlarge) is one of my favorites from the little booklet enclosed with the album — it should give you some idea of the marvel of the cultural phenomenon of the moment.

I don’t want to make too much of this as a novelty. (In writing about Alexander, one New York Times observer said, “The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading.”) No, really — all I wanted to do was to offer you a solid hour of nice, not-at-all challenging weekend listening.

Joey Alexander: My Favorite Things

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Unfolding into Time

Webb telescope: unfolding test

[Image: Testing the unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield (photo via NASA, 2014-07-10). Per the NASA site, the Webb telescope “will be a powerful time machine with infrared vision that will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe.” For a visualization of the complete unfolding of the telescope post-launch — all components, including the sunshield — see this video.]

[See the note at the foot of this post]

From whiskey river:

Poem for My Birthday

I have stopped being the heroine
of my bad dreams. The melodramas
of betrayal and narrow escapes
from which I wake up grateful
for an unexciting life
are starring my troubled young friend
or one of my daughters. I’m not the one
who swims too far out to sea;
I am the one who waves from shore
vainly and in despair.
Life is what happens to someone else;
I stand on the sidelines and wring my hands.
Strange that my dreams should have accepted
the minor role I’ve been cast in
by stories since stories began.
Does that mean I have solved my life?
I’m still afraid in my dreams, but not for myself.
Fear gets rededicated
with a new stone that bears a needier name.

(Lisel Mueller [source])


Four in the morning, cold and still but for the buzz of my yard light as it talks to the one up the hill at my neighbor’s. Mine says it feels the earth spinning it out to the end of its post, like a drop of light that might at any instant shake off into the stars, but my neighbor’s says that’s nonsense, the typical thing you can expect to hear from a poet’s lamp: Nothing on earth can feel that centrifugal force. As for me, I know how light on their legs the fat mice are as they carry the dog food, nugget by nugget, feeling the warmth spin away from the earth, and how the trees are flushed at this time of the year with the effort of holding leaves. Oh, yes, there is a steady tug from the Milky Way, and I can feel my fingers lifting just a little away from these keys, not touching and then touching again, one tap and then another.

So light I am, so light is my heart when I am up early, trying to write.

(Ted Kooser [source])

…and (from the commonplace book):

The Dead

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.

(Susan Mitchell [source])

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Midweek Music Break: Linda Ronstadt, “Long, Long Time”

Ronstadt (from Rosenbaum's 'Melancholy Baby,' Esquire Magazine, October 1985)In an issue of Esquire Magazine, back in the 1980s, I read a piece by Ron Rosenbaum called “Melancholy Baby,” which opened by talking about the saddest songs ever: great heartbreak songs. (At left is, I believe, the photo which opened the article.)

Eventually, as it turned out, the article was a wonderful, more general report of an interview over dinner with Linda Ronstadt. (Be still, my then 30-something-years-old heart… another reason why I never forgot that article.) But it began with a discussion of this song in specific, as maybe the saddest-of-the-sad.

Ronstadt herself remembered the recording session:

I can remember the day I recorded “Long, Long Time”… It was 10:30 in the morning, but I was really into this kind of achy feeling, because the music — it’s in these chords. I think my phrasing was horrible, I think I kind of butchered it, but it is definitely in those chords. And it happened to the musicians, who are jaded session players. As soon as the fiddle player and Weldon Myrick, who’s the steel guitar, began to play those chords, they got real into that and became personally involved.

(It wasn’t in that article, as I thought I remembered, but I think I once read another detail of the session: that Ronstadt had a cold, or a respiratory infection — something like that, maybe with a fever — and just felt 100% incapable physically of recording anything.)

Here’s what Rosenbaum himself said of the song:

Do you remember “Long, Long Time”? If you haven’t heard it, you’re lucky. Because from the opening weeping steel-guitar hook, the song is paralyzingly sad. By the time she reaches the final refrain… it has managed to reopen every aching wound of romantic loss you’ve ever experienced, and some you haven’t yet. A legendary classic killer sad song.

