The Observer in the Observed

'Message From the Unseen World,' by Roger Marks on Flickr

[Image: “Message From the Unseen World,” by Roger Marks; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you!). Click photo to enlarge. The photographer explains: “…this permanent installation is a collaboration between United Visual Artists and poet Nick Drake.  Alan Turing is one of Paddington’s most famous sons. This artwork, Message From the Unseen World, celebrates his groundbreaking work on artificial intelligence. Its outer shell comprises aluminium panels, punctuated with holes. LED lights shine through the holes, forming the words to Drake’s poem. A Turing-inspired algorithm shuffles through the poem, creating new interpretations of the verse.” An excerpt from the poem appears below, as the last entry in today’s post; the entirety can be viewed at the Flickr page.]

From whiskey river:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are—as far as we know —the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

(Mark Strand [source])

and:

There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was on the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of god. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree at the end of your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree… In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree.

(Annie Dillard [source])

…and (from whiskey river’s commonplace book):

Why do I write?

To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

(Mary Gaitskill [source])

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Spirit Within Reach — Overlooked, Unrecognized, Disregarded

'Dryad's Saddle - Untouched Macro,' by user LasyDragonFlyCC on Flickr

[Image: “Dryad’s Saddle – Untouched Macro,” by “LadyDragonflyCC.” (Found on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license: thank you!) Dryad’s saddle is a mushroom, scientific name Cerioporus squamosus; the photographer’s note on this photo says: “The mushroom’s shape and lateral stem make it look suitable for woodland spirits, the dryads of Greek mythology, to ride. I’ve found plenty of dryad’s saddle in the woods, but I’m still looking for the nymph!”]

From whiskey river:

You never hear people put it this way, and I don’t intend to start a trend, but when we consider the ever-evolving process of a person’s thinking, the way a person imagines and organizes the world, it could almost seem appropriate to ask each other from time to time, How’s your religion coming along? How’s it going? Born again, or the same old, same old? Did you successfully distinguish darkness from light in the course of your day? Is there a fever in your mind that won’t go away? Mind if I prescribe a poem?

(David Dark [source])

and:

I Have News for You

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.

(Tony Hoagland [source])

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At the Corner of Imagined and Real

'Time Traveler (Chuck),' by user PINKÉ on Flickr

[Image: “Time Traveler,” by user PINKÉ on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you).) The photographer’s caption: “Chuck used his time machine to travel back in time. He was shocked to discover there wasn’t any air conditioning. He was glad to get back. July 2013.” Chuck seems to have had many adventures in geography, although as far as I can tell this has been his only one in time.]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

On Velvet Turf

I dash outdoors so I will know
a little more about the day—
I stride forth filled with the whiff.
What’s to know is always a little to the left,
deep in the vine-covered hole of a hedgehog down
by the mossy stump. If something is impaled down there
I want to know. I don’t mind throwing myself
into the cistern of the Middle Ages.
Who knows, here once the embattled farmers stood,
their gallant foreheads broadly glistening.
I’ve read whole books standing up naked.
I’ve bragged all my life of the glories
I had in common with the rest of the world,
glories that fled through the windfields
and raked rivers, through the sere leaves
of the trees—
now that the broken gravy boat will sail no more
and the electric fence electrify no one,
now that the crepitating rain has come
and the winter lilt departed, it is time
to come out of my hole—
though the stars take me back
more than I am willing to admit.

(Mary Ruefle [source])

and:

Art alone makes life possible—this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms. There is a certain materialist doctrine which claims that we can dispense with mind and with art because man is just a more or less highly developed mechanism governed by chemical processes. I would say man does not consist only of chemical processes, but also of metaphysical occurrences. The provocateur of the chemical processes is located outside the world. Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative, artistic being.

(Joseph Beuys [source])

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Attuned to the Frequencies of Things Other

'Tonometer (1876),' by Flickr user 'D_M_D'

[Image: “Tonometer (1876),” by Flickr user D_M_D (a/k/a sublimedutch). (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The Night House

Every day the body works in the fields of the world
mending a stone wall
or swinging a sickle through the tall grass—
the grass of civics, the grass of money—
and every night the body curls around itself
and listens for the soft bells of sleep.

But the heart is restless and rises
from the body in the middle of the night,
leaves the trapezoidal bedroom
with its thick, pictureless walls
to sit by herself at the kitchen table
and heat some milk in a pan.

And the mind gets up too, puts on a robe
and goes downstairs, lights a cigarette,
and opens a book on engineering.
Even the conscience awakens
and roams from room to room in the dark,
darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.

