Friday, February 16, 2018

In praise of dirty, sexy cities: the urban world according to Walter Benjamin

Stuart Jeffries

Claude Monet

Marseille isn’t as wicked as it used to be. In 1929, the playwright and travel writer Basil Woon wrote From Deauville to Monte Carlo: a Guide to the Gay World of France, warning his respectable readers that, whatever they do, they should on no account visit France’s second city. “Thieves, cut-throats and other undesirables throng the narrow alleys and sisters of scarlet sit in the doorways of their places of business, catching you by the sleeve as you pass by. The dregs of the world are here unsifted … Marseille is the world’s wickedest port.”

Much has changed since 1929. Gay doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Marseille isn’t the world’s wickedest port, but subject to one of Europe’s biggest architectural makeover projects. It has become respectable enough to serve as European Capital of Culture in 2013. Its port has been sandblasted and civilised. Throughout the city – Eurostar’s latest destination from London – there are new trams, designer hotels, luxury flats and high-rise developments.

The last of these changes is freighted with symbolism. Marseille has been overwhelmingly horizontal since Greek graders founded it 2,600 years ago, its terracotta-roofed buildings spreading inland from the bay. Now it’s going vertical, with new skyscrapers glassily returning your gaze, looking like a Mediterranean sibling for those other formerly raffish docklands made safe for business suits – London, Hamburg and Baltimore.

The worry is, as Marseille comes to look like everywhere else, it loses what made it special – the saltiness, the wickedness, the downright smelliness so off-putting to some.

“Marseille – the yellow studded maw of a seal with salt water coming out between the teeth,” wrote the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. “When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine and printer’s ink …”

Benjamin wrote these words for a newspaper article in the same same year as A Guide to the Gay World of France excoriated Marseille. Unlike Basil Woon, he revelled in the city. Another French city, Toulouse, called itself la ville rose, the pink city, but for Benjamin, pink was more truly the colour of Marseille. “The palate itself is pink, which is the colour of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the discoloured women of Rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts.”

What Benjamin wrote about cities in newspaper essays in the 1920s and early 1930s, as well as in his book about 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project, remains fascinating and instructive, and not just because he was one of the first thinkers to suggest that urban living intensified feelings of isolation and atomisation.

What makes this German Jewish philosopher even more compelling is that he also found the opposite in cities – flashes of the utopian in the abject – and realised they could provide solutions to, as well be the causes of, alienation. This oddball communist from segregated Berlin interpreted cities such as Marseille, Moscow and Naples as kinds of laboratories that, just possibly, suggested how we might live better.

In his essay Hashish in Marseille, Benjamin described an evening wandering from cafe to cafe after taking the drug (the philosopher stoned): “I now suddenly understood how to a painter – had it not happened to Rembrandt and many others? – ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty, better than any treasure cask, a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features.” Benjamin encountered in his Marseille trance what his beloved Baudelaire had found when taking the same drug in Paris nearly 70 years before: an artificial paradise.

But the Marseille Benjamin savoured, and that scared Woon, scarcely exists any more. The red-light district of the Rue Bouterie survives only as collectable postcards from the wicked era of the later 1920s. So too Basso’s, one of the restaurants in which Benjamin dined that night, nearly nine decades ago, to stave off the munchies. As I wander the Marseille streets trying, and failing, to follow Benjamin’s footsteps, I’m disappointed: the people are insufficiently ugly. Perhaps if I’d been on hashish like Benjamin …

A different Marseille – sandblasted, primped and cultureified – is rising in its place. On the Quai d’Arenc, where once Benjamin found beauty in ugliness, an old silo building has been repurposed as a 2,000-seater auditorium. Elsewhere, an old chateau has been converted into the Centre for Mediterranean Cinematography, a Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations and, my personal favourite, a museum devoted to La Marseillaise, the French national anthem where, depending on your taste, you can hear Serge Gainsbourg croaking a reggae version of Stephane Grappelli.

But the worry here is that what Benjamin’s colleagues of the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – excoriated as “the culture industry” becomes a means of ripping the soul out of the place while making it look as though the opposite is happening. Without being unduly cynical, culture has become part of capitalism’s sanitising redevelopment of one of the most cherishably wicked of world cities.

The Arcades Project – that great ruin of a book he spent the last decade of his life assembling, until his suicide in Spain 75 years ago this month while on the run from the Nazis – focuses on the fading arcades of 19th-century Paris, in which once-fashionable shops, goods and building styles hung on briefly before Baron Haussmann destroyed them in favour of a yet-newer Paris. Benjamin was always drawn to these outmoded utopias, the formerly state-of-the-art technology, the ruins of progress – since they encoded, he thought, the delusions that capitalism instilled in its victims.

“Capitalism,” Benjamin wrote in 1922, “is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.” By that, in part, he meant that capitalism abases us before the new, subdues us not with opium but with must-have commodities. And cities could be shrines to the cult, too.

To get a sense of this, simply take the tourist boat trip from the Vieux Port along the coast to see the legendary Chateau d’If (where the Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated) and the Calanques (the limestone cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean). Look back and you’ll see a city skyline that did not exist when Benjamin and Woon wrote. Since 1864, the city was dominated by Notre Dame de la Garde, standing high on a hill on the site of a former fort. Now though, it rhymes with Zaha Hadid’s Tour French Line. The Iraqi-British architect says that her tower complements the basilica. It also, though, represents a challenge to it: hers is a glassy temple to a newer deity.

The focus of that redevelopment, Euroméditerranée, is among the biggest renovations schemes in Europe. It echoes what Marseille’s twin city of Hamburg is doing at HafenCity – the German port’s former docks – and similarly risks making the raffish respectable, the salty sweet, the wicked merely nice. That, so often, has been the fate of docklands redevelopments: think of London’s Docklands now devoid of opium dens and free-swearing dockers. It risks, that is to say, obliterating everything Benjamin liked about Marseille.

New Marseille is typified by Zaha Hadid’s 147m-tall Tour French Line, the corporate headquarters for shipping container company CMA-CGM. Jean Nouvel has designed three more skyscrapers for the city which, to sceptics, are excellent ways of making Marseille lose its identity.

According to the French film director Robert Guédiguian, who sets most of his films (including Marius et Jeannette and La Ville est Tranquille) in and around his home city: “All that squeezes itself between the buildings, that insinuates itself between the architectural drawings and political plans, must be carefully preserved because it is there that one finds the city’s future.”

For Guédiguian, what squeezes itself between these plans is a much more interesting city – a multi-ethnic metropolis that includes 120,000 north African immigrants whose presence has led to Marseille being called Sahara on Sea. “Marseille isn’t France. Marseille isn’t Provence. Marseille is the world,” says Guédiguian.

So what would Walter Benjamin have made of the new city that is rising over the traces of the one he loved? What’s striking about his vision of the former city is how sensitive he was to false utopianism, to the bulldozing of the past and the dreams of progress.

In promising newness, progress, built utopias, bulldozing wickedness and poverty, the development of urban landscapes could make the faithful believe more ardently in what – for a communist such as Benjamin – in fact, oppressed them. Again and again, he takes the perspective of one looking back on failed utopias, on the obsolete commodities that were once must-haves. The Benjamin scholar Max Pensky explains the political force of how Benjamin wrote about cities: “The fantasy world of material well-being promised by every commodity now is revealed as a hell of unfulfillment; the promise of eternal newness and unlimited progress … now appear as their opposite: as primal history, the mythic compulsion toward endless repetition.”

None of the above should suggest that Walter Benjamin disliked cities. Rather, he found in the ones he really liked – Marseille, Naples and Moscow in particular – antidotes to the socially zoned, ghettoised Berlin in which he had been raised around 1900.
For instance, in 1927, he took a sleigh ride through Moscow. “Where Europeans, on their rapid journeys, enjoy superiority, dominance over the masses,” he wrote, “the Muscovite in the little sleigh is closely mingled with people and things. If he has a box, a child, or a basket to take with him – for all this, the sleigh is the cheapest means of transport – he is truly wedged into the street bustle. No condescending gaze: a tender, swift brushing along stones, people and horses. You feel like a child gliding through the house on a little chair.”
Ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Benjamin was visiting the Soviet capital to study what he called “ the world-historical experiment”. “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table,” he wrote. Riding on a Moscow tram was, for the pampered Berliner, a new experience – the poor got up close and personal. “A tenacious shoving and barging during the boarding of a vehicle usually overloaded to the point of bursting takes place without a sound and with great cordiality. (I have never heard an angry word on these occasions).”

