‘Miner of Difficult Truths’

I can study all day Alice Neel’s brushwork and modeling of flesh and features, how she gestures at her subjects’ surroundings with casual precision. Her “Carmen and Judy” has a frank, womanly exactness and searing intimacy that The New Yorker’s pages show, and Hilton Als’ words ponder, with greater authority than I command here:

These great, almost unbearable late works bear witness to a bravura without a trace of self-consciousness. You can see it in “Carmen and Judy” (1972), a portrait of Neel’s cleaning lady nursing her disabled child. The curators point out that it was unusual for a woman of color to expose her body to the artist in this way, and I can vouch for that. Privacy is one of the few defenses there is against poverty and racism. But Carmen was no doubt able to reveal herself to Neel because she knew that Neel would see what she needed to see: Carmen’s trust, Judy’s dependence, all those years of living in a difference that was not difference to the artist, who had her own years of loss, of children’s love, of trying to render this and so much more in works that would continue to live, despite the darkness of her obscurity and then the light of her fame. Looking at Carmen look at Neel, and thus at us, is like staring straight at the sun. We can’t do it, but we try anyway.

One of her early influences was the work of Robert Henri, a founder of the Ashcan School—a movement that challenged the bourgeois prettiness of the work of the American Impressionists. The Ashcan School focussed on what the Impressionists left out—poverty, dereliction, ugliness. Neel’s developing realism went further. She was not Ashcan but emotional gutbucket, a miner of difficult truths.

(Hilton Als, “Alice Neel’s Portraits of Difference,” thenewyorker.com, April 26 & May 3, 2021 Issue)

(c) 2021 JMN

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A poke at Ludwig’s nonsense adumbrates an a-theology that circumvents the mortiferous belch of cassock-and-biretta evangels.

There’s an amount of life which abounds so abundantly it’s incommensurate with measurement. It amounts to the livelong life force of aliveness that explodes our skulls like an AR-15 would when we try to seize it. It’s the-world-is-everything-that-is-the-case of matter that moves. Not the source of this or that somethingness, but the very ness of it, the preposition in infinity, the suffixing titty of finite. It’s what’s between the equals sign in algebra class.

So it be nameless I name it anyway The amount with a capital T.

Occasionally I kill a few sugar ants while washing dishes. Not on purpose; it’s simply a wrong-place-wrong-time situation for them.

Sugar ants are micro-tiny. Have you seen one? Its carcass is a quasi-speck. Yet I’ve watched teams of them toil relentlessly to hoist a crumb to their lair a league distant in ant world. And when not craning or bulldozing, they haul ass like Lamborghinis.

Here’s the crux of the matter then, the ology part:

The amount beyond origin that can squirt such vitality into a creature the size of a pinhead deserves respect, does it not? Does the portion of life snuffed from the sugar ant not flow from The amount? And my portion too? Is not sister ant my brother in shared life, and I its, for The amount’s bloody sake! And does not The amount not grow less from the ant’s loss, or mine, but rather reclaim our portions and stay the same? Maybe, maybe not?

That’ll do for gospel and scripture.

(c) 2021 JMN

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Una vez más, amor, la red del día extingue
One more time, love, the net of day extinguishes
trabajos, ruedas, fuegos, estertores, adioses,
labors, wheels, fires, death rattles, goodbyes,
y a la noche entregamos el trigo vacilante
and we deliver to the night the unsteady wheat
que el mediodía obtuvo de la luz y la tierra.
that midday obtained from light and earth.

Sólo la luna en medio de su página pura
Only the moon in the middle of its pure page
sostiene las columnas del estuario del cielo,
supports the columns of the sky’s estuary,
la habitación adopta la lentitud del oro
the room adopts the sluggishness of gold
y van y van tus manos preparando la noche.
and your hands go to and fro preparing the night.

Oh amor, oh noche, oh cúpula cerrada por un río
O love, O night, O dome closed off by a river
de impenetrables aguas en la sombra del cielo
of impenetrable waters in the shadow of the sky
que destaca y sumerge sus uvas tempestuosas,
which highlights and submerges its stormy grapes,

hasta que sólo somos un solo espacio oscuro,
until we’re simply just a solitary dark space,
una copa en que cae la ceniza celeste,
a goblet in which celestial ashes fall,
una gota en el pulso de un lento y largo río.
a drop in the pulse of a lazy long river.

Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. Cien sonetos de amor
1924, Pablo Neruda y Herederos de Pablo Neruda
1994, Random House Mondadori
Cuarta edición en U.S.A: febrero 2004

[English translation by JMN.]

(c) 2020 JMN. All rights reserved

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‘Business in Great Waters’

I jotted on the fly several snatches of phraseology that resonated with me today as I watched Prince Philip’s live-streamed funeral service on the BBC.