And the soul is up on the roof
in her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
singing a song about the wildness of the sea
until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
Then, they all will return to the sleeping body
the way a flock of birds settles back into a tree,

resuming their daily colloquy,
talking to each other or themselves
even through the heat of the long afternoons.
Which is why the body—the house of voices—
sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
to stare into the distance,

to listen to all its names being called
before bending again to its labor.

(Billy Collins [source])

and (italicized portion):

I lie here, expanding into the blackness, letting my body rest, my mind open. Oceanically, I feel waves of emotion—fear, joy, sadness—wash through me, and I feel connected with every living being. Somewhere this very moment, babies are born, fathers are dying, mothers are grieving. Yet, pervading all is a groundless awareness, delicate and strong at the same time. Everything becomes we, a beating heart with a transparent, radiant smile. And we are awake.

(Judith Simmer-Brown [source])

and:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern… I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul…

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

(David Foster Wallace [source])

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Dark Skies, Stark Uncertainties

'Dark Clouds,' by user Never Edit on Flickr

[Image: “Dark Clouds,” by “Never Edit.” (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.) No details about this photo are provided by the pseudonymous street photographer (other than the data captured by the automatic camera). Her profile says, “Never Edit — no real name given because I don’t want my nosey neighbours checking on me — means I like the street as it is and don’t want to turn my photos into digital paintings. Therefore I hardly crop or edit the photos in any way.”]

From whiskey river:

Genesis

Oh, I said, this is going to be.
And it was.
Oh, I said, this will never happen.
But it did.
And a purple fog descended upon the land.
The roots of trees curled up.
The world was divided into two countries.
Every photograph taken in the first was of people.
Every photograph taken in the second showed none.
All of the girl children were named And.
All of the boy children named Then.

(Mary Ruefle [source])

and:

Below Zero

We are at a feast which doesn’t love us. At last the feast sheds its mask and shows itself for what it really is: a switchyard, cold colossi sit on rails in the mist. A piece of chalk has scribbled on the freight car doors.

It mustn’t be said, but there is much suppressed violence here. That’s why the features are so heavy. And why it’s so hard to see that other thing which also exists: a mirrored glare of sun which moves across the house wall and glides through the unknowing forest of flickering faces, a Bible text never written down: “Come to me, for I am laden with contradictions like you yourself.”

Tomorrow I’m working in another city. I whizz there through the morning hour which is a blue-black cylinder. Orion hovers above the frozen ground. Children stand in a silent crowd, waiting for the school bus, children for whom no one prays. The light grows slowly like our hair.

(Tomas Tranströmer [source])

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Weekend Music Break: Sarah Beatty, “Bandit Queen (Acoustic)”

Sarah Beatty, in performance

[Image: Sarah Beatty, onstage during an unidentified performance.]

Like writing (especially fiction), music  (especially rock/pop) seems to resist categorization more often than it accepts it. The term “genre” suits the purposes of marketers and distributors at least as much as those of performers and audiences: How do we pitch the products in Category X, using what language, images, and metaphors? How much shelf or disk space, or how much bandwidth will we need to display our Category-X holdings? How much money should we set aside to promote a Category X artist, versus one in Category Y — what will customers pay? And so on.

The artists themselves often try to duck the question (making liberal use of the slash character, as in “punk/power-pop/postmodern,” or claiming a revolutionary fervor the work may or may not deserve, like “a genre-busting novel”); sometimes, they answer it apparently head-on, but in a way which allows the audience to cast its own hopes or disregard on the work (“I write mainstream fiction,” or “I’m a singer-songwriter”).

All of which is to say: my sympathies are heartily extended to Sarah Beatty, her record label, and her management. In various places around the Interwebs I’ve found terms like these to describe her: “singer/songwriter,” “folk,” “old fashioned folk/country blues,” “blues, jazz, country, and soulful styled roots music”… And really, I have no idea what to call her, either. Maybe the best clue about what to expect appeared in a 2012 interview at the 100 Mile Microphone blog. The interviewer asks for an explanation of her first album’s title, Black Gramophone, since it contains no such song or other reference:

[SB] I thought about using a song title, or just my name, but the words ‘Black Gramophone’ just came to me one day, and made sense. Gramophones have this long musical history—RCA, the Grammies—but for me, my music is inspired by old styles. There’s a certain gravitas to my songs, and black represents that, visually.

[100MM] But it’s not funeral black—it’s little black dress black!

[SB] Oh! Thank you! Yes, it’s not meant to be dour. However, there’s a seriousness about it.

