Weekend Music Break: Gershwin for an Early-November Sunday Afternoon

Gershwin - signature/inscriptionYou can be forgiven for feeling more than a little stressed out today, especially if you’re in the US and if (as is true for this post, and its author) today is the first Sunday in November, 2016 — or for that matter, if you’re elsewhere and just watching us a bit nervously.

Under the circumstances, without further comment, herewith a bit over an hour’s worth of easy-going music to accompany your newspaper-reading, blogging, airport-lounge-waiting, or what-have-you…

[Like that little signature/inscription over there on the right? You might like to see a brief analysis of it from Suzanne Shapiro, a “court-qualified graphologist whose thirty-five years of experience have led her to some unique cases, from analyzing graffiti for a Los Angeles Charter School to Bernard Madoff’s signature and most recently, Prince William and Catherine’s for ‘The Daily Beast.'” Just click on the image to open the analysis in a new window/tab.]

Gershwin Sunday

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

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Things I Know: The (Election) Year of Living Dangerously

I’ve probably written about 5,000 words into this post’s editing screen since I began fussing with it over a month ago. And I’ve deleted about that many words, and started over, and over, and over…

Here’s the essence, though, presented at last as a bulleted list of Things I Know (or Imagine I Do):

  • Florida’s Presidential primary election is now less than a week just a day away, on Tuesday 3/15/2016. And no, I don’t know for whom I’m voting yet. I (early-)voted a couple days ago; obviously, I know for whom I voted, but it makes no difference to this post.
  • That said, it won’t be wasn’t for a Republican.
  • About the Democratic candidates:
    • It’s about damned time we had an opportunity to vote (or not to vote, as the case may be) for Hillary Clinton. If anybody has earned a seat in the party’s saddle, it’s her.
    • I sorta-kinda believe the conventional wisdom about the Clinton-vs.-Sanders choice: it presents us with a referendum on the world we have, vs. the world we want (or the world we might have, etc.).
  • About the state of the country and the world:
    • We have got a hell of a lot of stuff pressing in on us from all sides in 2016: climate change, economic inequalities, famine/plague/drought conditions, wars and more wars, religious extremism, all but the collapse of the public education and infrastructure systems, ignorance and superstition, criminal-justice nightmares, a growing dependence on energy just as energy resources are disappearing, the weight of history…
    • Solving all — solving any — of the crises cataloged in that previous bullet will require one thing (besides willpower, of course): money.
  • About the Democratic candidates in light of the state of the country and world:
    • Clinton can probably tackle any or all of it — and move us (maybe) a quarter-inch towards solutions. It may take her two terms to do it, but she can do that much.
    • Sanders is a complete cipher — an unknown along almost every dimension, at least in terms of executive skills.
    • And yet:
      • Everything is broken. It’s not just because of technology; it’s because of the urgency of the problems with which “business as usual” politics has presented us.
      • That — everything is broken — is the message voters are sending the two parties this year, and neither party is listening.
      • Much though I admire Clinton, I have great, great, nearly insurmountable difficulty imagining her prepared to upset “business as usual” politics. She’s a product of those politics, after all.
    • Remember Sarah Palin asking us, mockingly, “How’d that hopey-changey thing work out for ya?” — after hope and change had been Obama’s watchwords? It didn’t work out very well at all, in fact… because hope and change are the first victims of business-as-usual.
    • President Obama seemed, at first, to be the start of something big. Actually, I think, he was a fitting conclusion to all the something-little that had preceded him.
    • Boy — both parties are going to be in a shambles if they don’t wake the heck up between now and November (and afterwards, when it comes to actual, y’know, governing).

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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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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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Of Scotland, and Towers of Strength


As you likely know, whether you’re in the United Kingdom or not, tomorrow Scottish voters will determine their independence from the rest of the UK. I have no personal stake in the outcome, other than having a Facebook friend who’s been very active in the “Independence YES” movement.

But I do have a philosophical/political stake in it.

As an American lefty of long standing, I’m accustomed to what might be termed Political Bipolar Disorder (PBD). Horror (at the enthusiastic handiwork of those on the right) alternates with disillusion (when my political heroes, inevitably, turn out rather wobbly-kneed once they actually get into office). Elections — even midterm ones, even primaries — can be exhausting affairs.

But what seems to be happening in Scotland — oh my. Which is to say, Go, YES!

