Thursday, May 29, 2014

Russell Edson (1935-2014)

I just learned from Charles Simic's notice on the website of the New York Review of Books that the poet Russell Edson died earlier this year (on April 29, 2014, according to the Poetry Foundation).

I knew Edson's work almost entirely through the one slim volume shown above, which was published as a "New Directions Paperbook Original," apparently in 1964. I doubt I had ever heard of the author when I picked it up second-hand; I was in my teens, it looked interesting, and it probably cost me all of twenty cents, which is the price marked in pencil inside the front cover.

The Very Thing That happens comprises eighty or so very short pieces — what would you call them? prose poems? anecdotes? fables? koans? — accompanied by Edson's own appropriately daft drawings. Here, in its entirety, is one example:

A man put a fedora on a cabbage, oh please be somebody I know.
Now who it is, as the brim is low, he cannot tell, but someone is certainly someone.
Someone, who are you?
Someone says nothing.
One and cabbage and now the moon. Round things are not unavailable in a square room.
The moon comes wearing a crown of clouds, worn too low to know who it is.
I ate it up: the whimsy, the perverse logic, that last line so deliciously cadenced it demanded to be sung (and sing it I did). And likewise with "The Cruel Rabbit," "Notice for the Meatball Fund," "The Tub and the Woman," "Mouse-music," and the title piece, which begins with a father riding into his kitchen on an imaginary white horse and after going downhill from there ends with this incontrovertible bit of wisdom:
But why why why is it happening? cries mother.
Because of all the things that might have happened this is the very thing that happens.
I've hung on to my copy of the book for a least forty years. I can't say that I've dipped into it more than occasionally for a long time, but its spell, in its own small way, has never really been broken.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Orphan

Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida is my kind of film: spare, understated, sensitively directed, small in scope but firmly anchored in its time and place, which in this case means Poland in the early 1960s. Sumptuously shot in black-and-white in a narrow-screen format, it's very much a movie to be looked at, the way one looks at still photographs, supplying one's own active eye and interpretation, and not just something to be watched, the way one witnesses a spectacle that's been programmed to hit all the right emotional buttons at the predetermined moments.

The lead character — she's called Anna, a Catholic novice, but she learns that she's really Ida, the daughter of murdered Jews — actually has relatively little to say, usually no more than a few words per scene, and her face betrays little of what's going on inside her head, but she is, in the end, not only the ostensible protagonist of the movie but its audience as well, the one whose fate it is to experience the unfolding of a story that, even as it is about her, is fundamentally not of her own devising. Which is not to suggest that Ida is without a visceral punch. There's something in fact very Greek about it, not so much in the events as in the suddenness and starkness of its emotions, the way the characters — the young novice aside — respond in almost stylized fashion to the revelation of long-hidden secrets, as if purging the collective sins of an entire community.

The trailer below gives an idea of the storyline and the film's beautiful visual style, though inevitably it can't capture its graceful pacing. Stuart Klawans, at the Nation, has a comprehensive and thoughtful review that nicely encapsulates its virtues and ambiguities. I think this is a movie you should see.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Around the beginning of the 20th century a marriage took place between two nascent media: the postcard, which was becoming the source of an enormous international craze, and amateur photography, a hobby democratized by Eastman Kodak's affordable and portable cameras. The result was the "real photo postcard," continuous-tone photographic prints made directly onto postcard stock, huge numbers of which were created by both amateurs and professionals. While the professional studios made both individual portraits commissioned by customers and mass-produced souvenir postcards in runs of thousands, the amateurs generally made unique prints. Large numbers of the latter survive; although designed to be mailed, many never were, or were enclosed in envelopes and thus never postmarked. Some of the images are fascinating (there are several excellent books devoted to them) but most are fairly dull. They were made for a specific purpose, as keepsakes, to exhibit the likeness of a loved one or the old homestead or the graduating class, imbued with meaning for the photographer and the recipient, but not conveying much to strangers. Separated from their context, they are largely mute.

The obvious amateur image at the top of the page is a little different; while it presents no drama, it does give us a sense of the subject's location and integration within an active, occupied urban space. The card stock was produced by Velox, a company acquired by Kodak in 1902, and this particular variety, which is marked "Made in Canada," was probably manufactured between 1907 and 1914. It bears no address and no identification of the woman in the foreground, although based on provenance I suspect that it was taken in the province of Quebec, perhaps in Quebec City itself. The pyramidal roofs of the skyline at right might potentially make an exact identification of the location possible.

Half of the woman's face is in shadow, as is the street behind her, and a stray fiber appears to have been captured in the printing process at top right, but the image is not without interest in spite of these flaws. If you look carefully (a magnifying glass helps), you can make out on the left side several figures stoop-sitting down the length of the block, the second set of stairs has some kind of ornate stencilled pattern on its vertical surfaces, and there may be an awning projecting from a storefront in the far distance. And then there are the overhead wires, which, like almost everything in this picture, provide a glimmer of connection. The poles, the wires, the street, the sidewalk, the stoop-sitters, the buildings clustered together, all speak of a world in which the texture of an individual's existence is inextricably entwined in sophisticated networks of interaction, communication, transportation, and marketing.

There's no snow on the sidewalk, but there appears to be some piled against the curb on the far side of the street. The child sitting closest to us, who is paying no attention to the woman or the photographer, is wearing a snug wool cap. It's perhaps the end of winter, and the woman has likely removed her own head covering to pose for the camera. A moment later she will move away, but the city that surrounds her will keep on humming even when she's gone.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Gloaming

The Gloaming
— Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals), Thomas Bartlett (piano), Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (hardanger fiddle), Martin Hayes (violin/fiddle) & Dennis Cahill (guitar) — are a quintet of experienced musicians, three from Ireland, and two from the US, whose self-titled first record (above) was released in January 2014. They play a kind of stripped-down Irish trad, by turns haunting and breathtaking, that manages at once to innovate and to draw forth the music's deepest and most ancient core. It's really quite special. Below is one live performance, featuring nine and one-half dazzling minutes of Martin Hayes.

The Gloaming can be purchased from Real World Records or Brassland Records.