For a German Jew born to a wealthy family, this new experience of city life was tremendously exciting. During Benjamin’s childhood, in the exclusive suburbs of west Berlin, the poor scarcely existed, still less got close enough to jostle him on public transport. In his memoir, A Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote of his upbringing that “the class that had pronounced him one of its number resided in a posture compounded of self-satisfaction and resentment that turned the district into something like a ghetto held on a lease. In any case, he was confined to this affluent neighbourhood without knowing any other. The poor? For rich children of his generation, they lived at the back of beyond.”

In the 1920s, Benjamin spent a lot of time in cities such as Moscow, Naples and Marseille – each in its different way giving him a cure to the disease of modern life in general, and the one in which he had been raised in particular. His compatriot, the German sociologist Max Weber, had written of the iron cage of capitalism inside which humans were submitted to efficiency, calculation and control. Cities were part of that system of control, which worked by keeping the poor and rich in their proper places. The cities that turned Walter Benjamin on were the opposite of that: porous labyrinths annulling class, time, space and even distinctions of light and dark.

Benjamin’s enthusiasm for these cities is, nearly 100 years on, contagious. Particularly as so many of the world’s leading cities have turned sclerotic – socially stratified cages to keep the riff raff out and the rest of us polishing our must-have Nespresso machines.

In Paris, the poor are banished beyond the périphérique so that when they revolt, they destroy their own banlieues rather than the French capital’s fussily maintained environment. London’s key workers strap-hang on laughable trains from distant commuter towns to serve the wealthy before being returned to their flats in time for the de facto curfew each day. Manhattan island is today a pristine vitrine on which the lower orders don’t even get to leave their mucky paw prints, but inside which the rich get to fulfil with unparallelled freedom their uninteresting desires. I’m exaggerating in each case, but not much. Many of the world’s leading cities are becoming like the Berlin that Benjamin called a prison, and from which he escaped whenever possible.

The point of the cities Benjamin loved, by contrast, was that they broke through physical, ethnic and class barriers. In Marseille, Naples and Moscow, life was not a private commodity, but “dispersed, porous, commingled”. In Naples, about which he wrote with his Latvian lover Asja Lacis, he found private life had been effectively abolished: “What distinguishes Naples from other large cities is something it has in common with the African kraal: each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life. To exist, for the northern European the most private of affairs, is here, as in the kraal, a collective matter.” He and Lacis found in Naples that “just as the living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so only much more loudly the street migrates into the living room”.

In Naples, Benjamin noted with a north European’s shock, children are up at all hours. “At midday, they then lie sleeping behind a shop counter or on a stairway. This sleep, which men and women also snatch in shady corners, is therefore not the protected northern sleep. Here, too, there is interpenetration of day and night, noise and peace, outer light and inner darkness, street and home … Poverty has brought about a stretching of frontiers that mirrors the most radiant freedom of thought.”

Is Naples today anything like the one that Benjamin and his lover eulogised? The great Italian actor Toni Servillo once told me that what he loved about Naples was that it was the world in miniature. At the time, Servillo was promoting a film called Gorbaciof, set in the Vasto, the city’s multi-ethnic district around the main railway station. And what Servillo says remains true: the great port city of Naples attracts so many immigrant communities that it can still be experienced as a messy rebuke to cities that work through de facto ethnic cleansing and social exclusion. Today, there’s a Neopolitain walking tour that takes tourists from the Senegalese market in Via Bologna, to mosques in the Pendino district, past Arab pastry shops and African hair salons, to stalls selling Maghreb crafts.

As for Benjamin, his last visit to Marseille was a bitter one. In August 1940, he found the city teeming with refugees terrified of falling into the Gestapo’s clutches. He had arrived in Marseille for an appointment at the US consulate, where he was issued with an entry visa for the United States and transit visas for Spain and Portugal.

In mid-September, Benjamin and two refugee acquaintances from Marseille decided to travel to the French countryside near the Spanish border and try to cross the Pyrenees on foot. The myopic, weak-hearted, 48-year-old philosopher made it across the border to the Catalan town of Port Bou, but then learned that the Spanish authorities were likely to return him and his fellow refugees to France – from where, most likely, they would be transferred to concentration camps and murdered.

Benjamin’s body was found in a hotel room, and it is generally thought he took a drug overdose. The inscription on his gravestone in Port Bou quotes, in German and Catalan, from one of his last essays, Theses on the Philosophy of History: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

It’s an aphorism that has been interpreted many ways, not least as suggesting that the progress of capitalism was bound up with the rise of fascism. But it also can be interpreted as pertaining to what cities are.

Benjamin didn’t live in an era in which the development of new cities often means state-of-the-art golf courses fringed with fig-leaf social housing; leaf-shaped islands for the über rich that can be seen from the international space station; and gated estates expressly designed so residents can experience that same, perilously short-leased mixture of resentment and self-satisfaction that his parents enjoyed a century ago.

Nor, of course, did Benjamin live to see the attempt to purge Marseille of its wickedness. If he had, he would doubtless have seen through the ostensible civilisation to the barbarism beneath.

Credits:  This article appeared originally in 2015 in The Guardian.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

There hangs a tale...

Justine Hankins

Paul Klee

I have a cat calendar that features a different kitty for every day of the year, alongside a feline-themed quote. It's only August, yet I've already had two offerings from Colette: "Time spent with cats is never wasted" (January 8) and "There are no ordinary cats" (June 16). Colette's felinophilia slinks into virtually every cat reference book in existence. Take this example from Desmond Morris's Catworld: A Feline Encyclopedia: "Colette - Cat owner: French novelist (1873-1954) with a lifelong passion for cats who wrote a number of books about her pets." Five of Colette's published works are listed, all of them about pets. Is that it? What about her three husbands, her many lovers, her colourful career in music hall theatre, or the hedonism of the Parisian demimonde that she inhabited? She had a lot of dogs, too, by the way. And, while we're at it, what about the literature.

Colette died 50 years ago this month [Aug. 2004] so now is a fitting point to rescue her from the trough of banality that is the Quotable Cat gift industry, which endlessly extracts sweet, but essentially asinine, words from the works of accomplished authors. I considered rustling up a seminal reappraisal of Colette's vast oeuvre through a close reading of her relationship with Fanchette, La Touteu, Minionne, Pinichette and Petiteu (these names are all options for your own cats, by the way, pretentious monikers for cats being perfectly acceptable). But instead I borrowed from the library Secrets Of The Flesh: A Life Of Colette, by Judith Thurman, and dug out a review from the London Review of Books that describes Colette (affectionately, I feel) as "the frizzle-headed Cat Woman of 20th-century French writing".

Photographs in the book show Colette in drag; Colette bare-breasted; Colette draped over a dead lion; and Colette many times over with cats and dogs. She was fond of French bulldogs such as Toby-Chien, "an adorable creature whose face looked like a frog's that had been sat upon". (Incidentally, you can't call your dog Toby-Chien - dogs must have solid, workaday names, none of your fancy stuff.)

Colette got into that one-name thing long before Madonna or Prince, or even Snoopy for that matter (it's Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette, if you must know). She produced around 80 volumes of fiction, drama, memoirs and journalism. She grew up surrounded by animals - according to Thurman, Colette's mother "boasted of her ability to housebreak pets and children". Her fiction, letters and memoirs are peppered with astute observations about cats and dogs. She wrote Dialogues de Bêtes, a collection of quirky one-act plays with two characters: a cat, Kiki-La-Doucette, and a dog, Toby-Chien. The amours, desires and intrigues of Colette's animal characters are depicted with the same sensual lyricism as those of her wayward schoolgirls, adventurous women, acrobats, mimes, lovers and loners.