There’s almost a kind of superstitious cult around the lethal tear-jerking power of this song. Like the one that grew up in previous generations around “Gloomy Sunday.” People would talk about that song in hushed and superstitious tones and refer to rumors that because it was the cause of so many suicides, it had been banned from the airwaves; it was just too lethally sad. I knew several women who swore they’d worn the grooves thin in “Long, Long Time” jags, playing it over and over again addictively to exorcise their hearts of sorrow.

I don’t have much to add to his comments. I will say, though, that if I ever wrote a book of Great Moments in Ronstadt History, “Long, Long Time” would have a chapter all its own.

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Book Review: Mort(e), by Robert Repino

Cover: 'Mort(e),' by Robert RepinoStriking cover, wot? About which I’ll have more to say later, but for now you can already tell a few things about the book even if you haven’t read about it elsewhere:

  • You might wonder about the color, but clearly a cat — or at least catness in general — figures prominently herein.
  • The fonts are strikingly artificial. (Cutouts? Stencils?)
  • And although any old cover includes the book’s title, this cover practically fetishizes the title’s… well, the title’s novelty, its weirdness. It doesn’t just include but highlights the internal parentheses: it makes you notice them.

So let’s concede those details right up front (er, so to speak):

Yes, Mort(e) features a cat — not incidentally, but as its protagonist. The cat has chosen the name “Mort(e)” for himself, parentheses and all (right down to the human associations of morte-with-an-e, and mort-without-an-e). Which must imply that while the cat may be an animal, he’s probably not a natural animal. He is, in fact, something of a made creature…

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The Other in the Mirror, through the Glass, on the Page

[Video: Photorealist artist Melissa Cooke serves as her own model for a “drawing” of a sneering but otherwise Chaplinesque character. As I understand this light-hearted “making-of” demonstration, she’s excerpting bits and pieces of her various poses, costumes, facial expressions, and such, and amalgamating them into a single image.]

From whiskey river:

Everything that gives the illusion of permanence, familiarity, and intimate knowledge: isn’t it a deception invented to reassure, with which we try to conceal and ward off the flickering, disturbing haste because it could be impossible to live with all the time. Isn’t every exchange of looks between people like the ghostly brief meeting of eyes between travelers passing one another, intoxicated by the inhuman speed and the shock of air pressure that makes everything shudder and clatter? Don’t our looks bounce off others, as in the hasty encounter of the night, and leave us with nothing but conjectures, slivers of thoughts and imagined qualities? Isn’t it true that it’s not people who meet, but rather the shadows cast by their imaginations?

(Pascal Mercier)


Should we be grateful for the protection that guards us from the strangeness of one another? And for the freedom it makes possible? How would it be if we confronted each other unprotected by the double refraction represented by the interpreted body? If, because nothing separating and adulterating stood between us, we tumbled into each other?

(Pascal Mercier [source: ibid])


When I surprise myself in the depths of the mirror I get a fright. I can hardly believe that I have limits, that I am cut out and defined. I feel scattered in the air, thinking inside other beings, living in things beyond myself. When I surprise myself at the mirror I am not frightened because I think I am ugly or beautiful. It is because I discover I am of a different nature. After not having seen myself for a while I almost forget I am human, I forget my past and I am as free from end and awareness as something merely alive. I am also surprised, eyes open at the pale mirror, that there are so many things in me besides what I know, so many things always silent.

(Clarice Lispector [source])

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In the Right Light (Which Is Sometimes No Light at All)

'New Yorker' magazine covers (2001-09-24 and 2002-09-16), by Art Spiegelman and Ana Juan

[Image: Art Spiegelman’s black-on-black cover for the New Yorker issue immediately following the 9/11 attack (left, above) has been justly famous from the time of its publication. Less often reproduced, but equally effective, was Ana Juan’s cover for the first-year anniversary issue (right), which achieved its effects with light and the absence of black.]

From whiskey river:

Buried under all the mute experiences are those unseen ones that give our life its form, its color, and its melody. Then, when we turn to these treasures, as archaeologists of the soul, we discover how confusing they are. The object of contemplation refuses to stand still, the words bounce off the experience and in the end, pure contradictions stand on the paper. For a long time, I thought it was a defect, something to be overcome. Today I think it is different: that recognition of the confusion is the ideal path to understanding these intimate yet enigmatic experiences. That sounds strange, even bizarre, I know. But ever since I have seen the issue in this light, I have the feeling of being really awake and alive for the first time.