May what power that is deal graciously with those who mourn, and those who go down to the sea to occupy their business in great waters. (To the coffin:) May thy portion this day be in peace.

Strung together out of order from their hearing and with a slight periphrasis of mine, the phrases devise a hortatory reverential statement that I could imagine uttering, being myself neither practicing religionist nor monarchist.

To be honest, I tuned in for the promised trumpet fanfare. The confession I make is to a weakness for British grand ceremony. What preceded the trumpets had to be got through in order to reach the enjoyment of them.

The sacred music, admirably confined to four voices, was dominant and over-long as always. Several bars of fewer tunes would suffice.

The Dean’s unmannered reading of the text from Ecclesiastes was refreshing. I credit the British with knowing poetry is about words and not performance.

And the phrase “occupy their business in great waters” is what prompted this comment. It reminds me of how gloriously the King James translators foundered over Semitic turns in their source texts. In being literal with strangeness they forged from air the grandiose oddity of “biblical” English that even Englishmen revere.

*Image from WPA Pool/Getty Images, Mike Duff, “Prince Philip Spent His Life With Land Rovers, and This One Will Carry Him to His Funeral,” caranddriver.com, 4-16-21)

(c) 2021 JMN

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Native ‘Son’

A chance juxtaposition of readings* has suggested to me the perennial nature of America’s brutish policing streak.

In 1941, Richard Wright’s manuscript novel “The Man Who Lived Underground” is rejected by publishers who are made queasy over scenes of violence:

[Black protagonist Fred Daniels]… is arrested without explanation, kicked, punched, slammed into walls and floors, and hung upside down by his shackled ankles. “You’re playing a game,” one of the policemen tells him, “but we’ll break you, even if we have to kill you!”

In 2020, a Virginia cop responds to the queries of a motorist subjected to a routine traffic stop, “What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son.” The “lightning” of truculent police talk can be the electric chair or a taser.

In Wright’s fiction an innocent non-white man is coerced into confessing to the killing of a white couple. In the Virginia incident, an innocent non-white man is stopped by mistake and brutalized without provocation.

A telltale addition to the enormity of the Virginia episode is the term “son” spat out by the cop. Much dark historic lightning is trapped in that jug of vile rhetoric.

Noor Qasim, “Decades After His Death, Richard Wright Has a New Book Out,” NYTimes, 4-14-21
Matthew S. Schwartz, Emma Bowman, “Virginia Investigating Pepper-Spraying of Army Officer Caron Nazario,” http://www.npr.org, 4-13-21

(c) 2021 JMN

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‘Cry of Pain’

Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” ruefully ironizes over a lad clever enough to “slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay.” Novelists, though, get more mileage out of superannuated jocks — Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, Malamud’s Roy Hobbs, Philip Roth’s Swede Levov, Leonard Gardner’s Billy Tully — who, like [Theroux’s protagonist] Sharkey, don’t share their creators’ erudition. Such protagonists, of course, appeal particularly to male writers; Theroux suggested why in a 1983 essay that amounts to a cry of pain, finding “the quest for manliness essentially right wing, puritanical, cowardly, neurotic and fueled largely by a fear of women. It is also certainly philistine. There is no book hater like a Little League coach. … For many years I found it impossible to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer … because being a writer was incompatible with being a man.”

(David Gates, “Paul Theroux’s New Novel Takes on Life’s Crashing Waves,” NYTimes, 4-13-21)

My aim, superannuated betimes, was to be a philologist and translator, which, if conceivable, is beneath even writer.

(c) 2021 JMN

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‘Inter faeces et urinam nascimur’

“Between feces and urine we are born,” said Augustine in the 4th century. The bishop of Hippo’s take on parturition was that our mothers effectively defecate us from their feculent crannies.

Doctrine on sex and love handed down by dour anchorites and prelates is enforced today by elderly bachelors in skullcaps. In the canonical telling, the consummate Mother was inseminated by annunciation. Cut to swaddled infant lying in a manger.

Thus come we apostolically to be flustered by our nethers. We humans are a slanging breed. We speak in tongues that have a thousand ways to go all wink-wink, nudge-nudge where major and minor waters debouch into the swamp of procreation.

In “Don Quijote,” Sancho Panza, seized while frozen in his tracks by the urgent need to do what no man can do for him, drops trouser in preparation. “… Alzó la camisa lo mejor que pudo, y echó al aire entrambas posaderas, que no eran muy pequeñas.”

My enhanced translation is: “… He hiked his shirt to the extent that he was able, and bared to the four winds a pair of haunches which did not err on the side of picayune.”

“Posaderas” is delicious, deriving from “posar,” meaning “to sit”; so it’s the “sitters,” the hind quarters that meet the seat.

A happy discovery is that German has “sitzfleisch,” meaning “seat flesh,” a term for the bee-you-double-tee that can can be emblematic of a certain endurance or ability to work long hours. Philip Roth was “king of sitzfleisch,” someone said recently, alluding to the novelist’s dogged writing routine.

