Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Pleasures of Drabness

As a rule I'm a sucker for loud, garish colors, the more the merrier, but the images below celebrate the lost, enforced virtues of tight publishing budgets, matte stock, and limited color palettes. (And also of age, dirty fingerprints, and exposure to sunlight.)

The best American literary magazine of the 1920s, the Dial was home to Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Amy Lowell, E. E. Cummings, D. H. Lawrence and just about every other major American and English modernist. The design is a bit formal, in keeping with its highbrow tone.

Twice a Year, a hefty hardbound journal, had a run of several years in the 1940s.

A postwar Schocken edition of Kafka. Beneath the jacket the book itself was green, with a nice title stamp on the spine. I think Schocken's other Kafka titles from the same period probably shared the same design.

The Pantheon edition of one of Flann O'Brien's best books, erroneously dated 1940 but actually published several years later. I'm not sure whether the typographic arrangement on the front cover was supposed to suggest bird's feet.

A slender Irish periodical, with a nice woodcut. Here's the advertising on the back:

Below is another Irish pamphlet, front and back. The Dolmen Press was a highly regarded printer active for more than thirty-five years.

Finally, I imagine the name of this periodical, which had a brief run in the 1970s, was meant to allude to the better-known Poetry. The editor or editors responsible for its creation are uncredited within.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Antaeus, 1970-1994

In later years it would become just another literary magazine, albeit a very good one, but in its first decade there really was something special about Antaeus, which was founded in 1970 in Tangier, Morocco by Daniel Halpern at the instigation of and with the assistance of the novelist and composer Paul Bowles. It was refreshingly if selectively international, a little bit like a North African version of Paris Review, (it even imitated the latter in presenting interviews with literary figures, at least at the beginning) and it featured a number of excellent writers who were then undiscovered or forgotten in the US. Much of its uniqueness must have been due to the influence of Bowles, its "consulting editor," who as a longtime expatriate had contacts with literary circles on several continents.

I was a bit young for it when it first appeared, but by the mid 1970s I had discovered it and become a subscriber, and I eagerly devoured each new number and looked forward to the arrival of the next, which might be six months off if it was a double issue. At some point I believe it switched from a quarterly to a semiannual publication. I can think of any number of moments of pleasure or illumination I gained from its pages, but here are just a handful of favorites:
  • Laura (Riding) Jackson's over-the-top diatribe, in response to a request for suggestions for a list of "Neglected Books of the 20th Century," in issue #20
  • Bowles's own "Istikhara, Anaya, Medagan and the Medaghanat" from the "Special Essay Issue" #21/22
  • J. G. Ballard's disturbing "Low-Flying Aircraft" from the "Popular Fiction" double issue #25/26
  • The Yannis Ritsos poetry feature, from #28
  • Harry Mathews's droll short story in the form of a recipe, "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)" from #29

Eventually Antaeus became quite successful and influential, at least as literary magazines go, and by the mid-1980s it had relocated from Tangier to New York and had became slicker, thicker, and to my mind rather tame, devoting way too much space to the same inbred roster of American poets that every other lit mag was publishing. But maybe I was the one who changed. It spawned a publishing company, the Ecco Press, which for a while did a commendable job of restoring to print writers like Bowles and Cormac McCarthy who were then out of fashion. (Sadly, the Ecco Press is now just another imprint of Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins.)

I love these early covers, which were printed on matte stock, as were all the issues of Antaeus until #54. The curious little grotesques on the ones shown here are by the Moroccan artist Ahmed Yacoubi, a friend of Bowles; the one exception is number 8, which is based on an artifact from Crete.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (conclusion)

In the weeks that followed, Matilda returned to the apartment on Bedford Street every Saturday afternoon. She would have come more often, if Mr. Sullivan had asked her to, but she had a suspicion that one session a week was probably as much as he could afford. On her third or fourth visit he asked her -- it was to be honest a little more than a request, though not quite a demand -- if she would disrobe entirely and pose for him lying on his bed. She hesitated for a moment, not sure that she was quite ready for that, but then she remembered her mother's injunction against half-measures and decided that she would either have to comply or leave immediately and never return. She chose the former. She didn't withdraw from the room to undress, but instead crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed, draping her robe around her body and eyeing the windows. As soon as Mr. Sullivan turned his back for a moment she slipped off her skirt and undergarments, loosened her robe, and lay down. At first she assumed a position that she thought he would find artistic -- it was something she had seen in a French painting in one of her mother's books -- but when he turned to her and saw this he frowned and told her to just lie naturally, which she did, after a few seconds of awkwardness while she considered what to do with her hands.

