Friday, July 02, 2021


Eduardo Halfon:
I had never been to Japan before. And I had never been asked to be a Lebanese writer. A Jewish writer, yes. A Guatemalan writer, naturally. A Latin American writer, of course. A Central American writer, less and less. An American writer, more and more. A Spanish writer, when it had been preferable to travel with that passport. A Polish writer, once, in a bookstore in Barcelona that insisted – that insists – on placing my books on the Polish literature shelf. A French writer, since I lived for a while in France and some people suppose that I still do. All those disguises I always keep at hand, well-ironed and hanging in the wardrobe. But I had never been invited to participate in something as a Lebanese writer. And it seemed to me no big deal to make myself into an Arab for a day, in a conference at the University of Tokyo, if it gave me a chance to get to know the country.

Canción (translation mine)
Libros del Asteroide in Barcelona has published another installment in Eduardo Halfon's ongoing quasi-fictional project of excavating his family's past, as well as his own and that of his country (or countries). If the narrator (also named Eduardo Halfon) is to be believed (and he isn't always), he was invited to participate in the writers' conference alluded to above on the mistaken assumption that he is Lebanese; in fact his only connection to Lebanon is that his grandfather (also named Eduardo Halfon) was born there — except that strictly speaking he wasn't, since he fled the country when it was still part of Syria. Accused of being an impostor, the narrator retorts that an impostor is exactly what every writer is.

Canción (the title means "song," but that's another complicated issue) begins and ends in Japan, where the narrator attends that conference of Lebanese writers, but the larger part of the book (a rather short one, as all of Halfon's tend to be) is actually devoted to the kidnapping and subsequent release of his grandfather by Guatemalan guerrillas several years before the author was born. Of the five books that Libros del Asteroide has published, this is perhaps the most strictly focused on Guatemala (that curious sojourn in Tokyo aside). It slips back and forth in time, and, like a miniature Conversation in the Cathedral, is centered on an encounter in a bar with an old acquaintance (of sorts). It's both independent of and inextricably connected to the other volumes in the series. Several of the installments are now available in English, with some shuffling of the contents, from Bellevue Literary Press, and hopefully this one will soon join them.

Previous Eduardo Halfon posts:

The Memory Man
Necessary Stories

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Live in Telemark

I'm not sure why this genial live recording stayed on ice for twenty-seven years — maybe the timing just wasn't right until now — but here it is. Live in Telemark preserves a joint performance by two respected folk veterans in Norway in 1994. Andy Irvine is presumably the better-known of the pair internationally, having been a founding member of Sweeney's Men, Planxty, and several other notable Irish and world music ensembles in addition to his long solo career. Lillebjørn Nilsen is a comparable figure but one who performs mostly in the smaller market of his native Norway. Both are superb singers and accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and both have strong roots in folk traditions, Irvine as (among other things) a professed disciple of Woody Guthrie and Nilsen as a friend and admirer of Pete Seeger.

According to the liner notes, Irvine and Nilsen had known each other for about seventeen years before they finally had a chance to share a stage at the Telemark Festival. The set list here is roughly evenly divided between their respective repertoires, with Andy taking the spotlight for original songs like "My Heart's Tonight in Ireland" and "A Prince Among Men" and Lillebjørn contributing his own "Jenta i Chicago" and "Alexander Kiellands Plass." There are also several traditional songs as well as curiosities like a Norwegian version of Grit Larsen's "The Photographers," which Nilsen learned, in its original language from Seeger. A few of the cuts seem to be performed solo, but on most the pair play together, demonstrating a ready ability to learn each other's arrangements after what was presumably a relatively short period of rehearsal. Irvine mostly plays mandola and bouzouki while Nilsen plays guitar, willow flute, and hardanger fiddle. The sound is terrific.