But the attention of any bibliophile cat owner is bound to be grabbed most by The Cat, a curious long-short story about an untenable triangular relationship between a man, a woman and, obviously, a cat. Thurman describes Colette's prose in this story as "particularly feline - both detached and voluptuous". Alain is in love with his cat, Saha ("My little puma! Beloved cat! Creature of the tree tops!"), and about to marry Camille, a modern woman who drives "a little too fast and a little too well". At one prenuptial point, we find Alain flung "on the cool expanse of the sheets" with Saha "purring full-throatedly" while her owner sighs: "Ah! Saha. Our nights ... " That's not a quote that has turned up on my calendar so far, but it might make you want to read the book.

Credit:  This article originally appeared in 2004 in The Guardian. It has been modified slightly for the sake of coherency.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Homeric Versions

Jorge Luis Borges

No problem is as consubstantial to literature and its modest mystery as the one posed by translation. The forgetfulness induced by vanity, the fear of confessing mental processes that may be divined as dangerously commonplace, the endeavor to maintain, central and intact, an incalculable reserve of obscurity: all watch over the various forms of direct writing. Translation, in contrast, seems destined to illustrate aesthetic debate. The model to be imitated is a visible text, not an immeasurable labyrinth of former projects or a submission to the momentary temptation of fluency. Bertrand Russell defines an external object as a circular system radiating possible impressions; the same may be said of a text, given the incalculable repercussions of words. Translations are a partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers. Are not the many versions of the Iliad from Chapman to Magnien-merely different perspectives on a mutable fact, a long experimental game of chance played with omissions and emphases? (There is no essential necessity to change languages; this intentional game of attention is possible within a single literature.) To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H-for there can only be drafts. The concept of the "definitive text" corresponds only to religion or exhaustion.

The superstition about the inferiority of translations-coined by the well-known Italian adage-is the result of absentmindedness. There is no good text that does not seem invariable and definitive if we have turned to it a sufficient number of times. Hume identified the habitual idea of causality with that of temporal succession. Thus a good film, seen a second time, seems even better; we tend to take as necessity that which is no more than repetition. With famous books, the first time is actually the second, for we begin them already knowing them. The prudent common phrase "rereading the classics" is the result of an unwitting truth. I do not know if the statement "In a place in La Mancha, whose name I don't wish to recall, there lived not long ago a nobleman who kept a lance and shield, a greyhound and a skinny old nag" would be considered good by an impartial divinity; I only know that any modification would be sacrilegious and that I cannot conceive of any other beginning for the Quixote. Cervantes, I think, ignored this slight superstition and perhaps never noted that particular paragraph. I, in contrast, can only reject any divergence. The Quixote, due to my congenital practice of Spanish, is a uniform monument, with no other variations except those provided by the publisher, the bookbinder, and the typesetter; the Odyssey, thanks to my opportune ignorance of Greek, is an international bookstore of works in prose and verse, from Chapman's couplets to Andrew Lang's "Authorized Version" or Berard's classic French drama or Morris' vigorous saga or Butler's ironic bourgeois novel. I abound in the mention of English names because English literature has always been amicable toward this epic of the sea, and the series of its versions of the Odyssey would be enough to illustrate the course of its centuries. That heterogenous and even contradictory richness is not attributable solely to the evolution of the English language, or to the mere length of the original, or to the deviations or diverse capacities of the translators, but rather to a circumstance that is particular to Homer: the difficult category of knowing what pertains to the poet and what pertains to the language. To that fortunate difficulty we owe the possibility of so many versions, all of them sincere, genuine, and divergent.

Salvador Dalí

I know of no better example than that of the Homeric adjectives. The divine Patroclus, the nourishing earth, the wine-dark sea, the solid-hoofed horses, the damp waves, the black ship, the black blood, the beloved knees, are recurrent expressions, inopportunely moving. In one place, he speaks of the "rich noblemen who drink of the black waters of the Aesopos"; in another, of a tragic king who, "wretched in delightful Thebes, governed the Cadmeans by the gods' fatal decree." Alexander Pope (whose lavish translation we shall scrutinize later) believed that these irremovable epithets were liturgical in character. Remy de Gourmont, in his long essay on style, writes that at one time they must have been incantatory, although they no longer are so. I have preferred to suspect that these faithful epithets were what prepositions still are: modest and obligatory sounds that usage adds to certain words and upon which no originality may be exercised. We know that it is correct to go "on foot" and not "with foot." The rhapsodist knew that the correct adjective for Patroclus was "divine." Neither case is anthetic proposition. I offer these speculations without enthusiasm; the only certainty is the impossibility of separating what pertains to the author from what pertains to the language. When we read, in Agustin Moreto (if we must read Agustin Moreto): Pues en casa tan compuestas Que hacen todo el santo dia? [At home so elegant/What do they do the whole blessed day?], we know that the holiness of the day is an instance of the Spanish language, and not of the writer. With Homer, in contrast, we remain infinitely ignorant of the emphases.

For a lyric or elegiac poet, our uncertainty about his intentions could be devastating, but not for a reliable expositor of vast plots. The events of the Iliad and the Odyssey amply survive, even though Achilles and Odysseus, what Homer meant by naming them, and what he actually thought of them have all disappeared. The present state of his works is like a complex equation that represents the precise relations of unknown quantities. There is no possible greater richness for the translator. Browning's most famous book consists of ten detailed accounts of a single crime by each of those implicated in it. All of the contrast derives from the characters, not from the events, and it is almost as intense and unfathomable as that of ten legitimate versions of Homer.

The beautiful Newman-Arnold debate (1861-62), more important than either of its participants, extensively argued the two basic methods of translation. Newman defended the literal mode, the retention of all verbal singularities; Arnold, the strict elimination of details that distract or detain the reader, the subordination of the Homer who is irregular in every line to the essential or conventional  Homer, one composed of a syntactical simplicity, a simplicity of ideas, a flowing rapidity, and loftiness. The latter method provides the pleasures of uniformity and nobility; the former, of continuous and small surprises.

I would like to consider the various fates of a single passage from Homer. These are the events recounted by Odysseus to the ghost of Achilles in the city of the Cimmerians, on the night without end, and they concern Achilles' son Neoptolemus ( Odyssey XI). Here is Buckley's literal version:

But when we had sacked the lofty city of Priam, having his share and excellent reward, he embarked unhurt on a ship, neither stricken with the sharp brass, nor wounded in fighting hand to hand, as oftentimes happens in war; for Mars confusedly raves.

That of the equally literal but archaicizing Butcher and Lang:

But after we had sacked the steep city of Priam, he embarked unscathed with his share of the spoil, and with a noble prize; he was not smitten with the sharp spear, and got no wound in close fight: and many such chances there be in war, for Ares rageth confusedly.

Cowper in 1791:

At length when we had sack'd the lofty town/ Of Priam, laden with abundant spoils/ He safe embark'd, neither by spear of shaft/ Aught hurt, or in close fight by faulchion's edge/ As oft in war befalls, where wounds are dealt/ Promiscuous, at the will of fiery Mars.

Pope's 1725 version:

And when the Gods our arms with conquest crown'd/ When Troy's proud bulwarks smok'd upon the ground,/ Greece to reward her soldier's gallant toils/ Heap'd high his navy with unnumber'd spoils./ Thus great in glory from the din of war/ Safe he return'd, without one hostile scar;/ Tho' spears in the iron tempests rain'd around,/ Yet innocent they play'd and guiltless of a wound.

George Chapman in 1614:

... In the event, High Troy depopulate, he made ascent To his fair ship, with prise and treasure store Safe; and no touch away with him he bore Of far-off-hurl'd lance, or of close-fought sword, Whose wounds for favours and war doth oft afford, Which he (though sought) miss'd in war's closest wage. In close fights Mars doth never fight, but rage.

And Butler in 1900:

Yet when we had sacked the city of Priam he got his handsome share of the prize money and went on board (such is the fortune of war) without a wound upon him, neither from a thrown spear nor in close combat, for the rage of Mars is a matter of great chance.