He sketched her in silence from across the room, then, perhaps sensing that she was not entirely at ease, broke off after only a few minutes and told her she could get dressed. She resumed her position on the chair and sat for him fully clothed for the rest of the session. The following week, when she returned, she again lay on the bed, and this time he sketched her that way for most of an hour.

She found it rather a relief, a few weeks later, when they became lovers. He was quite gentle about it and wouldn't have persisted if she had objected, but she decided that she was ready for it to happen. At first he continued to offer her money for her time, but she felt quite strongly that it wasn't appropriate anymore. In any case he soon enough gave up on the idea of drawing professionally, and Matilda never posed for him again. Instead of accepting his money she insisted on leading him on a shopping expedition and making him buy himself some better clothes, an activity he consented to with only as much grumbling as he thought he was obliged to make about it. They went out to dinner sometimes -- nothing elaborate, for she quickly discovered that he had overextended himself financially by paying her for her sessions -- but often she just accompanied him on long walks around the squares and parks of the vicinity, sticking to the quiet streets so they could linger at their ease, talking quietly, strolling arm in arm. During one of their afternoons alone he finally revealed to her his given name, which from then on she used exclusively.

As spring arrived Matilda began to suspect that she might be with child; a discreetly arranged visit to a physician in the neighborhood confirmed her suspicion. She went home to New Rochelle for the weekend and to her surprise her mother raised rather a scene about it, at least at first, then she calmed down and said that after all Matilda was old enough to look out for herself, which Matilda didn't think was all that helpful, especially when her mother then almost immediately dashed off for the evening with some friends. Her father never alluded to the subject at all. Matilda didn't know when or how he was told of her condition, but she was fairly sure that her mother had pointedly told him to mind his own affairs and not meddle with women's business, an admonition with which he was no doubt more than happy to comply.

When she told Mr. Sullivan, a few days later, he was quite firm about marrying her, though she hadn't intended to insist. She informed her parents of their plans and from then on her mother largely took over the arrangements for the wedding. They were married in early June; Isabel, who was herself by now engaged to Friedrich, served as maid-of-honor. Her brothers were a little stiff about it, but they minded their manners.

The couple were promptly settled into a brownstone just off of Washington Square. It was a wedding gift from her father, as neither Matilda nor her husband seemed likely to be able to support themselves according to her family's station for quite some time, if ever. Her mother came to get along quite well with her son-in-law, though Matilda was afraid that her father never knew quite what to make of him. After the baby was born -- a boy -- her mother often came into the village to make sure that Matilda swaddled him up warmly enough when she took him out in the carriage for her daily circuit of the square.

Serizawa at the Japan Society

I've just returned from the Japan Society's beautifully mounted exhibition, Serizawa: Master of Japanese Textile Design, devoted to the work of Keisuke Serizawa (or Serizawa Keisuke, if you prefer), a master of the use of stencil dyeing techniques for printing fabric and other materials. This was the show's first weekend, and I was lucky enough to share a nearly private guided tour of the rooms.

Serizawa (1895-1984) was already a professional textile designer in the 1920s, when he came under two influences that were to shape his long career. One was Yanagi Sōetsu, the guiding spirit of the mingei or folk art movement in Japan; the other was his introduction to the Okinawan dyeing technique known as bingata.

The pieces on exhibit include kimonos and sashes, folding screens, wall scrolls and noren, as well as calendars and book design.

This one's a bit of trompe l'oeil; there are no cords here, only stencilling:

Here's a mandala designed in honor of President John F. Kennedy:

As he became popular Serizawa was much sought after for book covers and illustrations. This one is from a Japanese edition of Don Quixote.