Live in Telemark can be ordered, in digital and CD versions, from Bandcamp.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Uneasy (Vijay Iyer)

Jazz criticism is well outside my area of competence, nor have I made any effort to keep abreast of contemporary developments in the genre, but it would be ungrateful not to make at least a brief note of this record, since I've hardly listened to anything else for the last month or so. Uneasy is a collaboration between the pianist Vijay Iyer, the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and the bassist Linda May Han Oh; it was released on April 9th by ECM. According to a press release,
In the course of this endeavour, the political and social turbulences dominating today’s American landscape are reflected in musical contemplation and tense space. In his liner notes, Vijay elaborates on how today “the word ‘uneasy’ feels like a brutal understatement, too mild for cataclysmic times. But maybe, since the word contains its own opposite, it reminds us that the most soothing, healing music is often born of and situated within profound unrest; and conversely, the most turbulent music may contain stillness, coolness, even wisdom.”
It's a reasonable question how one decides that any instrumental music project, unless it's bluntly programmatic (which Uneasy is not) "reflects" a political and social landscape and conveys those reflections to the listener, and conceivably someone coming to this record without glancing at the liner notes might not detect the presence of any of that at all, but no doubt the reverberations mostly operate on an emotional level, which is appropriate given that music has never been particularly suited to promoting and defending a "thesis." On the other hand, the inventiveness and musical intelligence of the three players here is immediately evident, and the presence of those qualities is itself a welcome response to the state of contemporary culture and public life.

Uneasy hooked me from the first cut ("Children of Flint"), but repeated listens bring out layers and nuances that may be overlooked initially. (And reveal a few likely musical quotes, including to "Salt Peanuts," "I Got Rhythm," and possibly Miles Davis's investigations of Spanish music in the 1950s.) The Geri Allen composition "Drummers Song" put me off at first (at one point the same insistent figure is repeated twenty times or so), but now it may be the one piece that I turn to first. Throughout the album the textures shift and merge, and the music never sounds facile or hackneyed. It doesn't do to be too easy.

Samples from Uneasy can be heard at Iyer's website.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

New World Journal

This little magazine edited by Bob Callahan had a brief run of five numbers in the 1970s; there was one double issue (2-3). It was published in Berkeley, California by the Turtle Island Foundation "for the Nezahaulcoyotl [sic] Historical Society, a non-profit corporation engaged in the study of the history and literature of the New World." The name of the historical society is spelled at least three different ways in the journal's pages; both the society and the foundation were evidently Callahan's own creations and perhaps one-man operations. According to a manifesto in No. 1 (Fall 1975),
The New World Journal will attempt to provide an ongoing review of significant writings in the field of American Literature and American Cultural History. The current plan calls for both republication of a number of early pieces that many of our readers may have missed as well as the solicitation of original works by contemporary writers and cultural historians.

The insistence of Space remains the central preoccupation of the American writer, be he or she poet or historian, and the distribution of culture and culture trait—aboriginal as well as modern—from origin point to the extant [sic] of their natural or forced perimeter remains a theme of enduring concern. Thus the recent work of Charles Olson and Carl Ortwin Sauer is invoked—yet there are issues that can be traced back through the literature at least as far as to Herman Melville and Francis Parkman, as far back perhaps as to the anonymous authors of the origin and migration myths of the Quiche [sic] Maya and the Delaware. The American writer tends to see Space in terms of Elapsed Time. Apparently he always has. Other Orders are acknowledged, often respected, but as for Cosmology, Space—and here we would allow a glyph—(Time)—is all the American writer need require.
Along with poetry by Olson, the Nicaraguan radical priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal, and (in later issues) the pianist Cecil Taylor, the journal included posthumous contributions by scholars whose work tended to mark them (fairly or not) as outsiders of one kind or another: the folklorists Jaime de Angulo and Zora Neale Hurston, the economic botanist Edgar Anderson, the anthropologist and Lovecraft collaborator Robert Barlow, and the historical geographer Carl Sauer. Only the last, who died in July 1975 and arranged with Turtle Island for the republication of some of his work, had any evident personal connection with Callahan.
The journal's West Coast orientation was clear; it had little affinity with skeptical Europe or with those urban-oriented East Coast writers for whom "the insistence of Space" might not have been a central concern. With its interest in Native America, the Southwest, and Mesoamerica, it was aligned with the shamanic blending of anthropology and poetry known as ethnopoetics. As eccentric and personal as it was, it was arguably ahead of its time in terms of multiculturalism, interdisciplinarianism, and attention to the natural environment.
Turtle Island seems to have remained active as a book publisher until at least 1991 before disappearing. (There's a Turtle Island Foundation in Canada that is unrelated to it.) Callahan himself had an interesting career, writing or editing books on Irish-Americans, comic strips (he was a Krazy Kat expert), and the JFK assassination. He was also involved in some way with Ishmael Reed's Before Columbus Foundation, which continues to exist. He died in 2008.