The third version, Cowper's, is the most innocuous of all: it is as literal as the requirements of Miltonic stresses permit. Pope's is extraordinary. His luxuriant language (like that of Gongora) may be defined by its unconsidered and mechanical use of superlatives. For example: the hero's single black ship is multiplied into a fleet. Always subject to this law of amplification, all of his lines fall into two large classes: the purely oratorical ("And when the Gods our arms with conquest crown'd") or the visual ("When Troy's proud bulwarks smok'd upon the ground"). Speeches and spectacles: that is Pope. The passionate Chapman is also spectacular, but his mode is the lyric, not oratory. Butler, in contrast, demonstrates his determination to avoid all visual opportunities and to turn Homer's text into a series of sedate news items.

Which of these many translations is faithful? my reader will want to know. I repeat: none or all of them. If fidelity refers to Homer's imaginations and the irrecoverable men and days that he portrayed, none of them are faithful for us, but all of them would be for a tenth-century Greek. If it refers to his intentions, then any one of the many I have transcribed would suffice, except for the literal versions, whose virtue lies entirely in their contrast to contemporary practices. It is not impossible that Butler's unruffled version is the most faithful.

•Another of Homer's habits is the fine abuse of adversative conjunctions. Here are some examples: "Die, but I shall receive my own destiny wherever Zeus and the other immortal gods desire" (Iliad XXII). "Astyokhe, daughter of Aktor: a modest virgin when she ascended to the upper rooms of her father's dwelling, but secretly the god Ares lay beside her" (Iliad II). " [The Myrmidons] were like wolves carnivorous and fierce and tireless, who rend a great stag on a mountainside and feed on him, but their jaws are reddened with blood" (Iliad XVI). "Zeus of Dodona, god of Pelasgians, 0 god whose home lies far! Ruler of wintry harsh Dodona! But your ministers, the Selloi, live with feet unwashed, and sleep on the hard ground" (Iliad XVI). "Be happy, lady, in this love, and when the year passes you will bear glorious children, for the couplings of the immortals are not without issue. But you must look after them, and raise them. Go home now and hold your peace and tell nobody my name, but I tell it to you; I am the Earthshaker Poseidon" ( Odyssey XI). "After him I was aware of powerful Herakles; his image, that is, but he himself among the immortal gods enjoys their festivals, married to sweet-stepping Hebe, child of great Zeus and Hera of the golden sandals"  (Odyssey XI). I shall add the flamboyant translation that George Chapman did of this last passage: "Down with these was thrust/ The idol of the force of Hercules,/ But his firm self did no such fate oppress./ He feasting lives amongst th' immortal States /White-ankled Hebe and himself made mates/ In heav'nly nuptials. Hebe, Jove's dear race/ And Juno's whom the golden sandals grace."

(1932, trans. Eliot Weinberger)

Credit: For the source copy, go to The Homeric Versions Some changes have been made to the formatting for practical reasons.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

All Parrots Speak

Paul Bowles

Bird Lady by Ned Shuchter

Parrots are amusing, decorative, long-lived, and faithful in their affections, but the quality which distinguishes them from most of God’s other inventions is their ability to imitate the sounds of human speech. A parrot that cannot talk or sing is, we feel, an incomplete parrot. For some reason it fascinates us to see a small, feather-covered creature with a ludicrous, senile face speaking a human language—so much, indeed, that the more simple-minded of us tend to take seriously the idea suggested by our subconscious: that a parrot really is a person (in disguise, of course), but capable of human thought and feeling. In Central America and Mexico I have listened for hours while the Indian servants in the kitchen held communion with the parrot—monologues which the occasional interjections from the perch miraculously transformed into conversations. And when I questioned the Indians I found a recurrent theme in their replies: the parrot can be a temporary abode for a human spirit. Our own rational system of thought unhappily forbids such extravagances; nevertheless the atavism is there, felt rather than believed. The uneducated, unsophisticated Indian, on the other hand, makes an ideal companion and mentor for the parrot. The long colloquies about what to put into the soup, or which rebozo to wear to the fiesta, are in themselves education of a sort that few of us have the time or patience to provide. It is not surprising that most of the parrots that have found their way to the United States have been trained by rural Latin-Americans. As important as the spoken word in these relationships is a continuous association with one or two individuals. A parrot is not a sociable bird; it usually develops an almost obsessive liking for a very few people, and either indifference or hatred toward everyone else. Its human relationships are simple extensions of its monogamous nature. There is not much difference between being a one-man bird and a one-bird bird. I remember the day when I first became parrot-conscious.

It was in Costa Rica; my wife and I had been riding all morning with the vaqueros and were very thirsty. At a gatehouse between ranch properties we asked a woman for water. When we had drunk our fill, rested and chatted, she motioned us into a dim corner and said “Miren, qué graciosos!” There, perched on a stick, were seven little creatures. She carried the stick out into the light, and I saw that each of the seven tiny bags of pinkish-gray skin had a perfectly shaped, hooked yellow beak, wide open. And when I looked closely, I could see miniature brilliant green feathers growing out of the wrinkles of skin. We discussed the diet and care of young parrots, and our hostess generously offered us one. Jane claimed she couldn’t bear to think of breaking up the family, and so we went on our way parrotless. But a week later, while waiting for a river boat, we had to spend the night in the “hotel” of a hamlet called Bebedero. Our room was built on stilts above a vast mud welter where enormous hogs were wallowing, and it shook perilously when they scratched their backs against the supporting piles. The boat came in fifteen hours late, and there was nothing we could do but sit in the breathlessly hot room and wait. Nothing, that is, until the proprietor appeared in the doorway with a full-grown parrot perched on his finger and asked us if we wanted to converse with it. “Does it speak?” I asked. “Claro que sí. All parrots speak.” My ignorance astonished him. Then he added, “Of course it doesn’t speak English. Just its own language.” He left the bird with us. It did indeed speak its own language, something that no philologist would have been able to relate to any dialect. Its favorite word, which it pronounced with the utmost tenderness, was “Budupple.” When it had said that several times with increasing feeling, it would turn its head downward at an eighty-degree angle, add wistfully: “Budupple mah?” and then be quiet for a while. Of course we bought it; the proprietor put it into a burlap sugar sack, and we set out downstream with it. The bend of the river just below Bebedero was still visible when it cut its way out of the bag and clambered triumphantly onto my lap. During the rest of the two-day trip to San José the bird was amenable enough if allowed to have its own way unconditionally. In the hotel at San José it ate a lens out of a lorgnette, a tube of toothpaste, and a good part of a Russian novel. Most parrots merely make mincemeat out of things and let the debris fall where it will, but this one actually ate whatever he destroyed. We were certain that the glass he had swallowed would bring about a catastrophe, but day after day passed, and Budupple seemed as well as ever. In Puerto Limón we had a cage made for him; unfortunately the only material available was tin, so that by the time we got off the ship at Puerto Barrios and were inside its customshouse the convict had sawed his way through the bars and got out on top of his cage. With his claws firmly grasping the cage roof, the bird could lean far out and fasten his beak into whatever presented itself. As we waited in line for the various official tortures to begin, what presented itself was a very stout French lady under whose skirt he poked his head, and up whose fleshy calf he then endeavored to climb, using beak and claw. The incident provided an engrossing intermission for the other voyagers.

The next morning, with six porters in tow, we were running through the streets to catch the train for the capital; at one point, when I set the cage down to shift burdens, Budupple slid to the ground and waddled off toward a mango tree. I threw the cage after him and we hurried on to where the train was waiting. We got in; it had just begun to move when there was a commotion on the platform and Budupple was thrust through the open window onto the seat. The Indian who had perpetrated this enormity had just time to say, “Here’s your parrot,” and wave the battered cage victoriously up and down as a gesture of farewell. Tin is evidently worth more than parrot flesh in Puerto Barrios.

A few days later we arrived in Antigua, where we let Budupple get up into an avocado tree in the back patio of the pension and stay. I have often wondered if he managed to survive the resident iguana that regularly took its toll of ducks and chickens.