For those who can't make it to the show there is an excellent full-color catalog published by Yale University Press, but to appreciate the vivid colors and subtle textures you really need to make the trip. Both the tour and admission were free this weekend, although there is normally an admission fee. The Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street, just across the street from Dag Hammarskjold Park.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (VI)

Mr. Sullivan's lodgings occupied the back half of the top floor of a narrow four-story brick building on Bedford Street. There was a rather pretty fanlight over the street door, though Matilda couldn't help but notice that it needed washing. Inside there was a worn mosaic floor and then a series of steep and warped wooden staircases; on the second floor landing she could smell cooking -- roast chicken and potatoes, she thought -- but otherwise the building's tenants all seemed to be out for the afternoon. She climbed slowly, though she was used to walking and didn't find the effort taxing. She wore a simple peach blouse, a gray skirt, and an expensive burgundy cloche that her mother had insisted on buying for her, though Matilda wasn't sure that it went, and she carried a small handbag and a light sweater over one arm, just in case it became cooler later on.

She knocked on the door and heard a voice respond from within, followed a few moments after by footsteps and the sound of the latch being undone. Mr. Sullivan was in his shirtsleeves and had evidently been washing up in the kitchen, as he had a dish towel slung over one shoulder. He apologized for keeping her waiting and ushered her inside.

The apartment was in truth really nothing more than one sunlit room, with a little alcove for a bed in the back corner and a small cooking and dining area set off to one side. The larger space was dominated by a desk, a bookcase, and two swaybacked tables, all of the available surfaces of which were covered, with the exception of a cramped working space on the desk, by a helter-skelter assortment of books, magazines, manuscripts, and writing accessories. All of this furniture had been shoved rather awkwardly together in one corner, leaving a large open space exposed to windows on two sides, with a view over rooftops and trees in the direction of the river. Set back a bit from the rear windows stood a pair of easels; upon them, and along every available expanse of wall around the room, were a number of charcoal drawings as well as a smaller number of rather tentative pastels. While Mr. Sullivan went to fetch Matilda a glass of lemonade she inspected his creations. She had to admit that he possessed a certain natural gift -- more so than her former fellow pupils or the gentlemen that she had modeled for, she was sure -- but on the other hand even with her untrained eye she could see that his technique was either undeveloped or indifferently applied. Almost all of the drawings were of women, clothed and unclothed, and among them she noted several of herself done at the academy. Though the work showed a measure of expressiveness and a nice vigorous feel for form, he had quite clearly not mastered the intricacies of figure drawing; moreover, she quite suspected, looking around the room, that he in all likelihood never would. The best of the pictures were some pen-and-ink caricatures that he had done, evidently of some friends; these relaxed little sketches were entirely more convincing than the more sober nudes and portraits.

When he returned, bearing a tall glass and noticing her attention to his little gallery, he assured Matilda, in the face of her hasty assertions to the contrary, that he really wasn't much of an artist but that sometimes he tried to pick up a few extra coins by doing sketches for magazines. It wasn't really his trade and he hadn't yet sold very many pictures but every bit helped. He pulled over a chair and asked her to please sit, and Matilda did so and sipped her lemonade while she watched the fronds of a locust tree bowing at her through the rear window. While she sat there he moved some things about and tidied up the room a bit, all the while talking about his work as a writer, about how you could make a living, or a sort of one, if you kept at it and turned your copy in on time and kept an ear out for opportunities that tended to come and go at a moment's notice. Matilda listened, in a fashion, which is to say that she understood what he was saying and nodded or smiled at the appropriate moments but that it also seemed to her that she wasn't really present in the room at all, or maybe she was but he wasn't, he was far away somewhere calling to her but he couldn't see her, or maybe he was speaking to someone else entirely and it was she who was listening in on the wrong line.

After a moment she seemed to lose her train of thought, and she realized that he had stopped talking and was standing over her. He had donned a light smock and was holding a charcoal pencil in one hand, and he asked her if she were all right and said something about how if Matilda was uncomfortable he wouldn't be offended or think anything the less of her if she would rather not stay. Matilda eventually came to herself and took his words in and said rather hazily that she was fine and that everything was fine and that she would make herself ready whenever he wanted to begin, and she found herself thinking that Mr. Sullivan wasn't such a bad sort at that. He handed her a robe -- it was his robe, naturally -- and she withdrew into the bathroom to prepare herself. There was hardly anything on his bathroom shelf, just a bar of shaving soap and a razor and a bottle of witch hazel and a handful of other little things, and while she undressed she thought about her parents' bathrooms which were always stocked with bottles and lineaments and lotions and powders and which it was the maid's responsibility to keep clean and tidy, and she realized that Mr. Sullivan had never had a maid and probably never would.