On September 7, New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman contributed his own view on the debate. (With a title like “Scots, What the Heck?” it was bound to trigger inflamed opinion on both sides.) His central point: a YES vote makes no sense on economic grounds. (Scotland may or may not end up with a national currency called “the pound,” or possibly “the Euro,” and whatever it’s called, it may have little or nothing to do with any other such currency of the same name.)

Krugman is right, or at least not flat-out wrong, about one thing: the Scots need to be clear-eyed about the election, no matter the outcome. If (as seems about to happen) YES succeeds, disentangling themselves from a “partner” of centuries’ standing will likely bring many, many pains.

I sincerely hope the American experience will not be any guide. If it is, Alex Salmond — who heads the Scottish National Party, or SNP, and would likely become an independent Scotland’s first leader — may turn out to be something quite other than what he has seemed all along.

But the normally perceptive Krugman strikes me as wrong, wrong, wrong on the overall case for or against independence. So wrong, in fact, that his column (on which comments were closed by the time I read it) induced me to write a letter to the editor.

The Times‘s policy is to notify you if your letter will be printed, and they claim a seven-day response time. Given then that I have not heard from them, I think it’s safe to share my letter with you:

Re: Paul Krugman’s “Scots, What the Heck?” (2014-09-07)… I don’t live in Scotland, or anywhere in the UK, but I’ve been following the news about the upcoming independence vote. And I believe Krugman’s got it wrong, for one of those very rare occasions.

He writes eloquently and persuasively of the economic risks for an independent Scotland. But the Yes movement seems not to be about the economy (although they do talk of economic issues, wisely or not). It reminds me instead of the old Gene McDaniel song, “Tower of Strength,” which begins: “If I were a tower of strength, I’d walk away / I’d look in your eyes and here’s what I’d say / ‘I don’t want you, I don’t need you / I don’t love you any more’ / And I’d walk out that door.”

Scolding Scottish Yes supporters for not using their heads in this vote — especially over the economics — strikes me as rather like scolding a woman in an abusive relationship with her otherwise “respectable” husband: at some point, you’ve just gotta walk out that door.

For at least thirty years, official Britain has seemed (from a distance) determined to ape the worst practices and policies of its American counterparts. Yes, yes, the country still does what it needs to stay “quaint,” “historic,” “charming,” and so on. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that’s more than a two-dimensional façade, though. Driving on the left, half-timbered houses, and royal ritual just don’t carry the same weight as they used to for me. You can’t revere Margaret Thatcher, place a surveillance camera every fifty or hundred yards along every street, snuggle up to the American right, and somehow still convince me that you — no, really! no kidding! — remain, y’know, jolly old England.

On the other hand, Scotland’s got a history of leaning left. It’s just been held relatively powerless by the UK political system and constitutional constraints. Specifically, in the case of this vote, the YES party seeks to dispense with British nukes and British control over North Sea oil, overturn British immigration policies, shore up social resources like education and the National Health Service… It’s like a laundry list of things that American lefties wish would happen on this side of the pond.

So maybe it’s projection — maybe even nothing more than projection — but I really, really hope that Scots go the tower-of-strength route tomorrow.

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Midweek Music Break: Harry Belafonte, “Lead Man Holler”

'Island in the Sun' promotional posterPromotional poster for Island in the Sun. Lurid, eh? Note the helpful logo-ish device at the top right, depicting a, y’know, actual island literally in the sun. Just in case you hadn’t already gotten the message!

You may be surprised — as I was — to learn that this week was once designated as “Harry Belafonte — Island in the Sun Week.”

Of course, this wasn’t a true national celebration but a promotional ploy for the film which opened this week in 1957, starring Harry Belafonte (also James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Dorothy Dandridge, and Michael Rennie). The film needed whatever promotional help it could get, because the Alec Waugh novel it was based on had ignited an uncomfortable firestorm of controversy, especially around the US South.

(The South Carolina legislature threatened to fine any movie theater which showed the film $5,0000. It was banned outright in Memphis. And according to the Turner Classic Movies site, “in New Orleans, the American Legion launched an unsuccessful campaign to halt the film’s screening on the grounds that it ‘contributes to the Communist Party’s aim of creating friction between the races.'” But the protests against it reached at least as far north as Minneapolis. Not that any of this actually hurt its box office much: it was the sixth biggest-earning film of the year.)

So what was the big deal?

If you didn’t know any of the cast, and didn’t know anything about the book, but relied solely on the poster above for information about the film, well, you might still have the question. I mean, look at them: about as homogeneous as it’s possible to be, ethnically speaking.