Below is a brief excerpt from Edgar Anderson's "The Iris," originally published in a scholarly publication in 1927 and reprinted in New World Journal 2-3. The subject is a native wildflower that seemed to expand its distribution with the spread of livestock-raising.
Years ago, Father Paradis, a mixture of saint and scalawag, founded a little colony of French Canadians in a sandy bay at the northern end of Lake Timagami. The colony finally died out but Father Paradis hung on, preaching to the Indians at the Hudson Bay Post, prospecting for gold, and raising a small herd of cattle. Today Father Paradis is dead and the forest is marching back into his little outpost clearing; his barns have fallen in, and chipmunks build their nests in his chapel. But where his cattle used to graze in a marshy pasture close to the lake, Iris versicolor grows by the thousands. When it blooms in mid-July, it is the strangest Iris garden on the continent. Bounding the horizon are the rocky cliffs and forested slopes of Lake Timagami. Except for the little clearing and the ruined walls of the farm buildings there is no sign of man. Overhead towers Father Paradis's rude wooden cross, set on a bare rock with boulders piled about its base. And for a hundred yards or so the meadow all about is blue with Iris versicolor.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Only the Moon

Lafcadio Hearn:
She could swim like a Tahitian, and before daybreak on sultry summer mornings often stole down to the river to strike out in the moon-silvered current. "Ain't you ashamed to be seen that way?" reproachfully inquired an astonished police officer, one morning, upon encountering Dolly coming up the levee, with a single wet garment clinging about her, and wringing out the water from her frizzly hair.

"Only the pretty moon saw me," replied Dolly, turning her dark eyes gratefully to the rich light. 
"Dolly: An Idyl of the Levee" (1876)

I imagine this scene as it might have been illustrated by George Herriman, (who knew a bit about levees and moons), with Krazy Kat as the swimmer and a disapproving but benevolent Offissa Pup.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Strange Islands

The story of the adventures of the Irish abbot St. Brendan or Brenainn was a popular one in the middle ages, with a substantial number of manuscripts surviving. The most familiar version, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, was written in Latin and may date to the eighth century, that is, roughly two centuries after Brendan is thought to have died. A translation is found in the Penguin Classics volume entitled The Age of Bede (where it's arguably an odd fit); another, by John J. O'Meara, is available from Colin Smythe Ltd under the title of The Voyage of Saint Brendan, Journey to the Promised Land.

Brendan's travels, like those of Odysseus, involve visits to several wondrous islands, including in his case one that is inhabited entirely by psalm-singing birds and another that turns out to be an enormous sea-creature named Jasconius (from Old Irish íasc, fish). He and his fellow monks come upon what seems to be an iceberg as well as something that sounds very much like a volcano, and these and other passages have led some observers to surmise that Brendan or other early Irish travelers may have visited the North Atlantic and even North America. The notion isn't entirely far-fetched, as Irish monks — the papar — traveled as far as Iceland at a very early date. On the other hand, Brendan's adventures seem to have mythological parallels in pre-Christian Ireland and elsewhere.