(Pascal Mercier [source])


A Reward

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine. I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall—the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

(Denise Levertov [source])


Heaven Is Not Verbose: A Notebook

Reader: So you want me to feel as if I were reading a letter addressed to someone else?
Poet: I want you to feel as if I had read a letter addressed to you by someone else and am shamelessly quoting from it.


Reader: Do you want me to recognize my everyday world in your poems?
Poet: No, I want your world to seem unfamiliar to you, once you take your eyes off the text.

(Vera Pavlova [source])

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Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “I’ve Got Sixpence”

[Video: the credit line from the YouTube uploader says, “From the LP More Do-Re-Mi: The Songs Children Love to Sing, Kapp Records, 1963.”]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

The first statement I ever heard of the “Poverty can be fun!” theme came from a 33-1/3 RPM record album my parents bought when I was a kid. The album (first described here) was one of a set — probably twelve — designed to introduce children to music of various kinds; the disc in question, I think, was called “Songs of Work” or some such.

The version in the video above is not from the album I remember. I don’t remember kids’ voices singing this song, although it has supposedly been a traditional summer-camp favorite for decades. No, my version featured a men’s chorus, strong and hearty, and you could almost imagine them marching home from the mines as they sang. It sounded more like this truncated, one-verse version, from Mitch Miller and “The Gang” (as he styled them):

Either way, whether you listen to the full-length cover or the foreshortened, you get hit with the message right there in the first two lines:

I’ve got sixpence,
Jolly, jolly sixpence…

Even if we can’t think of a single item which now can be obtained for a mere six cents, we get the point: the guy carries a mere handful of change in his sweaty workingman’s palm… and is happy about it. How can this be? We look to the rest of the first verse:

…I’ve got tuppence to spend,
and tuppence to lend,
and tuppence to send up to my wife (poor wife).

So not only does he start out with mere pennies; he looks forward to divvying his fortune up even further. A third for pleasure! a third to share! and a third, presumably, for expenses (managed by a loving — albeit poor — wife)! And if we’re still skeptical, he continues:

No cares have I to grieve me,
No pretty little girls to deceive me.
I’m happy as a king — believe me —
As [I/we] go rolling home!

The one-verse version of the song misses the finely sharpened knifepoint of the entire song, though. For with each succeeding verse, the amount of cash on hand dwindles, and he must adjust his choices accordingly:

…I’ve got fourpence
To last me all my life.

I’ve a penny to spend
And a penny to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got tuppence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got no pence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And no pence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

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Exquisite Creatures, Singular Moments

'Al otro lado del reflejo' (lit., 'To the other side of the reflection'), by Oiluj Samall Zeid on Flickr

[Image: “Al otro lado del reflejo” (lit., “To the other side of the reflection”), by Oiluj Samall Zeid on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.)]

From whiskey river:

This summer, of all I’ve read and copied out, because I wanted to keep the words close and to feel them come from my own hand, here’s this little passage from Proust: “To reach the end of a day, natures that are slightly nervous, as mine was, make use, like motorcars, of different ‘speeds.’ There are mountainous, uncomfortable days, up which one takes an infinite time to pass, and days downward sloping, through which one can go at full tilt, singing as one goes.”

That’s me in my motorcar dress, windows open, hair flying.

Sometimes I am grateful he knows. (And that he knew me before I was born! And that the words awaited me all these years!)

Sometimes I feel stripped bare and found out.

(Lia Purpura [source])



And when at last grief has dried you out, nearly
weightless, like a little bone, one day,
no reason in particular, the world decides to tug:
twinge under the breastbone, the sudden thought
you might stand up, walk to the door and
keep on going… And in the seconds following,
like the silence following the boom under the river ice, it all
seems possible, the egg-smooth clarity of the new-awakened,
rising, to stand, and walk… But already
at the edges of the crack, sorrow
starts to ooze, the brown stain spreading
and you think: there is no end to it.

But in the breaking, something else is given — not
that glittering jumble, shrieking and churning in the blind
centre of the afternoon,
but something else — a scent,
like a door flung open, a sudden downpour
through which you can still see the sun, derelict
in the neighbour’s field, the wren’s bright eye in the thicket.
As though on that day in August, or even July,
when you were first thinking of autumn, you remembered also
the last day of spring, which had passed
without your noticing. Something that easy, let go
without a thought, untroubled by oblivion,
a bird, a smile.