He had set a chair in the center of the room, leaving the curtains parted so that the afternoon light would fall on her from a side window as she posed. This made her squint, however, so she stood up again while he repositioned the chair slightly. When she let the robe fall her body remained hidden by the back of the chair, while Mr. Sullivan worked off to one side, so that an onlooker from the building opposite would have seen nothing more than the head of a young woman apparently passing the day by herself in her room. He became very serious as soon as he began to work, and said hardly a word for a quarter of an hour. He stopped twice and crumpled his initial sallies into a basket, then worked steadily for several minutes before frowning and tearing off another unsatisfactory attempt. He asked her to move to one side slightly; she obliged and he resumed but he still wasn't satisfied and after a moment asked her to move again. Finally he set down his pencil, stepped softly over to her, and gently but quite firmly took hold of her bare shoulders and shifted them into the position he desired. Matilda might have been offended by this -- it was certainly the first time a man had touched her in such a manner -- but to her surprise she wasn't. In fact she found herself thinking that she would not likely be offended no matter where Mr. Sullivan chose to place his hands.

To be continued.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (V)

Matilda spent the month of July at her family's summer cottage in the Adirondacks. Her parents -- separately -- and her brothers, came and went several times while she was there, but for much of the time she was alone except for a cook who seemed very cross, either at having been displaced to what she seemed to regard as untamed wilderness or at Matilda's indifferent appetite. Her mother twice swept her out the door to evening dances, where several young men of their set managed to persuade her to a few waltzes and attempted to engage her in conversation, but she wasn't interested in bantering with them and slipped away as soon as she had the opportunity. During the day, when no one else was around, she found a quiet path along the lake and followed it into a deep stand of towering pines, where there were no birds and no sound other than the light crunching of her sandals on the carpet of fallen needles. When she became tired she lay down in her white dress on a little knoll and slept for an hour or more in the dappled light, entirely undisturbed, and woke in the stillness half convinced that the rest of the world had ended while she reposed, that she would find nothing but endless forest forever in all directions, but of course it was not so. Back at the cabin the cook was more than usually peeved at her late return, and she and Matilda sulked at each other for the remainder of the evening. At the next opportunity Matilda caught a train going south, and after one melancholy night in her old room in New Rochelle -- a room that now seemed small and unfamiliar -- she returned to the familiar moorings of her apartment in the Village.

Isabel and Friedrich had gone off somewhere for a few days, and the summer heat and dust of Manhattan were oppressive, even around Washington Square. After sweeping up a bit and making herself a ham sandwich Matilda went out to the nearest newsstand and collected a supply of the latest magazines, then settled herself into a wicker armchair and read until nightfall. When hunger got the better of her she went out again. Working her way through the crowds on Eighth Street, she peered into eateries and bars until she found a little Italian restaurant that was emptier than the rest. The waiter, who didn't speak English well and seemed, she thought, rather disapproving, showed her to a table by the window. The table was made of cast iron ornamented with curlicues, surmounted with a glass top; its legs were uneven and rocked when she leaned an elbow on it. She ordered a carafe of red wine and a plate of clams on the half-shell cooked in tomato sauce. The waiter brought out a loaf, and when she had finished the clams she scooped up the remains of the sauce with the bread while she took in the flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk outside.

The next morning was Sunday; a steady rain had begun to fall and the wind was billowing through the canyons, swirling up aggregations of dust, old newspapers, and desiccated horse droppings and redistributing them in the gutters or under the oilcloth-covered tables of sidewalk cafés. The park and its environs were deserted. Gripping her umbrella firmly with both hands, she traversed the park and began to head east along Washington Place. When she reached the corner of Greene Street she turned around, tilted her umbrella back, and looked up at the building that had been, a scant few years before, the site of the terrible fire. She stood gazing upwards at its summit for several minutes, oblivious to the rain. She couldn't say why, for she had passed the building any number of times before, but at that moment she found herself unable to stop thinking about the women who had died in the fire, many of them girls younger than herself, about how their stories had simply ended there, on that March afternoon, without a hint of warning. One by one they had leapt into the air to escape the flames and each in turn had fallen to earth, coming to rest -- if rest it could be called -- on the very spot where she stood. When the day was over and the flames were at last extinguished they didn't gather themselves up and go about the rest of their lives; they didn't marry or have children or move out of the city or die of consumption. Matilda felt a cold desolation sink into her bones; she lowered her umbrella to hide the sight, and began to turn away, and just at that moment the umbrella of a passing pedestrian bumped against hers and broke the spell.