But there's another Brendan tradition, one that is preserved in the Irish language in a manuscript known as the Book of Lismore. This version, the Betha Brenainn, seems to be harder to find outside of scholarly works like Whitley Stokes's Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore and Denis O'Donoghue's Brendaniana: St. Brendan the Voyager in Story and Legend, both of which date to the 1890s. The Irish-language version may be less satisfying to the modern reader than the Latin one, but it has its own charm (at least in translation). Here, for example, is Stokes's rendering of a dazzling passage — not unworthy of Homer — that describes the outset of Brendan's voyage:
So Brenainn, son of Finnlug, sailed then over the wave-voice of the strong-maned sea, and over the storm of the green-sided waves, and over the mouths of the marvellous, awful, bitter ocean, where they saw the multitude of the furious red-mouthed monsters, with abundance of great sea-whales. And they found beautiful, marvellous islands, and yet they tarried not therein.
The writer's sheer delight in language receives its richest expression in a lengthy enumeration of the sights of Hell, which are shown to Brendan in consideration of his special sanctity. Stokes again:
It goes on from there, itemizing "cats scratching; hounds rending; dogs hunting; demons yelling; stinking lakes..." and, finally, "tortures vast, various." No torment is left uncatalogued, no linguistic resource left unused. If no one has thought of doing so, it would be fun to see an edition bringing together translations of the Latin Navigatio and the Irish version in one accessible volume.

Below is the first installment of a three-part reading of the O'Meara translation of the Navagatio by the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend Dr. Robert Willis.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975

I was predisposed to like Richard Thompson's new memoir (published by Algonquin Books in the US and Faber in the UK) because I've been a fan of his music since at least the 1980s, but I also awaited it with some trepidation, because even as intelligent and literate a musician and songwriter as Thompson is could easily fall flat when picking up the tools of a very different form of expression. The tragic death by suicide halfway through the project of Thompson's collaborator, the writer Scott Timberg, raised concerns about whether the final product would be patched together by too many hands and lack a unified voice. Not to worry, though. However the process of writing and editing the book was managed, the end-result is seamless and satisfying, and Thompson's vision comes throughly richly and recognizably as his own.

If introduction is necessary, Thompson, born in London in 1949, was one of the founders of the seminal folk-rock combo Fairport Convention, with whom he played lead guitar, occasionally sang, and eventually took on an important role as a songwriter. Thompson left the group, more or less amicably, in 1971, and subsequently made one eccentric solo masterpiece, Henry the Human Fly, as well as a series of landmark albums with his then-wife Linda in the 1970s, before going on to a long and productive solo career. Many people regard him as both one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last 50 years and one of the finest guitarists, both acoustic and electric. (And yet he'll never be a household name.)

Beeswing (a title taken from one of his best songs) covers only the beginnings of his career, and he says he has little interest in writing a sequel, but those few years were eventful both artistically and in terms of human drama. It's a litle astonishing to reflect that after the Fairport years (including still highly listenable records like Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief) and the first solo album, Richard and Linda recorded the astonishing I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight when he was all of twenty-four.

It was a creative period but one haunted by tragedy. Fairport's teenage drummer, Martin Lamble, and Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn were both killed when the band's touring van was involved in a horrific accident. Another bandmember, Sandy Denny, a fine songwriter and a singer of fathomless emotional depth, died in 1978, and her death serves in effect as the closing chapter of both the period and the book.

Much has happened since then — children, divorces, records, decades of touring — and Thompson, still very active musically, is old enough to look back objectively but sympathetically at his younger self, to own up to mistakes, mourn old friends, and reflect without bitterness or a sense of things left undone. The book leaves much unsaid — creative genius, in the end, can't really be explained — but it makes a fine companion to his legacy as a songwriter and performer.

Below is a track recorded during the Liege & Lief sessions (though not included on the original LP). The wisp of a song was written by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (an early influence on the band); Dylan also reportedly had a hand in its composition. It's basically a dialogue between Denny's incomparable singing and Thompson's relentlessly questing guitar.