If you read between the lines here, you’ll see why this exchange appealed to me: she thinks about her work, and she knows how to use language, and she welcomes light and dark in equal measure.

These traits are all borne out in the debut single from her new album, both called Bandit Queen. While the album’s SoundCloud page, not yet publicly available, self-identifies using a lot of the same terms from the above list (folk, Americana, jazz, blues, etc.), it also includes a new one: folklore.

Belle StarrWhatever other songs on the album might deserve that label, “Bandit Queen” itself, oh yeah: folklore. It’s based on the story — “colorful,” to say the least — of the 19th-century “queen of the outlaws,” Belle Starr. (That’s her to the left, in a photo which Beatty considered using for the album’s art.) More than one party pooper has taken pains — sometimes exhaustive ones — to, er, shoot holes in Starr’s story as it’s popularly come down to us. But listen: folklore, okay? Boiled down, the shape of that story goes something as follows:

Old-West woman of some years — and a checkered domestic life — declines to go quietly into any goddam good night, thank you very much. Instead, she takes up bank robbery, horse-stealing, gunplay, murder, and general cussed criminal orneriness, and dies as she’d lived: violently and disreputably.

I mean, consider: Starr’s daughter became a madam in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Could there be a more perfect little biographical detail for such a creature as a “queen of the outlaws”?

Beatty’s lyrics here are cast in Starr’s own imagined voice. A sampling (the end of the first verse plus the chorus):

I’m a well dressed, fast talking, educated woman, with 40 dead men in sight.

I’m the baddest bandit queen, you did ever see,
I am Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr, hotter than top-rail kerosene.
I’m the baddest bandit queen, you ever did see.

Every detail in these words strikes me as perfectly balanced. But presented in the context of the kicking, take-no-prisoners music — well, I’m just knocked out by this song. That simple see at the end of the above excerpt? Somehow, Beatty’s voice manages to make of that an entire declamatory phrase, comprising what sounds like fifteen or twenty syllables.

She seems to like trying out various effects with her voice, pulling it down low and then rippling up and out: I wonder what would happen if I did this thing…? The voice goes up and down and slithers sideways; at one point, Beatty strongly reminds me of something which Aretha Franklin manages to pull off about 30-40 seconds into “Think.” Franklin’s voice itself: something of a Belle Star among a crowd of more everyday “strong woman” instruments, am I right? This is quite a stunt for Beatty, no matter how musically dissimilar the songs might be otherwise.

Over there at the right, the SoundCloud player for the acoustic version of the tune; listen for yourself. And keep your eyes (and ears) open for the upcoming February 3 release of the full Bandit Queen. What happens to it will ultimately be in the hands of all those confused marketing-and-distribution institutions I mentioned earlier, but it deserves a wide, hungry audience of music lovers.

Edit to add (2017-02-18): The Bandit Queen album, all thirteen songs, is exactly what I’d expected it to be: in short, more of the same kind of smart, idiosyncratic, generous songwork on display in the single’s acoustic version.

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Consolations of the Moment… But Which One?

'Southwest Reservoir Bridge,' by Bascove

[Image: “Southwest Reservoir Bridge,” by Bascove. (The artist also produced — selected and illustrated — the anthology in which I found Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, below.)]

From whiskey river:

A Journal of the Year of the Ox
(excerpt)

I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both.
I come and go in myself
as though from room to room,
As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit
Escaping my own mouth and reswallowed at leisure,
Dissembling and at my ease.

(Charles Wright [source])

…and (italicized portion):

…if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement—why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?

(Simone de Beauvoir [source])

…and:

Poem White Page
White Page Poem

Poem white page white page poem
something is streaming out of a body in waves
something is beginning from the fingertips
they are starting to declare for my whole life
all the despair and the making music
something like wave after wave
that breaks on a beach
something like bringing the entire life
to this moment
the small waves bringing themselves to white paper
something like light stands up and is alive

(Muriel Rukeyser [source])

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Book Review: “A Burglar’s Guide to the City,” by Geoff Manaugh

'A Burglar's Guide to the City,' by Geoff ManaughGeoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City has at least one distinction setting it apart from nearly all non-fiction titles — especially when you set aside biographies and histories, which come with their own narrative lines: it’s in development as a fictional TV series. The appeal is obvious. Consider the elements which come into play:

  • “Hacking” buildings by any means necessary: tunneling, cutting through walls, punching out windows, stowing away in delivery vehicles,  simply talking your way in…
  • The lure of cleverly planned crimes committed against often cold if not outright evil institutions: banks, jewelry retailers, the homes of the wealthy…
  • Familiar cops-and-robbers scenarios, in which clever (or not so clever) criminals are matched against shrewd (or not so shrewd) detectives and street cops…
  • The excitement of chase scenes…
  • Precedents set by hundreds — maybe thousands — of popular, successful fictional precedents, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to Oceans ElevenThe Anderson Tapes and The Thomas Crown Affair, the Thin Man series of films, the Leverage television series…
  • Settings around the world, the phrase “the city” of the title engagingly non-specific…

No, not surprising at all that it would attract screenwriters and producers. But lost in the likely rush of media attention is one important fact: this is a heck of a good book.

