Monday, March 31, 2008

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Whalen in Portland

Michael "Big Bridge" Rothenberg's coming to Portland this Saturday to celebrate the publication of Whalen's Collected (92 doodles!) at Reed College, the poet's alma mater.

You can count the Northwest's claims to 20th-century poetry glory on one, two hands tops, and Whalen gets an early digit. Hope locals come.
SATURDAY, MARCH 29, 7:30 p.m.

Readings from Whalen's work with poets Michael Rothenberg, David Abel, Terri Carrion, Hammond Guthrie, Rodney Koeneke, Moshe Lenske, Kaia Sand & Lindsay Hill. Introduction & Overview of Whalen at Reed by Pancho Savery & Gay Walker.
Eliot Chapel at Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mahapurush (The Holy Man)

The protagonist of Satyajit Ray’s Mahapurush (1965) isn’t really a person but a class: the talksy, urban, skeptical, pseudo-intellectual, down-at-the-heels professionals of Kolkata’s middling strata. The paper-thin plot concerns a bogus guru and the comic band of armchair Einsteins who set out to expose him. But the story takes a back seat to the social milieu, which Ray depicts with a loving, lightly mocking eye.

The movie’s especially attentive to interiors, where sloping stacks of books, dusty lithographs, porcelain hula girls, cuckoo clocks, barometers, telescopes, and hanging laundry express the big dreams and small means of the persons who live inside them. Ray’s insurance agents and ledger keepers, chess enthusiasts and crackpot professors have their noses pressed against the glass of a wider world that’s not quite theirs to enter, assembling a secondhand modernity out of snatches of technical English, faulty reel-to-reel tape machines, loud synthetic shirts, and an eclectic worldview that rolls Jesus and Tulsidas, the Buddha and E=MC2, into one catch-all philosophy.

Ray comes up with a neat visual trick for depicting the guru’s teachings: time forward moves in a clockwise circle with one index finger, time past moves counterclockwise in the other. It sounds simple, but no one in the movie can do it till the end, except for Babuji, and Lesley and I are having a hard time with it here. Babuji claims to be over 2,000 years old, and wows his followers with stories of his days instructing Jesus, Einstein, Plato, and Siddhartha on the illusory nature of time present. His syncretic spirituality resembles the jumble in Ray’s apartments, and Babuji fits into these characters’ lives as naturally as cigarettes and telephones.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Babuji skeptic Nibaran (Somen Bose) and his relative Nani (Santosh Dutta) discuss the guru’s claims. They don’t do anything but talk—nobody in the film’s Kolkata does anything but talk—yet in a few short minutes Ray celebrates the humor, curiosity, optimism, and warmth of the type in Dutta’s Nani, busy infusing grass with music from a hand organ to “oxidize” the proteins so the rice yield improves. The farcical, throwaway plot lets Ray show his range (a quality his fan Wes Anderson could learn from) while sketching a wry portrait of Beatlemania-era India and its ironies.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dept. of Peacock

"[We] may easily conceive that the day is not distant, when the degraded state of every species of poetry will be as generally recognized as that of dramatic poetry has long been: and this not from any decrease either of intellectual power or intellectual acquisition, but because intellectual power and intellectual acquisition have turned themselves into other and better channels, and have abandoned the cultivation and the fate of poetry to the degenerate fry of modern rhymesters, and their olympic judges, the magazine critics, who continue to debate and promulgate oracles about poetry as if it were still what it was in the Homeric age, the all-in-all of intellectual progression, and as if there were no such things in existence as mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, moralists, metaphysicians, historians, politicians, and political economists, who have built into the upper air of intelligence a pyramid, from the summit of which they see the modern Parnassus far beneath them, and, knowing how small a place it occupies in the comprehensiveness of their prospect, smile at the little ambition and the circumscribed perceptions with which the drivellers and mountebanks upon it are contending for the poetical palm and the critical chair."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dept. of Tarkovsky

"In a non-developing, constant state of tension, passions reach the highest possible pitch, and manifest themselves more vividly and convincingly than in a gradual process of change."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Thanks to lousy subtitles, I spent most of CharulataSatyajit Ray’s favorite of his films—thinking that two points in the love triangle at its center were sister and brother, not brother-in-law. So instead of seeing Charu, the brilliant and lonely wife of a preoccupied newspaper editor, gradually fall in love with his carefree younger brother, I saw the coming of age of a writer against the backdrop of the 19th-century Bengal Renaissance.

