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 from 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 at 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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Blues


The great blue herons at the local pond I frequent tend to be skittish, flying off as soon as they see me coming down the path, but for whatever reason this one felt like showing off. I walked up to the shore as quietly as I could and finally settled down on a rock just across from the dead branch where it was perching. It gave me a casual glance or two but then settled back into its routine of alternatingly preening and peering into the water. It seemed to be trying out poses and hairstyles, and I have to admit that its full feathered regalia was impressive.
There was a second heron on the other side of the pond that was a bit more standoffish. It also seemed to be a bit smaller and more submissive. Eventually it settled on a branch of its own, but the first heron quickly joined it and chased it off. Maybe it was jealous of those flashy white chest feathers.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Words & Music


An interesting sign of something, though I'm not sure what: all of a sudden a large number of the musicians I listen to regularly or occasionally have either come out with a book or have one in the pipe. The one I've been anticipating for some time is Richard Thompson's memoir, which is being published shortly, but just in the last week I've learned that Rickie Lee Jones is also releasing a memoir in April, and that Robin Hitchcock is publishing a hardcover volume of lyrics in July.

Just looking back four years and including only performers represented in my modest CD collection, I came up with the following short list:
  • Loudon Wainwright III, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things (2017)
  • Amy Rigby, Girl to City: A Memoir (2019) (reviewed briefly in this space here)
  • Peter Case, Somebody Told the Truth: Selected Lyrics and Stories (2020)
  • Peter Blegvad, Imagine, Observe, Remember (2020)
  • Rickie Lee Jones, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour (April 6, 2021)
  • Richard Thompson, Beeswing: Losing My Way & Finding My Voice, 1967-1975 (April 13, 2021)
  • Mary Gauthier, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting (July 2021)
  • Robyn Hitchcock, Somewhere Apart: Selected Lyrics 1977-1997 (July 2021)
  • Roy Gullane (of the Tannahill Weavers), untitled memoir (tentatively 2021)
Some of the above are self-published (or appear to be), but Rigby's memoir was admirably written and professionally produced, and the Hitchcock, which will include some of his drawings as well, looks nicely packaged. Others are being issued and supported by major US publishers. The Blegvad, available from Uniformbooks in the UK, is a bit of a ringer here, as it has no particular connection to his music.

Most or all of these performers, some of whom have worked with each other in the past, have had to drastically reduce their touring schedules due to the pandemic, which may have given them the incentive and leisure time to shift their attention to the written word, but several of the volumes listed appear to have been at least contemplated before last year. A more likely explanation is that all of these artists have reached a point in their careers that a bit of retrospective seems to be in order, and no doubt any extra bit of revenue is welcome as well.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Notebook: Stephens at Palenque

From 1839 to 1841 the American traveler John Lloyd Stephens and the British artist Frederick Catherwood traveled throughout Mexico and Central America exploring and meticulously describing Mayan antiquities, which were then barely known to the English-speaking world (and even to many living in the region). Here Stephens relates his thoughts as they leave the site in Mexico known by the Spanish name of Palenque.
There was no necessity for assigning to the ruined city an immense extent, or an antiquity coeval with that of the Egyptians or of any other ancient and known people. What we had before our eyes was grand, curious, and remarkable enough. Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown. The links which connected them with the human family were severed and lost, and these were the only memorials of their footsteps upon earth. We lived in the ruined palace of their kings; we went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power. In the midst of desolation and ruin we looked back to the past, cleared away the gloomy forest, and fancied every building perfect, with its terraces and pyramids, its sculptured and painted ornaments, grand, lofty, and imposing, and overlooking an immense inhabited plain; we called back into life the strange people who gazed at us in sadness from the walls; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feathers, ascending the terraces of the palace and the steps leading to the temples; and often we imagined a scene of unique and gorgeous beauty and magnificence, realizing the creations of Oriental poets, the very spot which fancy would have selected for the "Happy Valley" of Rasselas. In the romance of the world's history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it. Apart from everything else, it was a mourning witness to the world's mutations.
Unlike many early observers who attributed the ruins to a civilization originating in the Old World, Stephens ultimately concluded, correctly, that the builders were the ancestors of the same Maya people who still inhabited the region. I visited several of the sites, including Palenque, in 1980, by which time conditions for travelers, distinctly rough in 1840, were vastly improved. The fine Dover editions of the four volumes of Stephens's travels are still in print.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