An illusion, of course, thanks to some artful work with color saturation, lighting, and watercolors. The main character, Harry Belafonte’s David Boyeur, is an up-and-coming black labor leader and politician on the fictional island of Santa Marta, during its transition from English colonial to black rule. (Strike 1 for the film’s chances in the mid-’50s South.) Boyeur develops not-quite-a-relationship with wealthy white socialite Mavis Norman (strike 2), but at least it goes nowhere — ultimately broken off, for both of their noble sakes. (They never quite kiss, even.)

(At least, that’s how the film works out — a hastily cobbled-together outcome, the book having ended with a real Boyeur/Mavis relationship.)

And finally, throw in a handful of other interracial twists: Boyeur’s principal antagonist, white Governor Maxwell Fleury (James Mason), is exposed as the grandson of a black man; Maxwell’s sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) becomes pregnant, doesn’t want to saddle her white lover with an interracial love child… but is relieved to find out that at least her and Maxwell’s mother was white; and Maxwell’s aide Justin (Stephen Boyd) develops a romance with the mixed-race Margot (Dorothy Dandridge). Indeed, Jocelyn and Margot wind up moving with their lovers to England, where they can perhaps put all the societal judgment behind them. (Strike 3, and maybe by now we’re even working our way into the next inning.)

The film came out while Belafonte was at a popular peak, and featured two songs — the title song, and “Lead Man Holler” — to whose composition he had (at least in theory) contributed. They became two of his biggest hits.

“Lead Man Holler” itself might be called a cadence calypso number: one meant primarily to supply a rhythm to manual laborers working repetitive tasks. It reminds me a lot of some of the call-and-response chants Boy Scout leaders and drum majors, with their charges, used to sing out during parades when I was a kid, e.g.:

You ain’t got no friends on your left!
(Your LEFT!)
You ain’t got no friends on your right!
(Your RIGHT!)
Sound off!
(SOUND off!)
Cadence count!
(CADENCE count!)
One, two, three-four…
(One, two… THREE-FOUR!)

However, various sources I’ve checked point out that while Boyeur’s singing does guide sugar-cane workers in their jobs, it’s hey, Harry Belafonte up there: almost inexpressibly handsome, gleaming, and (wouldn’t you know it) apparently directing at least part of the rhythmic sing-song at a photo of Joan Fontaine…

Subtext. When it comes to “race” (whatever that is) — at least in the US, especially through a Hollywood filter — there’s always subtext.


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Midweek Music Break: Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

Bob Dylan and friendWhen Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” first came out in 1964, I wasn’t paying much attention to contemporary popular music. But when I did hear it the first time, even benighted I recognized what a great song it was. I could feel my mind and spirit churning restlessly: the lyrics (which I never had trouble hearing) ostensibly addressed parents and other authority figures, but seemed meant to be heard by me and my peers. It described the dangers of the coming years: conflict and tumult, bubble and ruin, destruction and, finally, the joy of a fresh start. It didn’t say anything (nor did I think) about how, exactly, all this would come to pass. But ye gods, what a stirring (and literate) bugle call…!

I still marvel that the lyrics, and the very title, work at all. The times they are a-changin’ sounds like the malformed offspring of Appalachian corn and parody Italian (The meatballs, they-a so spicy!).

The way things played out over the next few years — around the world, not just in the US — seemed to bear out the song’s prophecies, such as they were. But then, more or less without warning, all the excitement dissipated. Having driven many of us insane, Nixon suddenly was gone. Having reached a plateau, the revolution ran out of gas. Music followed suit; with bubble-gum and disco, the medium’s core felt hollowed out. And since 9/11, oh gods…

On my (rare) pessimistic days anymore, I now imagine that the song sends the opposite message. It seems a lament sung to aging lefties who can find only traces of their own (half-forgotten) idealism in the faces of their kids and their neighbors. People we elected in hopes of turning things around simply haven’t turned out as promised — or, at any rate, as we imagined they promised. The country seems sliding into a slough of suspicion, paranoia, flimsy justifications for militarism, institutionalized intolerance, and careless consumerism.

Luckily, I don’t feel nearly so gloomy on most days: most people are better people than they think they are, or (at any rate) than they will consistently allow themselves to be.

When Dylan’s Love and Theft album came out in 2001 — hailed (like so many of his albums in terms like “He’s back!” — I found myself less than bowled over. But the album has grown on me with replaying. And just like the first time I listened to that album, when I get to the last track* and find an alternate out-of-nowhere take (from 1964, no less!) of “The Times, They Are a-Changin’,” why, my old spirit soars anew.