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How Comes the Dawn

'The Blue Hour,' by Dave Toussaint on Flickr.com

[Image: “The Blue Hour,” by Dave Toussaint. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.) Toussaint reports that this shot of Yosemite Falls was taken roughly 45 minutes before sunrise. If you’re viewing this on a sufficiently large screen, click on the image to see it in the photographer’s preferred original size of 1140 x 754.]

From whiskey river:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius!

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: Second Series [source])

and:

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

(W. S. Merwin [source])

and:

The Tongue Says Loneliness

The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.

As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
nor Thursday
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.

As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.

Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength with the first blow from inside the iron.

(Jane Hirshfield [source])

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Weekend Music Break: The Perfect English Weather, “Spirited Away”

The Perfect English Weather: cover of 'Isobar Blues' albumThe Perfect English Weather” may be a perfect English band name. Of course it makes reference to allegedly common knowledge about the English climate. But it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, opting for wryness over depression — especially when combined with the title and cover of their first album, Isobar Blues. (On this side of the Atlantic, you might achieve similar effects by naming your new band “The Uneventful American Presidential Election.”)

While you may not — probably have not — heard of TPEW specifically, if you’ve been following English pop music for a while you might recognize the name of the “real” band which shares the same two group members, Simon and Molly Pickles: The Popguns. Specifically, says the capsule bio on TPEW’s Facebook page:

The Perfect English Weather are Wendy & Simon Pickles, a duo from Brighton taking time out from The Popguns to tell the usual tales of soggy café chess games, conversations with cats and weekend trips to cancelled Morrissey shows.

Of the Popguns themselves, Wikipedia says, they “played a part in the British jangle pop scene.” And if you, like I, furrowed your brow quizzically at the term “jangle pop,” the ‘pedia will help you out there, too:

Jangle pop is a subgenre of rock music with its origins in the 1960s which features trebly, arpeggiated picking (typically on chiming electric twelve-string guitars or 6 string guitars, often employing a capo and chord inversions), together with straightforward song structures. The Beatles and The Byrds are commonly credited with launching the popularity of the “jangly” sound that defined the genre.

The term “jangle pop” itself emerged as part of the genre’s resurgence the early to mid-1980s that “marked a return to the chiming or jangly guitars and pop melodies of the ’60s”, and was epitomised by bands such as The Smiths. Between 1983 and 1987, the description “jangle pop” was, in the US, used to describe bands like R.E.M., Let’s Active and Tom Petty as well as a subgenre called “Paisley Underground”, which incorporated psychedelic influences.

(The article later references The Who, The Beach Boys, The Hollies, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Simon and Garfunkel. The common sound of such bands, reportedly, comes from their use of Rickenbacker twelve-string guitars. I don’t know enough about music to say whether that’s true. But in general, seeing them all lumped together like that does help me grasp the notion of something that might conceivably be called “jangle pop.”)

So what of this specific track from TPEW’s debut album? Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Linear Tracking Live!:

LTL: …We have lost a great many artists this year. Is this about a specific musician or the collective loss of so many talented people?

Simon: During the year which this album was written I was working next to a beautiful big park in Brighton where I’d spend lunchtimes listening to music on my ‘phones whilst sitting on park benches and drifting off to those places that music takes you. It was more the fact that music and ideas live on long beyond their moment of creation that inspired the “spirited away” theme, but obviously the death of Bowie was such a big event around that time, and it’s easy to imagine him as the song’s subject. Having said that, my own bizarre fantasy for the song was around the possible passing of Steven Patrick [i.e., Morrissey] and how that could feel for those of us for whom he loomed so large. Then the actual title probably came from my son’s Studio Ghibli film collection. But I usually say that songs are often not about things, they are inspired by them and become something else. Then the meaning is in the listening, not the writing.

Sounds like the perfect way to close off 2016’s unholy catalogue of pop-culture deaths*, eh? Here’s “Spirited Away,” then, from Isobar Blues.

from 'Isobar Blues'

[Lyrics]

_______________

* Nope: apparently not just an urban legend.

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