Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Photographers (Grit Laskin)

Pete Seeger didn't write this ribald little ditty (it's by Canadian songwriter and guitar maker Grit Laskin), but he did record it, and it definitely shows a very different side of Pete Seeger than most of us are used to. Unfortunately there is no available CD version of Pete's Circles and Seasons LP, where his version was recorded. The tune is your basic generic English ballad tune.

"The Photographers"

Well early Saturday morning, I was strolling in the wood
I came upon a lady who by the wayside stood
And what, pray tell, would such a lass as you be doing here?
I've come to take some photographs, said she as I drew near

Said I to her, I do declare, this is a fateful day
For I have come to photograph, the same as you did say
Then I took out my Nikon-F and placed it in her hand
She said that's quite a camera, sir, you have at your command

My camera so delighted her, she could no more delay
She let me see her camera case, wherein her accessories lay
I'm sure, she said, you have most everything that can be bought
Just let me stretch my tripod out before I take some shots

We photographed from haylofts, and up against the wall
If you've not shot on Saturday night, you've not photographed at all
She had her shutter open wide, for daylight was all gone
Likewise my naked camera lens, it had its filter on

This lady had experience with cameras, yes, indeed
And I thought her exposures the best I'd ever seen
Although she seemed to tire not as on and on we went
I said I'll have to stop now, my film supply is spent

She said I've had Mirandas, Yashicas and Rolleis
Hasselblad and Pentax, likewise a Polaroid
Fujica, Canon, Nikkormat, a Kodak and the rest
But now I've seen your Nikon-F, and surely it's the best

(Thanks to Jim Capaldi of the Pete Seeger Appreciation Page for turning up the lyrics.)

In memory of Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and Jim Capaldi (1950-2013).

Update (2021): A Norwegian version performed by Lillebjørn Nilsen can be found on Live in Telemark, the recording of a 1994 joint concert by Nilsen and Andy Irvine.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Night piece (City)

One evening he was returning home from a weekend trip a few hours away. He had planned to avoid the city but had missed a sign, and not knowing the area he allowed himself to be drawn on by the traffic that was hurtling forward around him, figuring that one way or another he would connect with a highway he knew. All at once the concrete channel through which he was passing swerved and rose, and the skyline across the water came into view. He had approached the city countless times but never from that angle; illuminated as far along its length as he could see by an intricate array of tiny lightpoints it seemed more massive than he would have imagined, but also curiously unrooted, as if the entire metropolis might break from its moorings and slip away into the ocean beyond.

He crossed a high bridge and bore away to the right, still skirting the city, looking for signs with familiar names. The roadway swelled and dipped and twisted, rattling over metal plates and joins several stories above street level. He could see the crests of buildings on either side, but they were dark and he couldn't tell whether they were occupied or abandoned. As abruptly as it had appeared the skyline shifted into his rear-view mirror and then disappeared in his wake. In the lane to his left a cab shot by him and was quickly out of sight. The road divided; he made a quick decision and was almost immediately shunted downwards and off the expressway.

He braked and came to a stop in a line of traffic that had halted behind a red light. He was under the highway now, and could hear the rumbling of traffic overhead. A sedan drew up beside him. He couldn't see the driver but in the back seat there were two young girls wearing shawls and what looked like party dresses; they were restless and excited and kept popping up in their seats. When the light changed he veered to the right, guided by a lone rectangular sign that was bolted to the one of the columns that supported the roadway above him. He passed a block, then two blocks, of grated storefronts, waited briefly at another light, then headed up the ramp to another sinuous highway. The traffic was heavier here and he crept forward until he could merge; then he pulled out and accelerated into the flow.

Across three lanes to his left and the center divider cars and semis were whipping by in the opposite direction, in precisely synchronized clusters and pairs. As he headed away to the north the highway straightened. Flanked by symmetrical columns of apartments buildings it ascended a drawbridge and crossed over a dark canal, then passed through a brief stretch of salt marsh before once again edging back into the city's outskirts. He had come parallel to a rail line, where a score of brick red boxcars lay waiting or forgotten. Beyond the tracks a row of warehouses stood shut tight behind barbed wire, lit by single pale lamps below their eaves.