(Jan Zwicky [source])

and (italicized passage):

What do you mean by you? If you are the universe, in the greater context that question is irrelevant. You never were born and you never will die, because what there is, is you. That should be absolutely obvious, but from an egoistic perspective it is not obvious at all. It should be the simplest thing in the world to understand that you, the ‘I’, is what has always been going on and always will go on, coming and going forever and ever…

What I am really saying is that you don’t need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all.

(Alan Watts [source])

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Introducing a New Series: “Those Happy-Go-Lucky (and Singin’ and Dancin’) Poor Folks!”

'Dance at Molenbeek,' by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

[Image: Dance at Molenbeek (1564), by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Shown are pilgrims suffering from the so-called dancing mania of 14th- to 17th-century Europe.]

Any artist in any medium — particularly those in pop culture — confronts a dilemma in depicting the poor, the downtrodden and hungry and homeless: how to do it, period. It’s possible to manage the trick accurately, compassionately, and without condescension, but it can’t be easy. Such a goddam downer of a topic, y’know? “Why would I do that to my audience?!?”

In general, you’ve got three easy choices, at least if you’re a writer — all of them satisfying no real need but to make the audience feel better about themselves:

  • Maudlin “weepies”: stories of tragedy and despair
  • Tales in the noble-savage genre: “Look! These people have nothing… but see how heroically they have it!
  • Inside-out and upside-down celebrations of the experience of poverty: well, they do have a joyously carefree life — no bills! no bank accounts! no jobs…!

I’ve been thinking for a while about posting occasionally on popular music which goes in that third direction. Granted, when they were written, and as they continue to be performed, these songs do not intend cruelty or snobbism. But they just as often exist in fact in a moral vacuum — penned and performed by artists far removed from ghettos and slums, soup kitchens, food stamps and other social safety nets, the simple desperations attributable to life at the very bottom of the food chain.

I recently came across a great passage in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors (2010) which sort of speaks to the whole thing:

Preston Sturges wrote in Sullivan’s Travels a passionate testament to the crucial and uniquely human need for laughter. He told of a film director (played by Joel McCrea), noted for making ultra-light entertainment, who decides that he wants to create a meaningful social document about “life,” about poverty and suffering. Out into the world he goes with a dime in his pocket to discover what being poor, homeless, and on the run is all about. Eventually he finds himself in serious trouble on a horrific Southern chain gang where the only small respite for the miserable prisoners is the Sunday movies they’re allowed to see at a run-down country church nearby. There he watches a silly Disney cartoon that gives him and his fellow convicts the only pleasure they’ve had all week. After he is rescued, flying back to Hollywood, his producers tell him that they’re now ready to back his serious film. But sullivan explains that all he wants to do now is make comedies. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he tells them. “Did you know that’s all some people have. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

By the way, I’m aware of another danger here, for me: elevating myself to some moral high ground — as though I’m superior to anyone who’d stoop to producing Busby Berkeley-style ensembles of dancing hobos and such. When it it really comes down to it, after all, what the hell do I know about poverty? I’m not wealthy by a long shot, but I’ve got a car in the garage. I’ve got a refrigerator full of food — two of them, in fact — as well as a mini-fridge at the bar which contains such subsistence-level items as craft beers and name-brand sodas. I’ve got a JOB, for crissake, and I often look knowingly in the other direction when approached by panhandlers…

Consequently, I really, really do not want this project to come off in an “I myself am so noble and praiseworthy” way. If you catch a whiff of this, please call me on it!

I should add one more caveat: I genuinely like the songs in this series. I like most (all?) of the performers. I’m not humorless, and I don’t think we need to take life — or these songs — too seriously. True, it’s worth sometimes catching ourselves in the act of having, y’know, a bit too much of a good time. But please: do enjoy whatever music ends up in the series — enjoy it as music, as comic relief, as (un)intended social commentary, whatever: on any level at all.

The first entry in the series appeared (coincidentally enough) on Labor Day, 2015.

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