La Gileppe

These images by C. Renard are from a novel by the Belgian entomologist Ernest Candèze, which relates the adventures of a group of insects who lose their home when a dam is built. According to the historian David Blackbourn, who describes the book in The Conquest of Nature, "with its cast of anthropomorphized insect characters, the book gently satirized human pretensions from the perspective of the victims."
The entire contents of La Gileppe can be perused online at https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6540180w/f1.item.texteImage.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Airwaves (The Midnight Broadcast)

If you've ever twiddled the radio dial late at night when the ionosphere was in one of its capricious moods and the receiver was pulling in haunted signals from who knows where, signals that faded out as mysteriously as they appeared, you'll get this record right away. Peter Case is well-known as a songwriter, but on The Midnight Broadcast the only Case composition ("Just Hanging On") is one he has recorded before (though with a very different arrangement). There are two Dylan tunes (or strictly speaking one Dylan tune and one Danko-Dylan tune) and the rest of the songs mostly belong to the churning alchemical matrix of "folk music," attributed or otherwise, including old blues songs, a raucous cowboy number, a couple of nautical tunes, a lament by a New Zealand gold-miner, and a version of "Stewball," the ode to a champion racehorse that has been morphing from one form to another since the 1780s. Alternating with and sometimes overlaying the music are miscellaneous synthesizer drones, whistles, and loops, interspersed with scraps of DJ patter (voiced by Ross Johnson) that might be described as Joycean cornball. The whole aural collage was put together in the Old Whaling Church on Martha's Vineyard with the participation of longtime Case collaborators Ron Franklin (who produced) and Bert Deivert, among others. The apt cover photo above is by David Emsinger.

Case's usual instrument when he performs is acoustic guitar, but on The Midnight Broadcast he often sits at the piano, even picking out an instrumental version of the pop-jazz standard "Dinah." But there's gorgeous guitar work on St. Louis Jimmy Oden's "Going Down Slow," Memphis Minnie's "Bumble Bee," and elsewhere. Some of these songs have been in Case's repertoire for decades, but here they sound fresh. There's a richness and depth to this record that speak to long years of experience as a performer but also to a willingness to mix it up, to discover unexpected musical textures, and to make the old new.

The Midnight Broadcast is available on CD from Bandaloop Records. An LP is forthcoming.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

"Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" (Gary Snyder)

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.


A poem read this morning, coincidentally, while an experimental batch of sourdough bread rises down the hall. As to the name of the mountain, Jim Harris gives one explanation:
In 1872 Jack Rowley and his partners, from the Lower Skagit [...] set out to prospect the Skagit to its headwaters. Panning each river bar, they found scattered flecks of gold, enough to keep them going. At the head of canoe navigation, now Newhalem, they were still seeking that elusive mother lode. Native guides were hired to lead them high above and around the river's narrow canyon. It was tough going and very hot. Sourdough starter began to work in a prospector's pack, messing up his gear. The place was christened Sourdough Mountain.
Harris's account, which is from a volume entitled Impressions of the North Cascades, is available online here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

City Lights Books has announced the death of its co-founder, the writer, bookseller, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, after an astonishingly long and productive career. Ferlinghetti was 101 and had just published a book a year or so ago, making him (along with Herman Wouk) a rare centenarian author of consequence.

I've never been to San Francisco and it's been years since I read any of Ferlinghetti's poetry, but the bookstore and publishing company remain active, having survived a financial crisis a year ago with the help of donations. Long may it continue along its cantankerous way.

I've owned a handful of City Lights books over the years, but the only two I seem to have now are shown here. Both are fairly minor works by writers I admire, but the press did a nice job on them and I'm glad that they exist.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Character of the Cassowary


I wish I were a cassowary
Out on the plains of Timbuctoo.
I'd kill and eat a missionary--
Head, arms, legs, and hymn-book too.
The above lines have been kicking around since at least the 1850s, and nobody seems to know who wrote them. They're geographically inaccurate — cassowaries live in Australia, New Guinea, and thereabouts, not Africa — but they do contain a grain of truth, for this flightless bird is, at least according to most accounts, a singularly surly and aggressive customer, and though it eats neither missionaries nor heathens it does have lethal claws that have led to well-documented, if infrequent, fatalities in human beings who were foolhardy enough not to give the cassowary its space.