A mile further he entered the first stand of woods, only on the railroad side. A brightly illumined sign for a multiplex cinema, itself several stories high, beckoned on the left, followed by a stretch of low-rises. Then, before he was aware of it, there was nothing but shadow and the obscure forms of trees on either side.

He drove for the better part of an hour, exited the highway, turned onto one local road and then another. When he had parked and sat for a moment and begun to walk away he heard the sounds of the car's engine cooling off, and from somewhere near at hand the first frogs of spring.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The use of memory (Carla Rippey)

The artist and printmaker Carla Rippey is a native of Kansas City who has lived and worked principally in Mexico since the 1970s, long enough that she has probably come to be more generally regarded as a Mexican artist rather than as an American one, though in fact she is both. Unlike many other American expatriate artists, she has put down permanent roots in Mexico and raised two sons there, and the bulk of her exhibitions have been in Mexican galleries and museums. She seems to be less well known in the US; the few monographs and exhibition catalogs devoted to her work — difficult but not impossible to find here — have been issued by Mexican publishers and museums. The one that I've been able to examine to date was published in 1994, and bears the title El uso de la memoria, which also happens to be the title of her comprehensive (and much more up to date) bilingual blog, an excellent starting point for those who might be interested in her work.

Rippey works in a range of media and with a variety of found materials, especially photographs. In some cases she creates drawings or paintings based on individual photos or assemblages of photos she has found at flea markets or in popular periodicals; at other times she subjects the photos themselves, or reproductions of them, to a variety of overlays and modifications, staining them or sewing thread through their surfaces, for instance. There is a political or feminist edge to many of her images, but the overriding theme is how people are remembered or forgotten or altered over the course of time. The sense of impermanence her work produces echoes her own history as a migrant, one who remembers, moreover, that her ancestors too were immigrants from elsewhere, and who knows that possession of place as of life is illusory and fleeting. Her use of photographs serves to underline the ways in which what we see before us, apparently solid, is subject to being transformed into an image, a two-dimensional ghost that has lost its original vital presence but which, as a memory trace, acquires its own afterlife.
Among her recent projects is a treatment of an old black and white photograph of an ornate building, either in ruins or in the process of construction. Rippey has printed the image onto the cover of what appears to be a handmade paper box. When the box is opened it reveals another copy of the image, printed on a much larger sheet of either cloth or paper and folded or bunched up inside the box. The effect is both striking and disconcerting; the building, once so monumental, has become a mere wisp, a thin tissue that could be folded into a pocket or blown away by the wind.

Rippey was a friend of the late Roberto Bolaño, a writer who was himself a multiple migrant, and who reportedly portrayed her in the guise of the minor character of Catalina O'Hara in his novel The Savage Detectives. Both were fascinated by the femicidios of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the string of largely unsolved killings that since 1993 have taken the lives of hundreds of Mexican women in the vicinity of that troubled border city. Marcela Valdes's excellent article in the Nation (December 8, 2008), which not coincidentally is illustrated by Rippey, is an indispensable source regarding both the Juárez killings and Bolaño's posthumously published masterpiece 2666, which is partly based on them. The section of 2666 that recounts the murders — often in harrowing detail — has much the same disconcerting effect as Rippey's art, as Bolaño's fictionalized retelling simultaneously flattens the actual victims into two dimensions and indelibly preserves an unsettling memory of them that would otherwise have been entirely lost.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


This blog is the successor to the web journal / electronic broadside of the same name which I began in 2004. I have reposted and backdated here some of the pieces that originally appeared at the older address; the rest I have taken down. Everything dated from today forward is new.

Night piece (Frenzy)

High on the bluffs, in a bare room looking out on the city, a man waits for the approach of night. He stands by one window, his back against the wall, peering out as the window-shade rises and snaps down again in the oncoming wind. Already shadows are filling the labyrinth of alleys beneath him, erasing the outlines of the buildings and trees. Streetlights flicker on, advancing block by block, but their faint illumination, diffracted by dust, only deepens the blur. As the wind from the ocean gathers strength the temperature drops a few degrees, but the heat radiating up from below remains intolerable. He leaves his lookout, paces the room, sits for a moment in the single wooden chair that is his only furniture. He reaches down for a ceramic pitcher whose monochrome glaze is stained and crackled, pours tepid water into a jar, and drinks, though it brings him no relief. 