One advantage of the mistake is that I shared exactly her husband’s sense of surprise and betrayal when he discovers Charu’s feelings for his brother. But it made me read Ray’s delicate portrayal of Charu’s dilemma as a story primarily about the labor of writing. Part of the movie’s genius is that it can sustain a reading like that; that the one interpretation folds so easily into the other.

The movie opens with a pair of hands (Charu’s) embroidering the English letter ‘B’ onto a handkerchief for her husband. Near the end, we see the same hands beginning to write a story in Bengali. Ray frames that change—from 'B' to Bengali—within two larger off-screen developments in the world of the film. The first is the dawning political consciousness of Bengalis like Charu’s husband, Bhupati, who protests British taxes to support a new war in Afghanistan (the film's set in 1879). Bhupati’s principled and single-minded efforts to waken Bengali resistance lead to his deepening involvement with Western politics; whether Gladstone beats ‘Dizzy’ back in London weighs more in his hopes for India’s future than what happens behind the shutters of his own house.

The second is the Bengal Renaissance, which, through the work of writers like Bankim (one of Charu’s literary idols in the film), aimed to modernize Bangla literature by departing from Sanskrit models and attending more closely to everyday life. Charulata is based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous figure in the movement, and Ray, whose father and grandfather were friends of Tagore’s, studied at Tagore’s experimental school at Santiniketan. So Ray’s own scrupulous attention to the details of Charu’s life—her opera glasses and kaleidoscope, her feet hitting the ground as she swings in the garden, the particular way she plays cards with her sister-in-law on the bed—both argues for and enacts the values of the Bengal Renaissance. (One might even read Charulata as Ray’s case for film—his film—as the apotheosis of the movement.)*

The Bengal Renaissance appears inside the movie mostly in the form of a teasing debate between Bhupati’s younger brother, Amal, and Charu. Soumitra Chatterjee’s Amal is a charming, easygoing poetaster of no fixed politics whose tastes run to stock celebrations of transcendence, the beauties of nature, and the cosmic cycle of life. Charu has a sharp eye for Amal’s literary failings, but he’s also her point of entry to a wider world of literature to which her husband’s indifferent. In one of the film’s key scenes, Charu looks from a swing through her opera glasses first at a woman on a veranda with a baby, then at Amal writing. This is supposed to be the ‘recognition scene’ where Charu, who’s not able to have a child, first realizes her longing for Amal. But since I thought she was looking at her brother, I understood her to be choosing between two forms of labor, and deciding she’d rather make books than babies.

Labor is a central question throughout the movie. Early on, we hear Bhupati tell Amal that his problem isn’t with the British governing Bengal, but with their refusal to give Bengalis any significant work to do. This throws Charu’s own enforced leisure into a political light, so that when she begins writing—working—she’s a stand-in of sorts for Bengal itself casting off imperial rule. Likewise, Amal’s rearguard tastes in poetry twin with his unwillingness to marry or grab the chance to travel and become a barrister; the last we hear of him, he’s hanging out at dreamy poetry recitals with friends in Madras. One irony of Charu’s situation is that her husband can’t see how his wife’s aesthetics connect to his own progressive politics. Literature for him is a kind of embroidery, and while he worries about Bengal losing its culture to the modernizers, it's not till the end of the film that he learns how a new form of writing could advance his political claims for independence.

Charu gets a story published in a major paper, and the sequence where she reaches back into her memories, instead of turning to 'correct' literary models, to write it is one of the strongest in all of Ray's movies. Meanwhile, her husband's bankrupted by a manager who cheats him. (Ironically, Bhupati had put his own politics into practice by entrusting the man, who was listless and bored in his work, with more responsibility for the finances.) Determined to start a new paper, he takes Charu's suggestion that it cover politics and literature, in Bengali, Hindi, and English, with Charu herself as literary editor: a synthesis of all the disparate elements in India's evolving national consciousness.

Tagore's story is supposed to be much harder on Bhupati than Ray is, and the ending more tragic. In the film, Charu extends her hand in the famous final scene and invites Bhupati to "come in," an open-ended command that might stand, among other things, for Bengal's entry onto the world stage through the medium of Ray's film.