It might seem that after so inauspicious an introduction to parrot-keeping, I should have been content to live quietly with my memories. But I kept wondering what Budupple would have been like under happier circumstances. After all, a parrot is not supposed to travel continually. And the more I reflected, the more firmly I determined to try another bird. Two years later I found myself in Acapulco with a house whose wooded patio seemed to have ample room for whatever birds or beasts I might wish.

I started out with a Mexican cotorro. To a casual observer a cotorro looks like a rather small parrot. Its feathers are the same green—perhaps a shade darker—and it has the general characteristics of a parrot, save that the beak is smaller, and the head feathers, which would be yellow on a loro real (the Latin American’s name for what we call parrot), are orange instead. Neither this cotorro, nor any other I ever had, learned to say anything intelligible. If you can imagine a taperecording of an old-fashioned rubber-bulbed Parisian taxi horn run off at double speed, you have a fair idea of what their conversation sounds like. The only sign of intelligence this cotorro displayed was to greet me by blowing his little taxi horn immediately, over and over. After I had set him free I went out and got a true parrot.

This one came to be the darling of the servants, because, although he had no linguistic repertory to speak of, he could do a sort of Black Bottom on his perch and perform correctly, imitating the sound of a bugle, a certain military march almost to the end. The kitchen was his headquarters, where, when things got dull for Rosa, Amparo and Antonio, they could bribe him into performing with pieces of banana and tortilla. Occasionally he wandered into the patio or along the corredor to visit the rest of the house, but he liked best the dimness and smoke of the kitchen, where five minutes seldom passed without his being scratched or fed, or at least addressed.

The next psittacine annexation to the household (in the interim there came an armadillo, an ocelot and a tejón—a tropical version of the raccoon) was a parakeet named Hitler. He was about four inches high and no one could touch him. All day he strutted about the house scolding, in an eternal rage, sometimes pecking at the servants’ bare toes. His voice was a sputter and a squeak, and his Spanish never got any further than the two words periquito burro (stupid parakeet), which always came at the end of one of his diatribes; trembling with emotion, he would pronounce them in a way that recalled the classical orator’s “I have spoken.” He was not a very interesting individual because his personality was monochromatic, but I became attached to him; his energy was incredible. When I moved away he was the only member of the menagerie that I took with me.

For some time I had had my eye on a spectacular macaw that lived up the street. She was magnificently red, with blue and yellow trimmings, and she had a voice that could have shouted orders in a foundry. I used to go in the afternoon to study her vocal abilities; after a while I decided I wanted her, although I remained convinced that the few recognizable words she was capable of screaming owed their intelligibility solely to chance. It was unlikely that anyone had ever spoken to her of the Oriental dessert known as baklava, or of the Battle of Balaklava, and even less probable that she had overheard discussions concerning Max Ernst’s surrealist picture book, "La femme cent têtes", in which the principal character is a monster called Loplop. These words, however, figured prominently in her monologues. Sometimes she threw in the Spanish word agua, giving equal and dire stress to each syllable, but I think even that was luck. At all events, soon she was in my patio, driving the entire household, including the other birds, into a frenzy of irritability. At five o’clock every morning she climbed to the top of the lemon tree, the highest point in the neighborhood, flapped her clipped wings with a sound like bedsheets in the wind, and let loose that unbelievable voice. Nothing could have brought her down, save perhaps the revolver of the policeman who lived three doors away and who came early one morning to the house, weapon in hand, ready do the deed if he could get into the patio. “I can’t stand it any longer, señor,” he explained. (He went away with two pesos to buy tequila.)

There is a certain lizardlike quality still discernible in the psittacine birds; this is particularly striking in the macaw, the most unlikely and outlandish-looking of the family. Whenever I watched Loplop closely I thought of the giant parrots whose fossils were found not so long ago in Brazil. All macaws have something antediluvian about them. In the open, when they fly in groups, making their peculiar elliptical spirals, they look like any other large bright birds; but when they are reduced by the loss of their wing tips and tail feathers to waddling, crawling, climbing and flopping, they look strangely natural, as if they might have an atavistic memory of a time when they were without those appendages and moved about as they do now in captivity.

The word “captivity” it not really apt, since in Latin America no one keeps macaws in cages; they are always loose, sometimes on perches or in nearby trees, and it seems never to occur to them to want to escape. The only macaws I have seen chained or caged belonged to Americans; they were vicious and ill-tempered, and the owners announced that fact with a certain pride. The parrot, too, although less fierce in its love of freedom and movement, loathes being incarcerated. It has a fondness for its cage (provided the floor is kept clean), but it wants the door left open so it can go in and out as it pleases. There is not much point in having a parrot if you are going to keep it caged.

Loplop was headstrong and incurably greedy. She had her own bowl of very sweet café con leche in a corner on the floor, and whatever we gave her she dipped into the bowl before devouring it. The edible contributions we made during mealtimes were more like blood money than disinterested gifts, for we would have handed her practically anything on the table to keep her from climbing onto it. Once she did that, all was lost: silverware was scattered, cups were overturned, food flew. She went through things like a snowplow. It was not that we spoiled her, but anyone will reflect a moment before crossing a creature with a beak like a pair of hedge clippers.

The afternoon Jane left for a weekend in Taxco, Loplop decided that I was lonely. She came to tell me so while I was lying in a hammock. Reaching up from the floor and using my posterior for leverage, she climbed into the hammock. I moved quickly to another, taking care first to raise it well into the air. She gurgled. If I wanted to make things difficult, it was quite all right with her; she had plenty of time to achieve her aim. She clambered down, pushed across the floor, shinnied up one of the posts that held the hammock, and slid down the rope into my lap. By the time I realized what had happened, it was too late. I was in my bathing trunks, and she made it quite clear that if I attempted to lift her off she would show no mercy. All she wanted was to have her belly scratched, but she wanted it badly and for an indefinite period of time. For two hours I half-heartedly tickled and scratched her underside, while she lay on her back opening and closing her idiotic eyes, a prey to some mysterious, uncatalogued avian ecstasy. From that day onwards she followed me through the house, ogling me, screaming “Baklava! Loplop!” trying to use my legs as a tree trunk to climb up to my face. Absolute devotion, while admirable, tends to become tedious. I sold Loplop back to the ladies from whom I had bought her.

The following year I found the best of all my Amazons, a perfect loro real with a great gift for mimicry. I looked into a little garden and there it was, perched in its cage, demurely conscious of being stared at. I approached it, asked it its name, and it slowly turned itself upside down before it put its head to the bars nearest me and replied in a coquettish falsetto that was almost a whisper: “Co-to-rri-to.” This, although it was in truth its name, was obviously a misnomer, for the bird was not a cotorro but a parrot, and a large-sized one. We had a short conversation about the weather, after which I bought my new friend, cage and all, for six dollars and carried it home, to the delight of the Indian maids, who felt that the kitchen was not complete without a loro to talk to during the long hours they spent combing their hair. They wanted beauty advice. “Do you like it this way?” they would ask, and then, changing the position of the tresses, comb in mouth, “Or like this?”

