Monday, April 30, 2018


In the office on the 73rd floor, high above the city, the president of the company passes me a handful of letters to mail and a note with the deli order for lunch. "Quickly!," he shouts, and I rush to the elevator, which swiftly descends the great steel and glass tower until its doors open at the ground floor. A rush of wind hits me as I exit through revolving doors, and the letters are blown from my hand and scattered. Pedestrians hurrying in and out of the building trample the letters and leave their footprints on them. I gather them up and enter the deli, but there's a crowd ahead of me struggling to be served and in the confusion I drop the letters again. Now they're torn, soiled with beef blood and grease. I run outside looking for a mailbox, for a place to wash my hands, but all in vain...

Friday, April 27, 2018

Notes for a commonplace book (22)

Pablo Neruda:
It is very appropriate, at certain times of the day or night, to deeply observe objects at rest: the wheels that have covered long, dusty distances, bearing heavy loads of vegetables or minerals, sacks from the coal yards, barrels, baskets, the handles and grips of the carpenter's tool. The contact of man with the universe exudes from these things a lesson for the tormented poet. The worn surfaces, the wear that hands have inflicted on things, the often tragic and always wistful aura of these objects, lend to reality a fascination not to be taken lightly.

The confused impurity of human beings is displayed in them, the proliferation, materials used and discarded, footprints and fingerprints, the permanent mark of humanity inundating all objects from within and without. That is the kind of poetry we should strive for, worn away as if by acid from the labor of hands, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of urine and lilies, and seasoned by the various professions that operate both within and outside the law.

A poetry impure as old clothes, as a body, with its food stains and shame, with wrinkles, observations, dreams, vigilance, prophecies, declarations of love and hate, beasts, blows, idylls, manifestos, denials, doubts affirmations, taxes.
"On Impure Poetry," as translated by Mark Eisner in his biography Neruda: The Poet's Calling.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Man or name?

Two translations of the last lines of Pablo Neruda's "Ars Poetica," from Residence on Earth:
but the truth is, suddenly, the wind lashing my chest,
the infinitely dense nights dropped into my bedroom,
the noise of a day burning with sacrifice
demand what there is in me of the prophetic, with melancholy
and there's a banging of objects that call without being answered,
and a restless motion, and a muddled name.

(Mark Eisner)

but the truth is that suddenly the wind that lashes my chest,
the nights of infinite substance fallen in my bedroom,
the noise of a day that burns with sacrifice,
ask me mournfully what prophecy there is in me,
and there is a swarm of objects that call without being answered,
and a ceaseless movement, and a bewildered man.

(Donald D. Walsh)
Leaving aside the other differences between the versions (I generally prefer Walsh's, from the New Directions edition, to Eisner's, which is quoted in his new biography of Neruda), there's a significant disagreement that has nothing to do with translation methods or styles; it has to do with the text of the Spanish original. The last words in the Spanish text that Walsh is translating (his edition is bilingual) are un hombre, a man; Eisner is evidently following a text that reads un nombre, a name. Spoken aloud they would be indistinguishable (the h is silent), but which text is correct?

I find hombre a more satisfying conclusion to the poem, with the catalogue of objects and motions ending up producing, wittily, a confused man, but the other reading isn't implausible either, given that Neruda, throughout Residence on Earth, frequently juxtaposes adjectives and nouns in seemingly inscrutable combinations. Eisner seems to be following the text of the 1999 Obras completas I edited by Hernán Loyola. At least one scholar (Tim Bowron) regards Loyola's "un nombre" as "an obvious error," but further research is needed.

Monday, April 16, 2018

On Robyn Hitchcock

I have loved you from a distance
Loved you from up close
Like the tiny frog that breathes
I can nestle in your cloak

I'm a bit of a latecomer to the Robyn Hitchcock party, having discovered him in 2004 (i.e., some thirty years into his career) as a result of Spooked, which he recorded in collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I played Spooked regularly for a while, but I hadn't listened to it all the way through for years until I dusted it off again after seeing Hitchcock perform live a week ago (he was great, by the way, polka-dot shirt and all).

Hitchcock is also a painter, in a surrealist vein matching his songs; the image above is the full version of the piece that was cropped to serve as the cover art for the CD.

Hard-core Hitchcock fans don't necessarily like this collaboration (too brooding), but I think it holds up. He played only one song from it ("Full Moon in My Soul") at the gig I attended; I like that one well enough, but I think "Television" — the ultimate ode to the seductions of the medium — and "Flanagan's Song" are my favorites. Here they are:

Thursday, April 12, 2018

On the Cultivation of Mushrooms

Leonora Carrington:
I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.

The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.

I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.

"I did it to grow mushrooms," he told me. "There's no better way of growing mushrooms."

"Brady," I said to him, "you're a complete idiot. You have ruined my car."
From "The Royal Summons," in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy Project, 2017). Carrington, a British-born painter as well as the author of mischievous tales, was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and actually was presented (though very much against her will) at the court of England's George V. She left the country at the first opportunity and spent most of her very long life in Mexico.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

On Friendship (Elena Poniatowska)

Elena Poniatowska's Leonora is a biographical novel that closely follows the eventful life of her longtime friend, the artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who, like Poniatowska, was European-born but Mexican by choice or accident. (Carrington died in 2011, aged 94, and Poniatowska, one of Mexico's most distinguished writers, is now in her mid-80s.) In the early 1940s, following the fall of France and a traumatic stay in a mental institution in Spain, Carrington migrated to New York City alongside a host of artistic luminaries, including her former lover Max Ernst, who by that time was romantically involved with the wealthy arts patron Peggy Guggenheim. Poniatowska's chapters covering this period are peppered with the familiar names of her fellow emigrés Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Luis Buñuel, and Marc Chagall, but the appearance of one name in particular caught my eye. Carrington and Ernst remain close, and often spend the day together exploring Manhattan. Poniatowska writes:
They wandered the shores of the Hudson, along which steamed long freighters that Bell Chevigny saw pass by from her window on Riverside Drive.
Chevigny is not otherwise identified, and in fact never mentioned again, but I recognized her name, because many years ago I took a college course taught by one Bell Chevigny, a literary scholar and the author of a biography of Margaret Fuller. She would have been a young girl in the 1940s, and as far as I know had no direct connection to Carrington and the surrealist exiles in New York. So what is she doing in the pages of Leonora? One of her other areas of interest is modern Latin American literature (as it happens, I translated a few pages for a book on the subject that she co-edited) and she and Poniatowska have apparently known each other for years. Perhaps Poniatowska remembered Chevigny telling her how the ships would pass by her family's window when she was a child, and slipped her name into the text by way of a friendly wink.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Drue Heinz 1915-2018

Drue Heinz, the former publisher of Antaeus and the Paris Review, has died. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a lengthy obit.

The past year or so has seen the deaths of two of my favorite writers, Charles Simmons and Harry Mathews (and no doubt others I've forgotten for the moment), as well as New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers. For better or worse, the literary and intellectual world I grew up in is dwindling to an end. Something will replace it (though not for me). Time moves on.

My appreciation of Antaeus can be found here.