He stands again, goes to the window. He can still make out the waves cresting in the distance, but the sea is now the color of ink and is rapidly merging with the sky. Somewhere offshore a signal beacon pulses, and the red light seems to sear his pupils as he stares. He turns away and shuts his eyes, feeling sweat beading on his brow and neck. He moves to the corner of the room, to another window where the beacon can not reach him, but he still feels its pulsing as if it were the circulation of his blood. He hears music, intermittent and indistinct, something reedy and strident, until at last it is drowned by the roar of the wind. There is a hint of ashes in the air; the taste gets on his tongue and he can't get rid of it. He straightens his back and throws his arms apart as if crucified. He would scream but he knows no sound will issue from his mouth. He would throw himself out the window, onto the rooftops at the bottom of the bluffs, but he is unable to lift his feet from the floor. He can do nothing but wait, burned by the wind, until the bleakest, most silent part of the night.

Because that is the hour, he knows, when they will come for him. 

Monday, March 09, 2009

Without a ghost (conclusion)

She motioned to the waitress for the handwritten bill, then folded a ten and a couple of singles neatly under her empty coffee cup. As she passed the register the cashier looked up from counting the change in her till long enough to say thanks hon, good night and she smiled back and barely above a whisper said good night in return. She hunched up the collar of her coat a little and descended the stairs. The metal door handle was cold to the touch; as she stepped outside she saw that it had begun to rain, a chill, fine drizzle blown by an insistent breeze that was coming from the direction of the river. A Checker cab, yellow and black, rumbled towards her like a monstrous hornet. The driver slowed to cast a look at her, angling for a fare, but she ignored him. As her umbrella opened with a satisfying snap she began to walk.

Her apartment was one block east, two and a half blocks down. The few storefronts in the neighborhood — the liquor store, card shop, and beauty salon — were barred tight, and the empty sidewalks beneath the brownstones, glazed by the rain, gave back a pale reflection of the streetlamps. As she came to a corner the traffic lights flicked from red to green, but nothing moved. She turned onto her block, past cast-iron railings adorned with spheres and spikes, and located her keys in her coat pocket as she climbed the steps. The glass door shuddered as she swung it open, and shuddered again when she shut it behind her. There was a checkerboard pattern on the tiled floor, now smeared with wet footprints, and a bank of weathered bronze mailboxes. Seeing some letters tucked in her box, she popped open the lock with her key and withdrew one phone bill, one handbill from a local laundry, and two handwritten letters, one of them much thicker than the other. She noted the return addresses quickly and tucked them into her pocket, then began to climb the stairs.

At the third-floor landing she wiped her feet on the mat and unlocked the door, which was stiff and had needed planing since the last time it was painted. The light from the hall barely penetrated the darkness of her apartment, until she struck the switch at her right hand and the single overhead lamp came on. She stepped past the closet and her bedroom on her left and the entrance to her living room on her right, and went directly to her bathroom, where she stepped out of her shoes, rested the umbrella inside the tub, and hung her coat on a hook behind the door, retrieving her letters from the pocket before she left the room. She heard the cat, a languid orange tabby of indeterminate age, drop to the floor from his habitual sleeping-place on her bed. A moment later he emerged, groggily, and sat watching her, passing a moistened paw over one ear and shaking his head against an itch. When she spoke to him he stood and rubbed against her ankle, arching his back, but the effort seemed to exhaust him and he sat again and did not follow her as she moved towards the darkness of the kitchen.

She left the kitchen lights off for a moment and went to the window to pull up the heavy venetian blinds. Her apartment faced the rear and there was little to see in daytime, even less at that hour. Somewhere, along the harbor, a construction derrick towered, surmounted by a row of red lights that winked through the night and the haze to ward off planes. They were tearing down a cargo terminal, she knew; she had walked as far as the water one day to see the fragile skeleton that was all that remained. When it was gone, she imagined, nothing would take its place, and the harborside would slowly take on the appearance of an old man with failing teeth. The river would flow on, unconcerned, and carry away all memory.