Julio Cortázar, who expressed memorable interspecies kinship with the axolotl, had no such empathy with the fearsome cassowary. He describes it in Cronopios & Famas as "unlikable in the extreme and repulsive." In Paul Blackburn's translation, these are its curious properties:
He lives in Australia, the cassowary; he is cowardly and fearsome at the same time; the guards enter his cage equipped with high leather boots and a flame thrower. When the cassowary stops his terrified running around the pan of bran they’ve put out for him and comes leaping at the keeper with great camel strides, there is no other recourse than to use the flame thrower. Then you see this: the river of fire envelops him and the cassowary, all his plumage ablaze, advances his last few steps bursting forth in an abominable screech. But his horn does not burn: the dry, scaly material which is his pride and his disdain goes into a cold melding, it catches fire with a prodigious blue, moving to a scarlet which resembles an excoriated fist, and finally congeals into the most transparent green, into an emerald, stone of shadow and of hope. The cassowary defoliates, a swift cloud of ash, and the keeper runs over greedily to possess the recently made gem. The zoo director always avails himself of this moment to institute proceedings against the keeper for the mistreatment of animals, and to dismiss him.
As entertaining as that fantasy is, reality is hardly less so, and the cassowary's true nature seems to be open to debate. During the travels he described in Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, the naturalist and explorer George Bennett kept several specimens of what he called the mooruk in captivity, and even successfully shipped a pair to England. He found them generally congenial as housemates, although they were perhaps a bit too tame. They certainly weren't fussy about what they ate:
It is well to warn persons, inclined to keep these birds as pets, of their insatiable propensities. When about the house, they displayed extraordinary delight in a variety of diet ; for, as I have previously related, one day they satisfied their appetites with bones, whetstones, corks, nails, and raw potatoes, most of which passed perfectly undigested ; one dived into thick starch and devoured a muslin cuff, whilst the other evinced a great partiality for nails and pebbles; then they stole the Jabiru’s meat from the water. If eggs and butter were left upon the kitchen-table, they were soon devoured by these marauders ; and when the servants were at their dinner in the kitchen, they had to be very watchful ; for the long necks of the birds appeared between their arms, devouring everything off the plates ; or if the dinner-table was left for a moment, they would mount upon it and clear all before them. At other times they stood at the table, waiting for food to be given to them, although they did not hesitate to remove anything that was within their reach. I have often seen them stand at the window of our dining- room, with keen eye, watching for any morsel of food that might be thrown to them. The day previous to the departure of the pair for England, in February 1859, the male bird walked into the dining-room, and remained by my side during the dessert. I regaled him with pine-apple and other fruits, and he behaved very decorously and with great forbearance.
All in all, the presence of the birds seemed to be just one more challenge among many for the domestic staff:
One or both of them would walk into the kitchen ; while one was dodging under the tables and chairs, the other would leap upon the table, keeping the cook in a state of excitement; or they would be heard chirping in the hall, or walk into the library in search of food or information [sic], or walk up stairs, and then be quickly seen descending again, making their peculiar chirping, whistling noise ; not a door could be left open, but in they walked, familiar with all.
Perhaps the mooruk has a gentler disposition than its larger cousins. The smallest cassowary species, it is now often known as Bennett's cassowary in honor of its scientific discoverer.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Weeks of Inward Winter (Charlotte Brontë)


"Those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world. Unaccountably, perhaps, and close upon some space of unusually frequent intercourse—some congeries of rather exciting little circumstances, whose natural sequel would rather seem to be the quickening than the suspension of communication—there falls a stilly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion. Unbroken always is this blank; alike entire and unexplained. The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off; the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more.

"Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand, and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones—that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends.

"The hermit—if he be a sensible hermit—will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be conformable: make a tidy ball of himself, creep into a hole of life's wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season."