The Times They Are A-Changin'



* Your own copy of the album/CD may not include it; it’s a bonus track on the digital edition.

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Midweek Music Break: Hayes Carll, “Another Like You”

Thanks to all the new(ish) music I’ve been listening to over the last couple years, I’ve found myself a fan of a genre I didn’t even know existed. It’s sort of a loose super-genre, actually: Americana or “roots music,” incorporating elements of bluegrass, folk, country/western, blues, rock… The instrumentation and arrangement lean acoustic-wards, and often feature odd or surprising juxtapositions of sounds and traditions; a band might include banjos and saxophones, for instance, or a fiddle played lying across the seated performer’s legs, like a dulcimer. In other cases it’s just a singer-songwriter and a guitar or honky-tonk piano…

It’s probably easier to describe the opposite of roots music — the stuff which falls outside the Venn diagram. Among the exclusions: techno-electronic dance sounds, bubblegum-pop production values, things metal (as opposed to things wood), sampling and remixing of other artists’ work.

I’d never even heard the name “Hayes Carll” until a couple months ago, when his “Another Like You” topped American Songwriter‘s list of the best 50 songs of 2011. I mean, just look at the top ten to see some of the company he’s keeping: Drive-By Truckers, Wilco, Gillian Welch, Tom Waits…!

You can get a pretty good sense of what to expect (and what not to expect) from him just by glancing at the photo topping this post. His music seems to fall generally into the country/western valley of the roots landscape. On the other hand, his new album straddles categories like they don’t exist. From his Web site:

Fiery rock, twangy country, pensive folk and even a touch of gospel comprise KMAG YOYO‘s sonic palette… Rather than enter the studio with a batch of completed material, Carll and his band picked up where they’d left off onstage — jamming on riffs they’d developed on the road. “I wanted to challenge myself musically,” says Carll, “and see if I could capture that live dynamic. A lot of the songs came with the music first, with the music calling the lyrics.” After completing the instrumental tracks with the band, Carll set to work, his witty wordplay matching the temper of the instrumentation.

That album title, pronounced kay-mag yo-yo, is (says the site) a military acronym (in the same sense, I guess, as snafu). It stands for Kiss my ass, guys. You’re on your own. And its sense is captured in the title track, which tells the story of a disillusioned American soldier in Afghanistan. (The album itself has been well-received. The one review which most stands out in my mind is the one from about a year ago at No Depression.)

So, you think: Carll’s a political songwriter. Well, yes and no. In today’s Midweek Music Break selection, he paints a highly entertaining portrait of a hot romance born of hot disagreement between left and right. (With a surprise cameo at the end, featuring Mr. Left (even more pebbles-in-his-mouth than usual) and Ms. Right themselves — the poster children of political mismatches.)


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It’s Right in Front of You

[Image: unretouched photograph of an anamorphically-painted building interior, by French artist George Rousse; I found it here. As suggested at that site, be sure to see the video about Rousse’s “Durham (NC) project.” And while you’re at it, check out the similar but sometimes entire city-sized work of Swiss artist Felice Varini. I couldn’t decide which artist’s work to feature here and finally flipped a coin.]

From whiskey river:


I had been worrying once again
about sad lives
and almost perfect art, Van Gogh,

Kafka, so when that voice on the radio
sang about drinking
a toast to those who most survive

the lives they’ve led, I drank that toast
in the prayerless
sanctum of my room, I said it

out loud in a hush. Then I thought
of Dr. Williams
who toward the end apologized

to his wife for doing everything
he had loved to do.
He was speaking of course to death,

not to her, though death instructed him
how valuable she was.
I thought of a lamp the neighbor’s child

had broken, then pieced back together
with wires and glue.
And my friend, the good husband,

kissing the scars his wife brought home
after the mastectomy.
I drank that toast again, though silently.

The radio was playing something old
and bad
I once thought was good.

Flaws. Suddenly the act of trying
to say how it feels
to live a life, to say it flawlessly,

seemed more immense than ever. Then
I remembered
those Persian rug makers built them in,

the flaws, because only Allah was perfect.
What arrogance to think
that otherwise they wouldn’t be there!

I allowed myself to wonder
about the ethics
of repair, but just for a while.

Sleep, too, was on my mind
and I knew
the difficulty that lay ahead:

how hard I’d try when I couldn’t,
how it would come
if only I could find a way

to enter and drift without concern
for what it is.

(Stephen Dunn [source])


I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.

(William Stafford [source])

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