Philologically speaking, I imagine “sitzfleisch” and “posaderas” to be jovial code words traded by German and Roman cousins sharing a bench in the shade of Babel’s tower as each pointed to his you know what.

(c) 2021 JMN

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‘Endecha Sin Música’

Dirge Without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Text at http://www.poetryfoundation.org
Spanish paraphrase by JMN

Endecha Sin Música

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
No me resigno a que se recluyan corazones tiernos en el suelo duro.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Así es, y así será, porque así ha sido desde siempre:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
Entrando en la oscuridad van, los sabios y los bellos. Coronados
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
De lirios y de laurel van ellos; pero yo no me resigno.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Amantes y pensadores, entregaos a la tierra.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
Uníos con el torpe polvo indiscriminado.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
Una pizca de lo que sentisteis, lo que supisteis,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
Una fórmula, una frase se queda, — pero lo mejor está perdido.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
Las réplicas prontas y agudas, la mirada honesta, la risa, el amor, —
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Desvanecidos. Se fueron ya para alimentar las rosas. Elegante y rizada
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
Es la flor. La flor es perfumada. Ya lo sé. Pero no me conformo con ello.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Me era más preciosa la luz de tus ojos que todas las rosas del mundo.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Abajo, abajo, entrando en la noche de la tumba
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Suavemente van, los vistosos, los tiernos, los amables;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
Silenciosos van, los inteligentes, los ingeniosos, los valientes.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Ya lo sé. Pero no me conformo con ello. Y no estoy resignado.

(c) 2021 JMN. All rights reserved

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Be Paint

… [Clement] Greenberg’s organizing idea was surprisingly simple: modern painting, having ceased to be illustrative, ought to be decorative. Once all the old jobs of painting—portraying the bank president, showing off the manor house, imagining the big battle—had been turned over to photography and the movies, what was left to painting was what painting still did well, and that was to be paint.

(Adam Gopnik, “Helen Frankenthaler and the Messy Art of Life,” http://www.newyorker.com, 4-12-21)

I’m as susceptible as the next person to sweeping statements that seem to capture the essence of a thing or a moment. I’m not versed nearly enough in art crit lit to slot pronouncements informedly into the historical flow of it. It’s likely that the trope of letting paint be paint is quaint now, set aside for something in the vein of performance art, or re-entry into a militant mode of depictivism, or who knows?

What snagged me in the quotation was the adjective “decorative” and the premise that certain “old jobs” of painting were considered to have been relinquished to other media. Interesting. Is that still held to be the case about painting?

By way of postscript: It perplexes me that an article such as this in The New Yorker isn’t illustrated by a single one of Frankenthaler’s paintings. Also, when I returned to the link I had saved initially, the article was re-titled “Fluid Dynamics.”

(c) 2021 JMN

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But Also Thank the Devil

The worst way to defeat a social or cultural ill is to declare war on it. The U.S. declares war on problems it can’t or won’t solve.

The worst way to foster a social or cultural good is to declare a recurring calendar date for it. Doing so acknowledges a thing to be perennially moribund.

So this April is the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month. Margaret Renkl writes:

Many Americans… feel they can get along just fine without poetry. But tragedy… can change their minds about that… The poets are forever telling us to look for this kind of peace, to stuff ourselves with sweetness, to fill ourselves up with loveliness.

(Margaret Renkl, “Thank God for the Poets,” NYTimes, 5-5-21)

Bless her heart, she means well, as we say in the South. I’m sure you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when National Poetry Month was declared. I don’t.

Poetry is a curious hubbub kicked up by a tiny few, noticed if at all by a tiny few more. Oblivion is guaranteed, and have a nice minute. Poetry’s for that. “I am not resigned,” says Edna St. Vincent Millay from the grave. Good luck with that, Ms. Millay. This world will flame out by and by. Poetry’s for that.

I simply can’t express, other than with petulance, what a downer to the impulse towards poetry a pious paean to it such as Ms. Renkl’s well-intentioned one can be.

My conviction and hope is that, if poetry lands a blow at all, it’s as much to fuck me up in my complacent brine and set me back on my heels as to nurse me through my godawful present or penultimate moments. There’s no way anyone under the age of ancient will bother to look at it if it’s in order merely to gorge on putative gobs of goodness.

Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural poem did what it had to do, which was to put a scrappy, uplifting vibe on a happy occasion. Ms. Gorman, after all, intends to run for president. The launch will stand her in good stead failing some reversal of fortune. I hope to have a chance to vote for her. The last president-poet we had was Lincoln. Perhaps we could use another. Will my grandkids revere “The Hill We Climb” like I revere the Gettysburg Address? Doubt springs eternal.

But back to National Poetry Month: don’t forget to thank the Devil for it.

(c) 2021 JMN

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