Villette

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Memory of Things (Charlotte Brontë)



There's an intriguing recognition scene about 200 pages into Charlotte Brontë's final novel, Villette. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is a young Englishwoman with sad memories and no strong family ties who crosses the Channel and finds employment in a school for girls, first as a servant and eventually as a teacher of English. There she becomes acquainted with a fellow expatriate, a young physician she knows, initially, as Dr. John, who is regularly called on to attend to the pupils in the school. After several months at the school, Snowe undergoes an emotional crisis. Though Protestant, she visits a Catholic church and gets a sympathetic if puzzled reception in the confessional; after leaving, she collapses in the street.

She comes to in a strange room, but the objects that surround her aren't entirely unfamiliar.
It was obvious, not only from the furniture, but from the position of windows, doors, and fire-place, that this was an unknown room in an unknown house.

Hardly less plain was it that my brain was not yet settled; for, as I gazed at the blue arm-chair, it appeared to grow familiar; so did a certain scroll-couch, and not less so the round center-table, with a blue-covering, bordered with autumn-tinted foliage; and, above all, two little footstools with worked covers, and a small ebony-framed chair, of which the seat and back were also worked with groups of brilliant flowers on a dark ground.

Struck with these things, I explored further. Strange to say, old acquaintance were all about me, and "auld lang syne" smiled out of every nook. There were two oval miniatures over the mantel-piece, of which I knew by heart the pearls about the high and powdered "heads"; the velvets circling the white throats; the swell of the full muslin kerchiefs: the pattern of the lace sleeve-ruffles. Upon the mantel-shelf there were two china vases, some relics of a diminutive tea-service, as smooth as enamel and as thin as egg-shell, and a white center-ornament, a classic group in alabaster, preserved under glass. Of all these things I could have told the peculiarities, numbered the flaws or cracks, like any clairvoyante. Above all, there was a pair of hand-screens, with elaborate pencil-drawings finished like line engravings; these, my very eyes ached at beholding again, recalling hours when they had followed, stroke by stroke and touch by touch, a tedious, feeble, finical, school-girl pencil held in these fingers, now so skeleton-like.

Where was I? Not only in what spot of the world, but in what year of our Lord? For all these objects were of past days, and of a distant country. Ten years ago I bade them good-by; since my fourteenth year they and I had never met. I gasped audibly, "Where am I?"
Snowe has good reason to wonder (and I've quoted only a small portion of an extended passage of discovery). She has been rescued by Dr. John, who (we learn now) is identical with the John Graham Bretton who is the son of the godmother with whom Lucy spent long periods during her adolescence, and she is now recuperating in his home. Neither Bretton nor his mother, who is also in the house, has recognized Lucy yet. The familiar articles Lucy sees around her are well-remembered objects from her childhood, brought along by the mother when she left England.

At this point Brontë, through Snowe, admits that she has been deceiving us. Snowe has, in fact, recognized Bretton chapters earlier, but has withheld that information both from him and from the reader.

That Lucy Snowe might have lost touch with the Brettons when she became an adult is not implausible. Like many a Brontë character, she lacks an intact nuclear family and seems to have been set adrift into life. That John Bretton wouldn't recognize his former housemate is, perhaps, harder to swallow. But it's a stroke of genius that Charlotte Brontë has understood how memories of childhood can be eerily embodied in knickknacks and furnishings that in themselves are entirely banal, and also to understand the disorientation that can occur in someone who re-encounters those objects in a strange environment to which they don't seem to belong.

Friday, January 22, 2021

One of the most desperate characters in the City

Over the years I've devoted several posts to the colorful early history of Manhattan's Water Street Mission, an institution that was founded in 1872 by reformed convict Jerry McAuley (and which still exists, though under a different name). Above is a little handout card from the mission that can be fairly precisely dated to 1882-84, after McAuley had moved on to start a second mission further uptown.