She found work a week later, in an art gallery just south of Union Square. The salary was minimal -- in a week she made less than what she had earned in a night of modeling -- but it was outwardly respectable and the work was undemanding. Her mother, who had visited the very gallery once or twice in the past, seemed to approve, and although her brothers appeared to have given her up for lost, her father continued to cover the rent, which, even more so than before, exceeded her monthly earnings by a considerable margin. She was seeing less and less of Isabel, who, in truth, had now largely settled into Friedrich's quarters and maintained her old address only in order to mislead her parents. Matilda thought that they might get married before too long, if Friedrich could somehow be made presentable, which Matilda thought a bit doubtful.

In the interests of economy -- and since cooking for herself seemed too much of a bother -- Matilda limited herself to a roll and some fruit in the morning, and a bowl of soup in a little diner in the evening. The waiters knew her by now and kept an eye out for her, slipping her a biscuit or a piece of cake on the sly and now and again even a glass of wine, and they called her Miss Matilda and gave her the same table every night, one where she could look out through the glass and watch the traffic streaming by. It was there, one night, just as she was finishing her coffee and preparing to leave, that she caught sight of a man in his twenties as he emerged from the crowd and crossed in front of the window. With his brow gravely inclined beneath his fedora as if deep in thought, just before he disappeared from view he turned, though still barely raising his head, and seized hold of the door to enter the diner. She watched him climb the steps, and only when he paused to wait at the counter and removed his hat did she recognize the familiar visage of Mr. T. Sullivan, whom she had not seen again since the night he had accosted her.

Matilda lowered her head and turned slightly away from him as she fumbled in her purse for the price of her soup. She meant to remain thus until the man had been ushered safely to his table, but there was some delay in the appearance of the host and for a moment he was left standing alone. She stole a glance at him and was quite sure that he had not noticed her. Finally a waiter emerged from the kitchen, apologized, and conducted him to a table within, which Mr. Sullivan took without once looking in Matilda's direction. In later years she was never able to convincingly explain to herself why it was, as she set her coins upon the table and gathered her things, that she was suddenly possessed of the unshakable resolve to follow him to his table, to re-introduce herself and shake his hand, and to tell him that if he was still in need of services on the terms he had proposed she would be happy to put herself at his disposal.

To be continued.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Equitable Monument

Aloft amidst the vapors
Of an early morning dew
Over old Manhattan Island
Comes the sunlight's golden hue.

Around me mammoth buildings.
Lift their peaks up to the sky
Far below the sea gulls
Seeking food, they swiftly fly.

Beneath me busy millions
Driven on by Destiny
Ride upon the wheels of Progress
To the call of Industry.

And upon this noble structure
Whereon whose heights I stand
Tolls three thousand odd mechanics
Skillful both of brain and hand.

From the day they sunk the caisons
To the day they laid the roof
They have built it forty stories
Cold, heat, fool, and fire proof.

And each one a Union member
Being paid the wage he sought
Have made it one of many
Of the monuments they've wrought.

M. P. Kearin
December 1914

The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators, 1915

Saturday, October 03, 2009

One Brotherhood

Editorial cartoons from Electrical Worker: Official Journal of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (1914 and 1915).

Friday, October 02, 2009


Through the night the roller-coaster
and its screaming choir, and the soft,
mechanical music of the carousel, go on,
and the limousines stop in the street
beneath the casino's neon balconies.
Over your back a breeze blows in
and the soft blue curtains rise in the room.
You manage to sleep; around your quiet dreams
the city blazes and also dreams:
in its dream of itself the yellow cabs
race through the streetlit avenues
and the sidewalks are crowded with the carnival crowd.
But you lie in the dark
and fail to hear the clock tower chiming twice.

(Written in the late '70s, I imagine. I still have a thing about yellow cabs.)