Cotorrito was an intelligent bird—well-balanced emotionally, and with a passion for regularity. He wanted his cage uncovered at half past six in the morning, and bananas at seven. At about nine he had to be let out so he could perch on top of his cage, where he would stay until noon. Then he made his tour of inspection of the house, toddling from room to room, just to be sure the place was in order. After that he climbed on to an old bicycle tire, hung in a shady part of the patio, and remained perched there while we ate lunch nearby, joining in the conversation with short comments such as “Verdad?” “Cómo?” or “Ay!” and bursting into hysterical giggles if the talk became more animated than usual. During the afternoon he took his siesta along with the rest of the house hold. When the shadows lengthened he grew lyrical, as parrots have a way of doing toward the end of the day; and when the maids gathered in the kitchen to prepare dinner he went back there, climbed atop his cage and superintended their work for two hours or so. When he got sleepy, he stepped into the cage and softly demanded to have the door shut and the cover put over him. His performing repertory seemed to be a matter of degree of excitement rather than of choice. Tranquillity expressed itself in a whispered monologue, quite unintelligible, punctuated with short remarks in Spanish. One step above that took him completely into Spanish. From there he went into his giggles, from that into strident song. (At some point he must have lived within hearing of a very bad soprano, because the flatted notes of a song which began “No sé qué frio extraño se ha metido en mi corazón,” were always identical.) Beyond that there came a strange rural domestic scene which began with a baby that cried, sobbed, and choked for lack of breath, went on to a comforting mother, an effete-sounding father who shouted “Cállate!” a very nervous dog that yapped, and several varieties of poultry including a turkey. Lastly, if his emotion exceeded even this stage, which happened very seldom, he let loose a series of jungle calls. Whoever was within hearing quickly departed, in sheer self-protection. Under normal circumstances these different emotional planes were fairly widely separated, but a good loud jazz record could induce a rough synopsis of the entire gamut. The sound of the clarinet, above all, stimulated him: giggling went into wailing and wailing into barking, barking turned swiftly into jungle calls— and at that point one had to take the record off or leave the house. Cotorrito was a good parrot: he bit me only once, and that was not his fault. It was in Mexico City. I had bought a pair of new shoes which turned out to be squeaky, and I was wearing them when I came into the apartment after dark. I neglected to turn on the light, and without speaking walked straight to where Cotorrito was perched on top of his cage. He heard the unfamiliar shoes, leaned out and attacked the stranger. When he discovered his shameful error he pretended it had been due to extreme sleepiness, but I had previously roused him from sleep innumerable times with no such deplorable result.

Two parrots live with me now. I put it thus, rather than, “I own two parrots,” because there is something about them that makes them very difficult to claim as one’s property. A creature that spends its entire day observing the minutiae of your habits and vocal inflections is more like a rather critical friend who comes for an indefinite stay. Both of my present birds have gone away at various times; one way or another they have been found, ransomed from their more recent friends and brought back home. Seth, the African Grey, is the greatest virtuoso performer I have ever had. But then, African Greys are all geniuses beside Amazons; it is unfair to compare them. He was born in a suburb of Leopoldville in August, 1955, and thus by parrot standards is still an infant-in-arms. If he continues to study under his present teacher, a devout Moslem lady who works in my kitchen, he ought, like any good Moslem, to know quite a bit of the Koran by the time he reaches adolescence. The other guest, who has been with me for the past fourteen years, is a yellow-headed Amazon. I bought him from a Moroccan who was hawking him around the streets of Tangier, and who insisted his name was Babarhio, which is Moghrebi for parrot. I took him to a blacksmith’s to break the chains which fettered his legs. The screams which accompanied this operation drew an enormous crowd; there was great hilarity when he drew blood from the blacksmith’s hand. Much more difficult was the task of finding him a cage—there was not one for sale in Tangier strong enough to hold him. I finally got wind of an English lady living far out on the Old Mountain whose parrot had died some years ago; possibly she would still have its cage. During the week it took her to find it, Babarhio made a series of interesting wire sculptures of the two cages I had bought him in the market, and wreaked general havoc in my hotel room. However much freedom one may give a parrot once it has become accustomed to its surroundings, it certainly is not feasible at the outset; only chaos can ensue.

Almost immediately I got Babarhio used to traveling. I kept him warm by wrapping around the cage two of the long woolen sashes that are worn by the men here, and putting a child’s djellaba of white wool over everything. The little sleeves stuck out, and the cage looked vaguely like a baby with a large brass ring for a head. It was not a reassuring object, particularly when the invisible parrot coughed and chuckled as he often did when bored with the darkness of his cage.

There is no denying that in tropical and subtropical countries a parrot makes a most amusing and satisfactory companion about the house, a friend you miss very much when it is no longer with you. Doña Violeta, a middle-aged widow who sold bread in the market of Ocosingo, had hers for some thirty years, and when a dog killed it, she was so deeply affected that she closed her stall for three days. Afterward, when she resumed business, with the embalmed body of her pet lying in state in a small glass-covered coffin on her counter, she was shattered, disconsolate, and burst into tears whenever one showed signs of commiserating with her. “He was my only friend in the world,” she would sob. This, of course, was quite untrue; one can forgive its exaggeration only by considering her bereavement. But when she added, “He was the only one who understood me,” she was coming nearer the truth—a purely subjective one, perhaps, but still a truth. In my mind I have a picture of Doña Violeta in her little room, pouring her heart out to the bird that sat before her attentively and now and then made a senseless remark which she could interpret as she chose. The spoken word, even if devoid of reason, means a great deal to a lonely human being.

I think my susceptibility to parrots may have been partly determined by a story I heard when I was a child. One of the collection of parrots from the New World presented to King Ferdinand by Columbus escaped from the palace into the forest. A peasant saw it, and never having encountered such a bird before, picked up a stone to hit it, so he could have its brilliant feathers as a trophy. As he was taking aim, the parrot cocked its head and cried “Ay, Dios!” Horrified, the man dropped the stone, prostrated himself, and said, “A thousand pardons, señora! I thought you were a green bird.”

Credits:  This story is found at Library of America website, where it appeared as Story of the Week.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?

Edmund White

Ati photo series New 1970s

THERE IS A STRONG CURRENT of nostalgia for the late ’70s and early ’80s in New York, even among those who never lived through it — the era when the city was edgy and dangerous, when women carried Mace in their purses, when even men asked the taxi driver to wait until they’d crossed the 15 feet to the front door of their building, when a blackout plunged whole neighborhoods into frantic looting, when subway cars were covered with graffiti, when Balanchine was at the height of his powers and the New York State Theater was New York’s intellectual salon, when John Lennon was murdered by a Salinger-reading born-again, when Philip Roth was already famous, Don DeLillo had yet to become famous, and most literary insiders were betting on Harold Brodkey’s long-awaited novel, which his editor, Gordon Lish, declared would be ‘‘the one necessary American narrative work of this century.’’ (It flopped when it finally came out in 1991 as ‘‘The Runaway Soul.’’)

This was the last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘‘martyrs to art.’’ This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status.

Recently there’s been, in TV and film and certainly in books, an intense yearning for a specific five-year period in New York City, those years between the blackout in 1977, and 1982, when AIDS was finally named by the Centers for Disease Control. First was Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel ‘‘The Flamethrowers,’’ whose heroine is a sharp-eyed bystander in the SoHo art scene, and now, the forthcoming novel ‘‘City on Fire’’ by Garth Risk Hallberg, which also concerns itself with the same time period. There are two television series in development that take place in the late 1970s as well, one directed by Martin Scorsese and co-written with Mick Jagger; the other by Baz Luhrmann. Next year, the Whitney will mount the first retrospective of David Wojnarowicz, the ultimate East Village grunge artist, in over 15 years; the work of his lover, the photographer Peter Hujar — which has recently been used both for an advertising campaign for the men’s wear designer Patrik Ervell and on the cover of the T editor Hanya Yanagihara’s novel ‘‘A Little Life’’ — will be the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Morgan Library.

COLLECTIVELY, THESE WORKS express a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic: a place and a time in which, rich or poor, you were stuck together in the misery (and the freedom) of the place, where not even money could insulate you. They are a reaction to what feels like a safer, more burnished and efficient (but cornerless and predictable) city. Even those of us who claim not to miss those years don’t quite sound convinced. ‘‘Well, I sure don’t have nostalgia about being mugged,’’ John Waters told me. Though then he continued: ‘‘But I do get a little weary when I realize that if anybody could find one dangerous block left in the city, there’d be a stampede of restaurant owners fighting each other off to open there first. It seems almost impossible to remember that just going out in New York was once dangerous. Do any artistic troublemakers want to feel that their city may be the safest in America? Who’s going to write a book about walking the safe streets of Manhattan? It’s always right before a storm that the air is filled with dangerous possibilities.’’

