Monday, March 14, 2005

Brooks Atkinson was a Very Great Theatre Critic with a Very Silly Name

A friend who knows about such things suggested that if I am going to write about the recent poetry salon that took place in our home I should do a proper review, one in which the evening and its participants are described with depth, feeling and proportion, particularly since blogging is a form of publication and I must be mindful of the responsibilities of serving as a public voice. Harumph.

He did not put it in quite these words. It was more like, "When you start talking about yourself, it's like, you know, why don't you get a room? Get a room. I mean, like for just yourself. A room. You know? Whatever."

I take his point. But it is hard to do a proper review of a poetry salon since a poetry salon is much like a performance of the Cirque du Soleil, an event in which all attempts at a narrative thread can never disguise the fact the evening is essentially an exercise in attitude filtered through dazzling virtuosity.

Saturday's salon did have a theme. Every salon has a theme. But those themes are more honored in the breach than in the observance. (Whatever that means.) Let me try to get my head around what happened.

Again, think Cirque du Soleil: (What fun! But you know you always forget most of what happens after Billy Pierre Le Crepe gargles his own foot while juggling balls of flaming kiwi excrement.)

Several things happened at the salon. I've already talked about how the theme was translation in the common understanding of the word. For instance, Gale Feyrer read in English a Baudelaire poem about Venice, and Dan Harder read it again in French. You can't go far wrong here. You can't go wrong at all. Baudelaire is the absinthe of poets: Intoxicating, sure, but consume at your own peril.

Then Dan Harder did some more French to English. Don't remember the poet's name. Cassandra Kamuchey and Steve Kohler did a back and forth German to English. Don't remember the poet's name. And thus two interesting points are raised:

1) You can experience intense and thorough pleasure at something in its moment without being able to remember later anything about it other than the music of the language. You may even remember the music of the ideas, though what those ideas were I cannot begin to tell you.

2) Of French and its English translation side by side: The French rubs up against the English and purrs. German and its English translation side by side: The English rubs up against the German and purrs.

Oh, and Jeffrey Pressman started the salon with Caedmon's Hymn, the first poem in English. He did the Old English and then the modern. No more about JP for the moment. Faithful blog readers already know all about the Lorca that was one of the highlights of the salon.


In retrospect, I realize that a substantial portion of the salon was off theme. This was not a bad thing. There was plenty of Bush bashing, just enough to keep us toned. Barbara Dietrich displayed her deck of anti-Bush playing cards. Robert (Bob) Wieder shared his collection of Bush malapropisms -- though he veered toward theme by offering a variety of possible intended meanings, so in that sense he was providing a translation.

Robert (Bob) also provided one for the comic highlight reel. This requires some explaining, and the explanation will really give no sense of the great waves of cathartic laughter that R(B) elicited. The setup: For the last couple of decades about this time of year many men and a few women get together to "buy" baseball players. What you are actually buying is the "rights" to their statistics for the coming baseball season. You add those stats up and at the end of the year someone wins and someone loses. Money changes hands. This is America.

Wieder's conceit was to pretend in a state of faux drunkenness that he had been a participant in just such a draft, but one in which the participants bought politicians, not ballplayers. This was the concept, the details to be sketched in. You and I could sketch it in, and we might find a joke in their somewhere.

Wieder, however, killed. Wieder killed. Analogy time: Cars are cars, but some are Fiats and a very few are Ferraris. Bobby went vroom vroom screeeech vroom vroom vroom And if that isn't clear enough, go dig up Brooks Atkinson.

Another high point: the aforementioned Dan Harder and the afivementioned Jeffrey Pressman performed two of Dan's zipper poems. These are hard to describe and God they must be devilish hard to do. Write a poem. Take the poem, break it up into words and phrases and stack it on the left side of the page. Do the same thing with a second poem but stack it on the right side of the page. Now if you are wicked clever it is possible that you start reading right to left across the page and the two separate poems zip together to make a third poem distinct from the poems one and two.

Get your kids to try this. Start them when they are 12 and by the time they have finished the assignment, they should be well out of their teens.

Dan did Vertical Poem One and Jeffrey did Vertical Poem Two and then they reread them jumping back and forth, illustrating the fusion principle which fires the sun, as the halves collided and collapsed into:

Rich new meaning. The technical term is wow.

And speaking of juxtapositions, Nanette Cogswell-Asimov and Hugh Cogswell-Byrne (Cogswell is their dog; hats off while the injoke passes) did a duet based on letters her grandad wrote describing his youth in Russia, these letters written in Yiddish and translated into English and done, in part, by Nanette with a very fine Yiddish accent. Let me just sum up one aspect of one of the letters. Nanette's grandfather got sick and slept through the Bolshevik Revolution.

Richard Anderson read an email from a salon regular who was back East dealing with death and dismemberment -- metaphorical dismemberment -- in her family. Then he read a short Frost poem she suggested. David Reinke did a James Thurber anecdote in which Thurber returned an unintended insult with an intentional one. Bill Allard read the first part of a film script, part of an umbrella project in which somebody: shoots most of a movie; then goes around the country to a variety of places casting some of the smaller parts with locals: shoots scenes with those local actors; and thus produces a series of the-same-but-different movies that can be shown in the various localities where they were partially cast.

I know this sounds like something the King and the Duke did while floating down the Mississippi in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn between episodes of being tarred and feathered, but Bill says it's time for me to wake up and smell the 21st Century. (My wife says it's regional marketing.)

Nancy Rieser read two wonderful poems in English that had nothing to do with the theme, but who told her what the theme was? Ah, that would be me. I mean, that would be not me. She read with such verve and humor I forgave myself on the spot.

And now for the mighty conclusion. The oh-so-late Patrick Finley, who was always first among equals at the old salons, wrote a play more than 20 years ago that flopped spectacularly. He and Jeffrey carved out of it one long poetic duet, the general theme of which was/is the history of English and/or English poetry. It's an amazing jumble of jokes, poems and fragments of poetry, history and fragments of history, philosophy and fragments of philosophy that when read informs but when heard in expert performance delights delights. It has that Restoration drama feel, that David Mamet, Tom Stoppard feel, by which I mean it runs ahead of you faster than your brain can possibly run but you are well pleased just to try to keep up. (Whoa. Jeffrey and Dan did it. That's why UPS is a cultural player. You have the thing itself, but someone has to deliver it.)

It was a fine salon. For the first time since Patrick's death I thought how we should really chase everybody out and bring in a new audience and do it again, so magnificent was it.

At which point in this review you, Dear Reader, will probably say:

Oh get a room.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is it really 10 years since Patrick died? I suppose it must be, if in fact it's been almost a year since I rotated the earthquake supplies. It sounds like a wonderful salon, and don't you dare let them ebb away. In
fact, a friend and I did see something of the sort of the Lorca poem at Oregon Shakes. some years ago. They did his Blood Wedding with a chorus of Spanish speakers as peasants, commenting in soft Spanish echoes on the English text. It was haunting.