*Ray’s 1961 documentary of Tagore’s life, made three years before Charulata, is available in 5 Parts on YouTube.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Grin & Baer it

I like many things about living here, but OPB's April Baer—just the chipper folksy voiceprint of OPB's April Baer—isn't one of them.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dept. of Monday

"Myself my sepulcher, a moving grave,"

Friday, March 14, 2008

Partch Comes Alive

Thanks to Trane Devore, Auden and I got to play The Boo (& Quadrangularus Reversum, and Eucal Blossom, and even some Chromelodion I).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God)

One of the most charming things about Joi Baba Felunath is that Satyajit Ray made it at all. Ray invented the master detective Feluda—a sort of Bengali, subcontinent-trotting Sherlock Holmes—for a children’s magazine story in 1965.* When Feluda’s fans started writing him to ask for a movie, Ray complied, first with Sonar Kella (1971), then Joi Baba Felunath (1978). (Sandip Ray continued the series after his father’s death; the latest Feluda picture, Kailashey Kelenkari, appeared last year.)

If you’re new to Feluda, like I was, Joi Baba Felunath takes some time to get into. The movie assumes you’re familiar with Feluda, his young Watson, Topshe, and Lalmohan Ganguly (pen name “Jayatu”), the bumbling detective novelist who accompanies the pair on their adventures. All three are famous inside the world of the film, which gets a lot of self-reflexive mileage out of the blur between fiction and reality. The plot’s a generic whodunnit involving a stolen Ganesh statuette, nabbed in the bustle of the Durga Puja in Kashi (Benares). (One of the film’s pleasures is watching Ray revisit scenes from the Benares portion of Aparajito, shot over twenty years before.)

But the movie isn’t so much about the story as it is about the nature of stories, especially the way they’re passed on. The film opens with an old man telling legends of the gods to a child. Later, Ganguly discovers that one of his stories has inspired the child—who plays at being “Captain Spark” with his grandfather as his trusty Watson, “Ruxit”—to invent a story of his own, which the mystery ultimately turns on.** Ganguly himself is sort of a triple fiction: an invention of Ray’s who invents fictions under an invented name, played by an actor bringing the fictional Ganguly to life. (According to Wikipedia, Santosh Dutta’s depiction of Ganguly “fed back” into Ray’s later Feluda stories, as he changed the character to fit Dutta’s performance.)

In probably the cleverest twist of the film, Feluda’s client (the same grandfather who plays Ruxit in his grandson’s stories) turns out to be a huge mystery fan, who measures the team at each turn against their literary antecedents, especially Holmes. There’s in fact a strong suggestion that the entire movie is really a story the grandfather’s put into motion to bring his favorite fictions to life, just as he plays his old songs over and over on an antique gramophone.

A friend of mine is writing a book on the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon as a benchmark of modernity. Holmes was the first fictional character to be taken as real, or at least as a collective fiction that readers agreed to treat as real, as the letters that poured in to “221 B Baker Street” attest.*** In Joi Baba Felunath, Ray explores this aspect of modern popular culture in an especially acute way. By setting the story during a religious holiday in Kashi, he’s able to suggest the Feludas and Holmeses of our rational, mystery-solving age as successors to the gods of myth and legend. In both cases, Ray seems to be saying that what’s most important about these tales isn’t how "true" they are, but how it is they’re transmitted and put to use; how they become mirrors that help us organize and improvise our own identities in an era where gurus and Ganeshes have made way for Miss Marples and Mr. Spocks (and where oral tradition cedes to film.)

The cross-cultural borrowing, as Ray openly and lovingly "Bangla-izes" Holmes, is part of the point, too: the Feluda phenomenon is a case study in how we make stories real, and really "ours." (I wonder if Lalmohan Ganguly, student and second-hand teller of Feluda's adventures—and Ray's most original addition to the Holmes/Watson dyad—is meant as a comic self-portrait: Ray's watermark on the story he's handing on.)

At the end of the movie, Feluda of course manages to restore the god to its rightful owner, who’s free again to pass it on to “Captain Spark,” and into futurity.

*The magazine, Sandesh, was started by Ray's grandfather, edited by his father, and revived by Ray in 1961. It's still running (though barely) today.
**To complicate matters, Ganguly also has a fictional arch-rival who writes fiction, parts of whose stories it turns out the boy’s borrowed from as well. Their literary rivalry's acted out through the parts of their tales the boy's chosen to lift from to invent his own.