THEN, THERE WERE only possibilities. The cultural world — at least the cultural world that mattered — was much smaller then. Painters knew musicians knew writers, and they were all accessible. ‘‘It was easy then to meet John Ashbery or Jasper Johns,’’ says Brad Gooch, the author of the recent memoir about love and loss in the ’70s, ‘‘Smash Cut.’’ ‘‘Not that we took them for granted.’’ According to Fran Lebowitz, everyone who read Andy Warhol’s Interview knew one another, and yet this small world had a lasting influence on American taste and music and painting and poetry and amusements. These years held the origins of the Downtown Scene, a multidisciplinary, simultaneous movement that was headquartered in the East Village and was characterized by the birth of punk music, gonzo journalism and disposable painting; by body art and the messy theatrical antics of La MaMa. At its height in the mid-’70s, Max’s Kansas City, on Park and 18th, was a home to the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Blondie, Klaus Nomi and Sid Vicious. In the East Village, on Bleecker and Bowery, was CBGB, which was home to Television, Patti Smith and many of the bands that also played at Max’s. Little temporary art galleries were opening and closing every week in the East Village.

Meanwhile, there was also the High Mandarin moment, which has scarcely been isolated or studied as a single impulse, but was the last gasp of both a late-age Modernism and a 1960s-era radicalism: a paradoxical combination of elitism in aesthetics and an egalitarianism bordering on socialism and utopianism in politics. The representative figures of this New York were Susan Sontag, Jasper Johns, George Balanchine, Robert Wilson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Sennett, Richard Howard, John Ashbery and many other cultural arbiters — Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers, the editors of the New York Review of Books; Bob Gottlieb at Knopf; the critic Richard Poirier. Some of these people weren’t interested in politics at all, but if they were, their politics were radical. Mapplethorpe — with his lubricious African-American nudes, portraits of society ladies and still lifes of ‘‘New York flowers’’ (as he once called them) — was one of the few people of the period who braided these high and low strands of New York culture. Could such a phenomenon occur today? Maybe in Berlin. But not in New York.

THOSE WERE YEARS when rents were low, when would-be writers, singers, dancers could afford to live in Manhattan’s (East, if not, West) Village, before everyone marginal was further marginalized by being squeezed out to Bushwick or Hoboken. Face-to-face encounters are essential to a city’s vitality, even among people who aren’t sure of each other’s names, for the exchange of ideas and to generate a sense of electricity. In the ’70s, creative people of all sorts could meet without plans, could give each other tips or discuss burgeoning theories or markets or movements.

In gay life, that’s called ‘‘cruising’’ (although the French equivalent, draguer, applies to all denominations). In the period before AIDS, the heyday of Studio 54 and Mineshaft, gays were on the verge of being dubbed trend-setters and tastemakers; Frank Rich even wrote a retrospective article for Esquire in 1987 in which he looked back at ‘‘the homosexualization of America.’’ But the outbreak of the plague in 1981 changed all that. Suddenly the glamour boys, with their showboat bodies and high-paying jobs, were Auschwitz skeletons covered with black spots, like Canova’s unfinished marble statues. No one wanted to exchange kisses with someone infected, especially not before the path of transmission was identified (Poppers? Mustaches? Mosquitoes? Tears?). Whereas straight guys had been intrigued with gay life before and could (almost) contemplate experimenting, suddenly the barrier between the two orientations shot up, higher than the Iron Curtain.

Now, with the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing marriage equality and with what might be called ‘‘the banalization of gay life,’’ the imp of the perverse has made ’70s-style queers look mighty attractive. Brad reminded me that the young gays of that decade had been ruthlessly oppressed when they were growing up in Eisenhower’s or Nixon’s America. ‘‘Finally they were free to be open,’’ he says. ‘‘And we felt that we were glamorous and attractive.’’ Certainly this very romantic view of gay life has come back into currency — and it is in the possession of straight as well as gay artists, male or female. It’s a view I subscribe to myself, and that permeates my memoir about the period, ‘‘City Boy.’’

BUT THOSE DAYS, those years, are gone. ‘‘Love Among the Ruins,’’ one might have called it, a time when young unknowns could achieve fame or at least rub shoulders with it, if they didn’t mind the rats galloping underfoot or a stickup in broad daylight on busy Christopher Street.

That delicate ecology has now been irreparably damaged. Of course there are still wonderfully intelligent people around; as you walk past tables in a New York restaurant, you want to join in three out of four conversations. And half the people you meet here would be interviewed or arrested in any other city. But the cultural flame that passed to New York from Europe with all the refugees in World War II and burned bright in the ’50s with the Abstract Expressionists and the New York School poets — and brighter still in the late ’70s — now feels as if it’s been doused. As a group movement, at least — though individual sparks still glimmer here and there. Only the happy few would say the excitement was worth the danger, the ambient ugliness and the poverty.

Correction: September 13, 2015 

An article on Page 182 this weekend about the enduring cultural fascination with New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, partly stoked by an interest in that era’s bleak realities, misstates part of the name of the institute that named AIDS in 1982. It is the Centers for Disease Control (not Center).

Credits:  This article has been published with slight modification for coherency; it first came out in 2015 in The New York Times Style Magazine.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Interview with poet Beth Copeland

Today, TLY has the distinct honor of interviewing poet Beth Copeland, author of the recently released Blue Honey, which won the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. The daughter of missionaries, Beth grew up in places far and near, and in Asia in particular. We are so glad she agreed to chat with us.

Beth, here at the blog, we love to hear stories about people’s travels. Do you enjoy traveling either in the States or abroad?

BETH: Traveling is stressful for me. I travel to visit my children and other family members and occasionally take vacations with my husband, but I’m more relaxed at home.

TLY: You were raised in Japan and India, for the most part. You may have returned to either of those countries. If so, where to? If not, why not?

BETH: I traveled to Japan with my sister Rebecca Copeland about ten years ago. As a professor of Japanese literature, she travels to Japan frequently and is fluent in Japanese, so she was my tour guide as well as my companion. It was the first time I’d been back to Japan since I was 13. Returning to my birth place helped me reconnect to the child I’d been when I lived there. I lost most of the language when we moved to the United States, but the words sounded familiar and comforting. I’m grateful I had an opportunity to go back.

I haven’t been back to India since I left at age 13. I’m 67 now and doubt I will ever return.

TLY: One of the themes of your work is feeling alienated from the United States because you were away so often as a young child. What is it like to feel like a foreigner in your own country?

BETH: My older sister tells a story about a bon voyage party a missionary woman gave for my family when we left Japan. The woman said, “The Copelands are going home,” and I responded with, “But this is my home.” In Japan, I was a gaijin, a foreigner, but it was the only home I knew. We moved to a small town in North Carolina where I looked like the other children, but I didn’t feel as if I belonged.

When I was in 7th grade, we spent a year in Varanasi, India. No one prepared me for the culture shock I would experience there. In the United States, I was used to riding my bike by myself, coming and going with freedom, having friends over for sleepovers, and so on. But in India I didn’t go out without a chaperone, and my attempts to socialize with Indian girls my own age were not successful. To be honest, it was a pretty miserable year for me. I was depressed by the suffering I saw—hungry children begging and sleeping in the street—and frustrated because as a child myself, I was powerless to help them. At the time, I was too young to appreciate the opportunity I’d been given to immerse myself in another culture. I yearned for what many 7th-grade girls want—friends, activities, school—so I looked forward to going “home” and resuming the life I’d left.

When we returned to North Carolina, I experienced reverse culture shock. It was 1964, and I didn’t know who the Beatles were. I’d been isolated from other American teens and from Western popular culture during the year abroad. I didn’t know what the new slang expressions meant, my clothes were out of style, and I was behind in math because I hadn’t attended school in India. Reentry was more difficult than the culture shock I’d experienced when I went to India. I discovered that the “home” I thought I had was no longer my home.

A few years later, the Beatles went to India and, suddenly, Indian music and culture became popular among people my age. Who’d have guessed I was cool before it was cool to be cool? Ha, ha, ha.

TLY: There is a lovely quote in Blue Honey from E. Luther Copeland, which reads: “All you pray for at this age is a peaceful hour in which to change worlds.” Who is E. Luther Copeland? What did he hope for in this world and the next?