According to Samuel Hadley's Down in Water Street, McAuley's immediate successor or co-successor was the John O'Neil whose name appears on the card, but O'Neil was only in charge briefly before giving up the helm to one J. F. Shorey, who was already in place as superintendent by November 1884. Hadley himself took charge in 1886. Below is the floral design on the other side of the card.
There doesn't seem to be much other information available on the O'Neils. The only significant source I've found is the New York Times obituary from 1879 (below) for a Mrs. John O'Neil "who identified herself for years with Jerry McAuley's Water-Street Mission." Here we learn that her husband John, who apparently survived her, had been a career criminal and "one of the most desperate characters in the City" before his eventual reformation. He might not have been cut out for the task of superintending the mission, but he seems to have settled down to a productive life.
Around the same time there was another John O'Neil in New York City who was notorious for criminal activities, specifically burglary, but whose very recognizable modus operandi was a clever con involving pawn shop tickets. One of his arrests came just a few weeks after the death of the Water Street Mrs. O'Neil, but there's no reason to suspect that the two men were one and the same. The website Professional Criminals of America — REVISED, based on an 1886 volume devoted to the topic, has a photo and details of the activities of the unreformed O'Neil.

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns
The Water Street Mission, Revisited
Tracts (2): Jerry McAuley's Story

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Notes for a Commonplace Book (29)


Thomas De Quincey:
Of this at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil -- and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
I suspect that Borges, who knew De Quincey's work well and regarded it highly, likely had this passage in the back of his mind when he wrote his famous short story about a man who suffers a head injury and becomes literally unable to forget anything.

That no memory is ever entirely erased is not, perhaps, an entirely untestable proposition. One could easily imagine experiments that would demonstrate the existence of "inscriptions" of which the mind has no conscious memory. But in the end it probably should be regarded as a supposition that is both certainly true — in some sense — and at the same time utterly unfathomable to rational inquiry. And it makes me think of gravity, which, if the little I understand of it is correct, never loses a faint pull on an object no matter how distant it travels.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Nobody Should Be Surprised


If anyone in this country is still harboring illusions about the man in the White House and his core of thugs, it's about time they asked themselves why — or how. Defeated at the polls, trounced in the courts (often by judges he put in their posts), repudiated by much of his own party, defied now by the (Republican) Senate majority leader and his own hand-picked vice-president, the sociopath has no avenues left but an appeal to violence, and violence, directly provoked by his own words, is exactly what we have. Is there really anyone left who can look at the scene in Washington today and not realize that the whole Trump cult has been nothing but a lie? It didn't "get a little out of hand"; it was rotten to the core from the very start, and every opportunist who thought it was possible to make common cause with MAGA cap-wearing, gun-waving fascist lunatics and somehow keep their hands clean has a lot to answer for today. How could anyone think that it was possible to make common cause with an unscrupulous monster who was willing to put his own ego ahead of the very principles of democratic government and the rule of law, and who was willing to unleash armed goons to achieve his ends? Does American democracy no longer matter? Was it really all worth selling out for a bit of partisan advantage, the chance to make an extra buck and bruise a few liberals?

Make no mistake; Trump is doomed. It's a lot easier to provoke a riot than it is to run a country when you've lost your last shred of legitimacy. The country's battered institutions will re-group, preserve what's left of their integrity, and move on to other crises. But the damage is done, literally and figuratively. Elections, as they like to say, have consequences; no one has any right to be surprised at the consequences of the presidential election of 2016. Learn the lesson. Next time it may be worse.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Blackburn & Cortázar: The Correspondence

Today, entirely by accident, I learned of the existence of this bundle of eight chapbooks published in 2017 by the Center for Humanities at CUNY as part of a project called Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. My interest in this particular number (Series VII) centers on two of the chapbooks, which bear the collective title of “Querido Pablito"/"Julissimo Querido," Selected Correspondence, 1958-1971 (Parts I & II). These volumes contain translations of the letters between Julio Cortázar and his first US translator (and literary agent), Paul Blackburn. I'm familiar with portions of the correspondence from the five-volume Spanish-language edition of Cortázar's Cartas, but I despaired of ever seeing them published here. (Some time ago I translated and posted brief excerpts here and here.)

The CUNY chapbooks are a little tricky to find at the moment, in part because CUNY's offices have been shuttered by the pandemic. If it helps, the ISBN for this series is 9780997679625.

World Without Borders has an excerpt from the CUNY volumes as well as an interview with the editors, Ammiel Alcalay, Jacqui Cornetta, Alison Macomber, and Alexander Soria.

In addition to the two chapbooks described above, the next installment in the CUNY series (Series VIII) contains a chapbook dedicated to a translation of a portion of Cortázar's posthumously-published study of Keats, Imagen de John Keats.

More information to come.