***Art imitates art: here's an (untranslated) clip of a journalist seeking Feluda's "real" address in Kolkata.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Unwin-Dunraven Literary Ecclesia

There's a new quarterly "convergence" in town: The Unwin-Dunraven Literary Ecclesia. The "ecclesia" comes from the venue, a former church that exactly one in three Portlanders under 30 has apparently lived in at one time. The "literary" was provided by Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon, who succeeded in reading among the arched beams and stained glass without evoking that icky sermon-like feeling you sometimes get in those literary ecclesias made of former churches.

The crowd was younger, more bearded and be-scarfed than the ones I usually see at readings here, with friends like Ashley Edwards (an Ecclesia co-organizer), Jesse Lichtenstein, Sam Lohmann, Matt Marble, Chris Piuma, Kaia Sand, and Bethany Wright in attendance for the launch. Music afterward, while some of the audience shot up the ladder to smoke on top of the belfry. You pay $5-$12 bucks, get a handmade chap, all the beer and wine you can drink, plus music, plus a belfry to smoke on. Not sure what's in the works for June, but I'm looking forward to the next Gnostic installment.

Monday, March 10, 2008

MF, Rodney, John

I'll be reading for approximately 15 minutes this Monday, March 10 tonight with local poets M.F. McAuliffe (of Gobshite Quarterly fame) and John C. Morrison, who directs Portland's Writers in the Schools program, in Dan Raphael's long-running downtown series.

Show starts at 7 p.m. in the downtown Borders cafe,
708 SW Third.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Dept. of Full Disclosure

A full third of the 1,335,121 views of Vampire Weekend's "A-Punk" video is due to a four-year-old in Portland.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players)

Satyajit Ray's scrupulous period piece, a deft study of two chess-crazed zamindars on the eve of British annexation, is as meaningful for what it leaves out as what it includes. Set in 1856, the film centers on the East India Company’s heavy-handed ousting of Wajid Ali Shah, Nawab of Oudh, a loyal client state of the British since the 18th century. Amjad Khan’s portrayal hews closely to the history: the Nawab was known for the quality of his poetry, the size of his harem, the depth of his passion for thumri singing and kathak dancing, and the strength of his (Muslim) piety.

Ray treats the players in Britain’s great game evenly and dispassionately. The Nawab is accomplished, intelligent, and conscious of his own unfitness for rule. His zamindars are lost in dreams of their ancestors' military glory, comfortably adjusted to their reduced place in Britain’s India. The British are brash but not totally craven: the Company’s man in Lucknow, Sir James Outram (Richard Attenborough), is troubled by the injustice of Britain’s claims to Oudh, while his adjutant and translator has swatches of the Nawab’s Urdu by heart. The overall mood of the film is resigned and bittersweet; it’s clear from the start that couplets won’t stop any bullets, and Ray wastes no time trying to convince us otherwise.

What intrigued me most about the movie was its case for the power of resignation. The Nawab’s finest political moment comes when he agrees against all justice to step down, realizing how bloody a revolt would be for his people. Likewise the chess players, whose friendship weathers marital storms, cuckoldry, bald cowardice, and finally the British Annexation, show nobility of a kind in accepting their fate with a “this too must pass” insouciance that throws their caste in a better light than the earlier sabre rattling and obsession with pedigrees. But Ray’s politics speak most loudly in what he chooses to leave out of the movie: that the grab for Oudh sparked the great Indian Mutiny, or Rebellion, of 1857—the most successful act of resistance to British rule until Gandhi. (It was the events of 1857 that provoked the British to end the East India Company and inaugurate the Raj.)

According to his website, Ray may have intended the film as a comment on Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency from 1975-1977, which I guess would mean putting the indolent but principled Wajid Ali Shah in contrast to the draconian, power-hungry Gandhi of those years. But I think Ray’s making a larger point about the nature of art and politics by questioning the efficacy of action—any action—in a world made up of transient shades of gray. What the chess players and the artist seem to share in the movie is a radical detachment from their immediate circumstances that allows them to see a bigger picture. The poet-king, even more so than the amateur enthusiasts of the movie’s title, doesn’t think in terms of this or that move so much as the game as a whole, where a skilled player often sees the end in the opening moves. Wajid Ali Shah quickly perceives the British are going to win—and, beyond that, that India (or at least his poetry) will survive their intrusion*—just as Ray, from his perch behind the camera, sees the birth of the Raj, or the Mutiny, or the State of Emergency, as moves in a game whose outcome shows itself most clearly to the artist, whose job it becomes to remember, condense and record with as much sympathy and dimension as possible.**

If the story has a hero, it's not a person but a poem: Wajid Ali Shah's own thumri, "Babul mora Naihar chhooto jaay" ("As we leave our beloved city of Lucknow/see what we have to go through ..."), for which the movie acts as commentary and gloss.