BETH: E. Luther Copeland is my father. That quotation is from a memoir he wrote when he was in his 80s. He was thinking about his death and the afterlife. As a devout Christian, he believed he would be reunited with God and with loved ones in heaven. Maybe the transition he anticipated would be like traveling to another country, one he hadn’t visited yet.

TLY: “Sandhills Gold” is a remarkable poem; it is based on a memory of the poet’s father, who was a beekeeper and his daughter, who recalls in the first lines: “The year Daddy died, beekeepers found blue/honey in their hives.” Would you mind telling us what is it about blue honey that resonates so deeply in the poem?

BETH: Blue honey is in the poem for several reasons. First, it’s found only in the region of North Carolina where I currently live—the Sandhills—and I wanted to ground the poem in the place that has become my home. Second, it’s mysterious and rare. Third, I like the pairing of “blue” with “honey” because it’s unexpected and because the two words reflect the mood of the poem. “Blue” because it’s an elegy, and “honey” because the memory is sweet.

TLY: You write unflinchingly about childhood, family, marriage—and all in a quite personal way (stylistically as well as concerns the content). Some would categorize your work “confessional” for this reason. Do you think of yourself as a confessional poet?

: I’ve never cared for the term “confessional poetry,” because to me, “confessional” suggests that one is seeking forgiveness or atonement for a sin or a crime. I don’t think the so-called confessional poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass—were seeking absolution in their poems. They were telling the truth about their lives. Some of the poems in Blue Honey follow that tradition—“What I Remember When He Dies,” “Pretty,” “Cleave”—but in others—“Mnemosyne’s,” “Lost Rings,” “Release”—the “I” is absent. I write about my experiences, but I also write about other people’s lives, nature, and ideas.

TLY: Memory figures widely throughout the poems in Blue Honey because it is a book that deals with Alzheimer’s disease. Did you feel that because so many memories were being lost that it was important to preserve them?

BETH: When I was writing the poems, I was processing what was happening to my parents and grappling with how their memory loss affected my relationships with them. I was also aware that not only were their memories fading, but my memories of them were slowly fading, too. I was going through a prolonged grieving process as they slowly disappeared. I wanted to preserve whatever I could before it was too late.

TLY: As mentioned, you were raised by missionaries. How has being the child of missionaries affected your world-view?

BETH: I was fortunate to grow up with an awareness of the global community. Because my family had close ties on two continents, I learned to straddle those worlds at an early age, never fully belonging in either culture but having a foothold in both.

On the other hand, the religiosity of missionary culture was confusing. I was taught to be respectful of other faiths and met many non-Christians who were ethical, compassionate people. Therefore, the presumption that people in other countries should abandon their own religious traditions and accept Christianity seems arrogant to me. I’ve given up my childhood faith. I’m no longer a religious person.

TLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Your work is poignant and memorable. Before we let you go, would you care to share any future projects you are working on?

BETH: Recently, I wrote a stage play based on Blue Honey. Some of the poems—“Sunrise: Lunch,” “Dial M for Memory,” and “Kintsugi”—have conversational passages that were easily transformed into dialogue. Currently, I’m working on some poems about sight that were inspired by my cataract/glaucoma surgery last summer. It’s still too early to know where those poems are going. For now, I’m just along for the ride.

About the poet

Beth Copeland is the author of three full-length poetry books: Blue Honey, recipient of the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize (The Broadkill River Press 2017); Transcendental Telemarketer (BlazeVOX books 2012); and Traveling through Glass, recipient of the 1999 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award (Bright Hill Press 2000). Her poems have been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies and have been featured on international poetry websites. She has been profiled as poet of the week on the PBS NewsHour website. Beth teaches creative writing at St. Andrews University and lives in a log cabin in rural North Carolina. 

for purchase Blue Honey

Monday, January 29, 2018

Poetry by John Stanizzi

                                    America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing…
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.

                                                …from America by Allan Ginsberg

America, I’ve also given you my all,
more or less,
and depending of course
on what you mean by all.

I too am rapidly becoming nothing,
bluffing about what I know
of the suffering of the aboriginals,
which always results in bloodshed and hatred
and a brand of entitlement
that deserves a slap in the face,
hands around the throat,
or at least a fistful of orange hair.

There’s always the perpetual return of olive drab advances
to the precipice
(again, as usual)
of Whitman’s debris and debris of dismal soldiers
whose woeful sighs always
run in blood down proverbial palace walls.

Even when we were kids
we were troubled by nightmares
of what began simply as odd sounding words
which morphed eventually
into things to be feared -- 
rice paddies, hooches, booby traps,
Charlie, Gooks, VC,
daylight whores, massage parlors
with “additional services,”
flower boats afloat in the channel,
places to get the “plumbing cleaned.”

I read about the place where you killed --
Quang Nam Province --
so close to the beach
I’d bet during your first few minutes there
you thought it was beautiful.

4,000 impermeable square miles,
solid dense green and black shadows
and heat heat heat
just this side of flammable,
and where thousands “soldiers” were
shredded burst pulverized minced milled immolated detonated.

I imagine you were listening to
the melancholy seduction of the sea
as you stood guard duty that night;
there would be no leaving your post,
not even for the siren song you were sure
was just a couple of hundred yards that way,
through the jungle.

There were tense weapons
hanging from tree limbs
and buried in the ground,
and you, who could be darkly serious,
magically perceptive,
could not have pictured,
even in this place that rained death,
the “other” weaponry,
the cigarette smoking vaginas,
the ones that shot out arrows,
or the deadly ones that hid razors.
You were an 18-year-old Marine
from East Hartford;
such things were unimaginable.

And not that it would have mattered,
but there might have been a cautionary tale about the sniper fire
that would slash through black leaves
in the black dark,
blasting through your neck,
spraying out your life
with one small spatter of blood,
a few strips of ragged skin,
and all the memories, plans,
bravado, loves, hates, fears
detonated in that splash
before your heavy falling,
your limp-kneed blank collapse
onto the teeming jungle floor,
absorbed by the creatures there,
consumed by the noise of a fire fight,
the sound your dropped M-16 made
clanking against your M-1 helmet
launched from your head by the impact,
and I still can’t say what it was you died for.

You became 19 forever that moment,
getting rained on, stepped on, eventually forgotten,
while the rest of us were
wasting our lives
getting high, drunk, depressed, divorced,
panic sieved mental cripples
whose wrinkled notion of aging
meant not raging against the dying of anything,
not even our faded out brothers and sisters
who have been holding perfectly still
for decades
waiting for absolutely nothing.

…the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting…   

T.S. Eliot
            …from The Fire Sermon
            The Waste Land

May mist lifts the mansion
from its foundation
swirls it off   
away from this back-country road
to some other place
more prepared for such flashiness –
gone the massive black mechanical wrought-iron locking gate
the heated driveway long as a football field
lit by a row of lamplights
under which no taxi throbs
waiting for no one
for there is no time
not this evening
not under this starlight
not for you
not for me --

vanished the topiary of bizarre spirals
the perimeter of boulders along the shoulder of the road
which whisper keep off the emerald grass
which is also gone
and gone too are the bluebirds
who ignored the bluebird houses
with their kitschy copper roofs --

all that remains is a field
of overgrown recollections
one gaunt cow lowing
and a sparsely clouded sky
stirred by swallows
who will never know the tawdry scene
or the vulgar little houses
they would have been expected to embrace --

I think of summers in Hartford
the sidewalks
where pigeons would soft-rattle their iridescence
just out of reach
close enough to touch
close enough to think you might be able to hold one
and oh how their tumbling syllables trilled
simple and rounded
their glowing rings shone
and their pebble-gray wattles
were stones of proud bone --

I learned from them where I belonged –       
in the luxurious landscape of stillness
way out there
the city dwellers would comment

and where I didn’t belong –

in the newly brute landscape…

In praise of dirty, sexy cities: the urban world according to Walter Benjamin

By Stuart Jeffries Claude Monet Marseille isn’t as wicked as it used to be. In 1929, the playwright and travel writ...