She poured out what remained of the cat's water, which she had left for him in a china bowl decorated with a circle of blue flowers, rinsed it, filled it again, and set it down on the floor. When she poured out his food, into an identical container, he joined her, now suddenly come to life, and began to eat, crunching and purring at once, until he had consumed enough for the moment and left the rest for later. He found her in the living room, sitting on the couch, her feet propped on a stool, wine glass beneath the table lamp beside her, as she began to read her mail.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Without a ghost (II)

At the corner of 57th street she waited until a downtown bus pulled along the curb, stepped inside, fished a token out of her purse and dropped it in the till. The driver was a slightly built young man — Puerto Rican, she thought — who acknowledged her with a nod as one of his evening regulars. The bus was mostly deserted. She chose a seat under a cigarette ad, across from a man in a rumpled gray suit who seemed to be asleep. There was a tabloid in his lap, open to the racing pages. Three rows in front of him were two young black women with neatly beribboned felt hats; they were whispering together and giggling, and once or twice they glanced back and caught her eye.

Somewhere in the thirties the bus took on more passengers. First to appear was an elderly woman, who settled herself behind the driver in the first available seat. Behind her came a youngish man in a white shirt and tie, his suit jacket folded over one arm, and finally a middle-aged couple and two adolescent girls, all of them toting bags from department stores in the vicinity. There was a momentary fuss: the girls wanted to sit in the back, the father objected, the mother said something that was lost in the noise of the bus engine accelerating, then the whole group trudged to the back, the father sourly trailing behind. The girls tumbled together into the last row, chattering happily, peering out the window as if it were their first time in town.

By the time they reached the Village the man with the newspaper had awakened, though he still seemed half-dazed. He craned his neck and looked blearily out through the scratched windowpane until he caught sight of a street sign, then folded his paper, tucked it under his arm, and shifted himself closer to the aisle. She pretended not to notice that he was staring at her, frankly but without evidently finding anything of interest. After a block or two he rose, heavily, and stepped ahead to the next row, his back to her, swaying with the motion of the bus. The driver braked gently and the man wobbled forward, then stepped off without looking back as the bus came to a halt and opened its doors.

She stayed on until Bleecker Street. The two young women ahead of her rose at the same time, clutching their purses, huddled so closely together they might have been joined at the hip. They were hushed now and serious-looking, until one of them whispered something and the other began to giggle again, just for a moment as they descended. She watched them disappear into the evening crowd, and headed for Sheridan Square.

Most of the storefronts were dark by now, except for the clubs where music could be heard playing through the doors and the few restaurants and shops that had evening hours. On one corner there was a butcher shop with a grim tableau of small game — a rabbit, some birds she didn't know the names of — swinging in the window, lit from above by a single thin fluorescent bulb. As she headed west the crowd thinned out. There was one last cluster around the steps leading up to a bookstore where some kind of public reading was in progress; she heard a muffled voice from the interior, the silence of attentiveness, then a burst of laughter. Two slender young men and a pretty, petite woman in a yellow scarf stood at the base of the stairs. The men were smoking and doing their best to look smooth while the girl shivered against the increasing chill. As she left them behind she passed a row of darkened windows that spanned a grim, anonymous concrete building, a warehouse or a sweatshop she couldn't tell. She passed a narrow alley on the right, where a faint smell of urine wafted up from worn-down cobblestones, then continued on in shadow until after another moment or two she emerged into the faint illumination of an isolated little diner that was open all hours.

She was only a block from her apartment but she wanted a meal. She seized the handle of the heavy glass door and went in, up three steps to the cashier, who stood behind a display of Life Savers and chewing gum and invited her to sit anywhere she liked. Most of the booths were filled with bohemians in threes and fours, some of whom stared at her as she passed, though without breaking off their conversations. She found an empty booth in the far corner and sat down facing the door, setting her valise on the vinyl seat and resting her hands on the faded formica tabletop. There was a little Seeburg jukebox at each table, set underneath the window; someone had put the Everly Brothers on already but she flipped through the selections once anyway out of curiosity.

When the waitress came over she declined a menu and ordered a small salad and a bowl of tomato soup, a cup of tea with lemon, and then a rice pudding to finish off with. She pulled a magazine from her valise but after a half-hearted look stowed it away again. As she ate, alone and unnoticed, she kept tabs on the other diners, listening in on what scraps of their mingled conversations she could make out. Some were in high spirits, laughing and gesticulating, while others maintained an affected aloofness, leaning back, smoking slowly, uttering some indistinct pronouncement from time to time. Just outside her window a neon sign, tangled into a beer-brand script, oozed blue light.