*Which it did; Wajid Ali's "Babul mora Chhooto jaay" was a hit in 1938's Street Singer and
is still sung today.
**See, for instance, this exchange between Ray and a critic of his "effete and effeminate" portrayal of Wajid Ali Shah

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mac Cormack, McCaffery & mARK in Portland, 3/2/08

Because I’m feeling just Portland enough to bike to readings now, I arrived late for Karen Mac Cormack at the burlesquey Someday Lounge. That and a low mike let me catch just enough of Implexures to pick up a multilayered history of place, and placelessness, as sensory details from (presumably) Mac Cormack’s family "polybiography" in Zambia mixed with allusions to other theres that aren’t quite there for its residents, except by an act of poesis, like the Athens that reminds the Australian tourist exactly of Adelaide’s Greektown.

Steve McCaffery
followed a terrific intro by David Abel—who’d just heard Frederic Rzewski play in Seattle—that compared his work to that of a composer/performer, exploratory and ‘finished,’ conceptual and well-executed at the same time. McCaffery opened with a poem addressed to its reader, listing all the things she may hate about the poem, anticipating her reasons for reading on anyway, imagining her circumstances (prison, class assignment), justifying itself (and by extension, poetry) through its wit and its sympathy with the reader’s own motives and needs.

That kind of teasing, game-like approach to the reading ‘contract’ wove through all the work McCaffery read, which stitched together crazily disparate frames of reference, Greeks to Google, into texts thick with homophones, spoonerisms, and puns. The effect was sort of George Carlin meets Italo Calvino in Jarry’s graduate seminar on Barthes; a serious play of concepts that emphasized the glassy surface of language as thought’s medium. He closed with a bravura poem dedicated to cardiologist Joseph Perloff, which took us at warp speed from Shakespeare's Sonnet 109, to bookish commentary thereon, to an intricate conceit that had phonemes clustering into syntax like cells, to a breakdown of (I think) the sonnet into its originary vowel sounds, spit out like rivets then returned to poetry. McCaffery’s endowed with a rich Yorkshire (?) accent that makes everything he says, for this life-long West Coast colonial anyway, sound twice as melodious and smart. He read mostly from manuscripts whose names I didn’t always catch, one of which is forthcoming from Chax.

The artist formerly known as mARK oWEns—for now just mARK—took up where McCaffery left off by turning his reading into an actual game: six players pushing lettered balls around a table and making song and sound with the results. I picked up the sung phrase “American Hiroshimas” several times, but otherwise couldn’t guess the formal principle structuring the chaos; who’s got time for structure when everyone’s rolling the English around having fun? “Experimental” poetry often gets stereotyped as dour and labcoaty; Sunday’s reading reminded me of its roots in puzzles, stutters, wordplay, and the primal pleasures of sounding out vowels.

Monday, March 03, 2008

On Garde

Johannes Göransson blogged a while back about the distinction between “avant-garde” and “high Modernist,” which got me wondering if "avant-garde," as a concept, makes sense in an Anglophone context. Has Britain or the U.S. ever really had an "avant-garde," had room for it in their conceptual attic? Or are we condemned to being high (er, post-high) Modernist, deliquescing into "experimentalists," or moving to Paris?

Johannes points out that if that’s true, the same could be said of pretty much anywhere except Paris, and maybe Germany. When I think of avant-gardes and the cities not Paris that loved them, I think Vienna, Moscow, maybe Munich—places sort of on the lip of modernity, where “avant-garde” and the notion of progress it both celebrates and spraycans were largely aspirational. The nations neck-high in high industry and the Protestant ethic never seemed to have much time for an avant-garde, producing “decadents” instead.

Which would make Paris—wealthy, Northern, global—the exception, not the rule. But is Paris really French? It gathered up Europe’s broken dreamers and gave them an arcade to glitter in, while native business ground on as usual at the Bourse and inside the lycees (still does). But a true map of the avant-garde would look less like a British colonel’s, each zone a unit touches filled in red, and more like one of Brent Cunningham’s Even-Scale maps, a few hashmarks clustered in a number of different capitals. Except, I guess, London, or Dublin, or even New York until the French started arriving in the ‘30s, discomfiting the homegrown drunks.