Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Flesh of the Gods, or, Pan in Cyberspace

---Carnival revelers in Lucerne, Switzerland, February 16th of this year.

So another Mardi Gras has come and gone.

---Carnival celebrants in Belgium last week.

Another Shrove Tuesday...

--Carnival in Ulm, Germany.

Another end to Fasching....

---Carnival somewhere (Venice?) in Italy last week.

As we contemplate a cybernetic future, enthralled within our digital scrim, shadow selves and avatars leading fleshless lives in a Hadoopian world of zettabyte data streams, we nevertheless continue to congregate corporeally, to celebrate mysteries that go back to our beginnings.

Carnevale both refutes and prefigures this future.

Refutes because we still crave the visceral connection of one another; we desire the pulse of music and the smell of smoke, sweat and cooked meats embracing us without an electronic intermediary. Welcome, welcome, step right up to the carny...

Prefigures because in our pageants, rites and masques we have forever been imagining ourselves transcendent and hybridized. The trail is not so long from the ships in the rituals of Isis and the mysteries of Eleusis to multi-player online role-playing games and endless self-fashionings on Facebook.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Irish Ghost Towns, Fairy Gold, and the Diaspora

John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in "My Debt to Ireland" (in this morning's New York Times Sunday Magazine) about searching for his roots, about thwarted hopes and the elegiac nature of life on the Emerald Isle.

Among other things, he comments on the great many houses half-built, never occupied, now abandoned and falling into decay across Ireland, the result of the unprecedented real estate boom during the 1990s that lasted until the global recession starting in 2008. Americans are familiar with this sort of boom-and-bust cycle, with tracts and developments that are still born, that move from blueprint directly to ghost town without ever being inhabited (all those empty streets in the exurbs of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tampa, Houston and so on). We grimace, file law suits, and move on to some other city or state, building anew to meet the needs of our ever-growing population.

For the Irish, however, this has been a new experience; they are grappling with both the phenomenon and how best to frame it.

As Sullivan writes:

"It had been a dream, like something in a Celtic Revival play: faeries built thousands and thousands of houses in the night. In the morning everybody was poor again.

It was hard to see why the government would allow the ruination of so much open land, which is one of Ireland’s principal commodities, namely the 'unspoiled' landscape. People go to Ireland for all sorts of reasons, but they mainly go there because it’s pretty, because it’s 'not all built up.'

From the point of view of the rural Irish themselves, however, this may look very different. The greenness of Ireland is a false greenness, after all. Not that it isn’t green — the place can still make you have to pull off and swallow one of your heart pills. It’s that the greenness doesn’t mean what it seems. It doesn’t encode a pastoral past, much less a timeless vale where wee folk trip the demesne. The countryside is not supposed to look like that, to be that empty. Ireland was at one time one of the most densely populated places in Europe. In the 1830s, there were more people living there than today. What you see in the open spaces the island is famous for are hundreds and hundreds of years of Irish dying and fleeing in large numbers. Famines, wars, epidemics and a wretched postcolonial poverty drove them through the ports by the millions. It’s perhaps not so strange that such a people, experiencing their first flush of disposable income, would undergo a mania of home building and land development. Perhaps in a way, the houses were meant for returning immigrants even before they became ghost estates. They were built for the diaspora."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Three Alchemists: Beachy-Quick, Kornher-Stace, Taaffe

Dan Beachy-Quick...Nicole Kornher-Stace...Sonya Taaffe...

Three writers, ranging in age from 29 to 39, who have moved beyond the "emerging" stage and are now among our best. Though hardly unknowns, each deserves to be far more widely and profoundly recognized than he or she is. (I have noted the work of each in earlier entries of Lobster & Canary). Each showed early promise that she or he is now confirming and extending.

Beachy-Quick, Kornher-Stace, and Taaffe have much in common: a deep and learned appreciation for language that produces darkly glittering gems; a jackdavian inquisitiveness, omnivorous yet discerning; meta-cognitive glosses on the importance of history; and an ability to approach central mysteries with masterful subtlety and nuance. Erudite delvers through layers, finders of clues in the ores and the air.

I have no idea if they read each other's work, let alone if they know one another. I do sense a kinship in their own reading tastes. I would place them in the workshop that includes Dickinson and Moore, Montale and Rilke, in the laboratory of language occupied by Swinburne, Hopkins, Shelley and Dryden. Novalis and Droste-Huelshoff. Back to Gongora, to Ronsard. And-- in another vein--I would situate them in the amphitheater for encyclopedic musings and polymathic hybridization, where Eco demonstrates and Benjamin strolls, where the walls are inscribed with the wisdom of Goethe and of Wordsworth.

I cannot do justice to my claims in a short blog entry, so will add "write critical essay on Beachy-Quick, Kornher-Stace, Taaffe" to my dauntingly but deliciously endless list of "deliverables before I die." For those of you who want a taste of evidence a bit more substantial, here are some choice ingredients from the alembics of the three alchemists:

Taaffe's most recent effort is a chapbook, A Mayse-Bikhl (hand-bound from Papaveria Press, 2011), collecting some of her best poems of the past decade. The cover photograph is by her grandfather, Alfred Glixman, of the Czech Memorial Scrolls at Westminster Synagogue. A Mayse-Bikhl's poems all wind powerfully and tellingly from that central image, leading us through memory and the hope of the future. Here is a "Kaddish for a Dybbuk," and "Mermaids at Tashlikh." Her opening lines for "Seder Yetzirah": "Every lover's letter is a golem,/ silence stirring at the cut of a name." In "Lilim, After Dark," we see "All the demons that hide/ in the rafters of your dreams..." In "Etz Chayim," we behold The Tree as it must have been: "This tree grew in no mortal garden, ran/ its roots deep into promise and liturgy...angels burning like sunlight/ in its branches, each leaf inscribed/ name upon name of the children/ born beneath the echoes of its bitter,/ hungering fruit..."

Kornher-Stace's novel Desideria (Prime Books, 2008) opens with one of the most eloquently and powerfully enigmatic scenes I have read in many years. An unnamed young woman, dressed in finery, shatters a mirror and sets her room and herself on fire: "At first she does not know just how or why the lamp is in her hand, its glass and brass and fern-curled fire..." She looks out her window at an unnamed city, smells it: "woodsmoke, lampblack and filth, scorched ginger, rotting quays, snow-sogged broadsides, hothouse violets on the far bank of the river." She plunges from the fiery tower ("burning like a plummeting angel"), dashing herself on the street below, to the cries of the gathering crowd. She is taken for dead. She clutches a book. She is, in fact, alive, but mute (her lips have been sewn shut) and unconscious. "But the looters lean in and discern an auburn book. Like saints' hearts, it has not burnt." She is taken to a nunnery for succour.

Tupelo Press published Circle's Apprentice by Beachy-Quick in 2011. He is openly engaging here with Emerson and Hoelderlin (as he was with Melville in A Whaler's Dictionary). The poems in this collection are dense, cryptic, intelligent, delivered in odd (but not artificial) language, full of what he calls "little riddles in the ruins," with "a small god chanting in the synapses." The work loops, aphoristic lines that return to their beginnings, elusive threads in the old maze. From "Poem": "Comet tails/ Darkly flowing back as the horse leaps/ Forward, straining against the catafalque...Vague/ Repetitions haunt the circumference." From "Catalog": "Glowing with stories they have no mouth to tell...Every poem contains a blessing it keeps hidden." From the first of five poems each titled "Tomb Figurine": "My eye was a little sun__working/ In reverse."