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I’m Gonna Cry | Rita Mae Reese

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

ImGonnaCryWhen I was a little girl, my mother would play George Jones and Tammy Wynette on the 8-track player. The only radio stations in Charleston, West Virginia, played country music, or so it seemed. My older sisters were fine with this arrangement. I was not. I hated the crying-in-your-moonshine misery of it all, the endless stream of women leaving their men, of men not coming home, of jobs that broke you and then left you. One evening when Jones was crooning between the heavy thumps of the 8-track, I sat beneath the kitchen table and began crooning my own country song, about my job leaving, my woman leaving, my damned dog leaving. My sister laughed at first, but when I wouldn’t stop she warned me that one day, when I was older, I would like country music. I stopped singing and sat under the table, contemplating the grim future. My sister went off to another room and after some time I tracked her down, begging her to be more specific—when exactly would this terrible thing happen? She wouldn’t say.

♦♦♦

There have been country songs since then that I have enjoyed. I’ve monitored them anxiously like symptoms of something fatal, or at least disfiguring, but they’ve been few and far between. I live in Wisconsin now. I drive a mini van. I have an English degree. What I’m trying to say is, I have enough problems. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to a concert at the Stoughton Opera House. The Opera House has been lovingly restored to a glory that startles me every time I see it. It seems more like a cathedral than a concert hall, an oversized grotto where what is worshipped is sound and tradition. The act has to be spectacular to distract from the beauty of the walls and the hardness of the old wooden seats. My expectations were low. I would have happily sat with a numb butt just gazing at the gilded, giddy fleurs de lis while not doing laundry or listening to knock-knock jokes. But the Sweetback Sisters came out and started singing “I’m Gonna Cry.” It’s a bouncy, funny song about pleading for mercy from a boss, a landlord, and repo men, all met with the same refrain—“I’m gonna cry, cry, cry, lay right down and die, ball my little hands up, rub my eyes.” All of the good things about country music hit home at once—the humor, the honesty about life being more than a romantic endeavor, failed or otherwise, but being that too. And it had been there all along. By the end of concert, when they played a couple of moonshine songs from West Virginia, I knew that my sister’s prediction had finally come true. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna lay right down and cry.

 

Rita Mae Reese, author of The Alphabet Conspiracy, is a recipient of numerous awards, including a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship, and a “Discovery”/The Nation award. Visit her at www.ritamaereese.com.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits in Black and White | Maud Casey

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

The ones I like best are the ones where she isn’t even there. A shadow on a lawn, a shimmer in the shiny head of a sprinkler. A shadow sliver of her wide-brimmed hat and her broad shoulders on the sidewalk at the feet of two women, creamy legs crossed on a bench, leaning in to conversation. A shadow puppet, dancing on the side of a Chicago building. She is several shadows at the beach. In one, trees grow out of her shadow head; in another, possibly my favorite, the shadow brim of her hat almost touches the hair-rollered head of a sunbathing woman.

I wanted to figure out who she was, says John Malouf in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, co-written and co-directed with Charlie Siskel. Malouf’s the intrepid, endearing guy who discovered the treasure trove of Maier’s undeveloped photographs—over 100,000 negatives!—at a thrift auction house in Chicago and made them public after her death. Why is a nanny taking all these photos? Malouf asks. The only unimaginative part of the movie involves those peculiar questions (Why is she childless? Why is she unmarried?) occasionally discernible in the subtext of interviews conducted with her employers and the children in her care.There was also her stubborn eccentricity. Why does she speak with a possibly fake French accent? The woman with the twin-lens Rolleiflex camera was a mystery.

I keep misremembering the movie’s title. It should be called In Search of Vivian Maier, I keep insisting. Maier was a mystery fascinated by the mystery of the self. She understood there’s only ever in search of, never finding. No pinning the butterfly—its roving expansive wanderings, the poignant flapping against its cage. Maier took lots of photographs—intimate, wonderfully strange street photographs on par with Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. But it is the self-portraits in stark black and white, the color of the world bled out, their smoky elusivity, that I can’t stop looking at (http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits/). Maybe it’s because I’ve recently spent time looking at 19th century forensic photography—women diagnosed as hysterics, alleged criminals. Proof. See? That’s what crazy looks like. That’s what criminal looks like. Maier’s self-portraits (the black and white, in particular, because of their liminal, dreamlike quality) are questions. Am I her? Her? Am I here?

The self-portraits are dated, 1953 to 1971, except for those with no date at all. She is not always a shadow. There she is, tall, startling, beautiful, reflected in a silver platter in an antique store, in a hubcap, in a bathroom whose mirrors extend her into infinity. There, reflected in a store window, a little girl (her charge?) hamming it up beside her; there, in another store window, the reflection of two women in her skirt, as though they’ve taken refuge there. There’s only one where she’s smiling, reflected in a full-length mirror hoisted out of a dumpster by a man whose face you cannot see. There is no getting to the bottom of her.

Maud Casey is the author of three novels, including most recently The Man Who Walked Away, and a collection of stories, Drastic. Her essays and criticism have appeared in A Public SpaceLiterary Imagination, the New York Times Book ReviewOxford American, and Salon.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

Charles Hood | Song of the Angels

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

Song of the Angels and Other Middle-Class Compulsions

Hood imageFramed in faux-Gothic spires that look like badly cut organ pipes, Song of the Angels is one of Forest Lawn’s top crowd-pleasers. You know Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Museum, I suppose—Evelyn Waugh parodied it viciously and Jessica Mitford scalded it as well. As a proper lit major / knows-his-salad-fork-from-his-dessert-spoon art snob, my inclinations would run that way too, except my parents’ final nursing home was nearby in Glendale, as was the hospital they rotated through for two years.

In naive middle age I had once said that between cancer and divorce, my divorce had been worse. That was nothing like the sorrow of parenting my parents, who some days were not even coherent, let alone cooperative. To process the grief, before driving home I would go to Forest Lawn and stare at Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau, 1881. Proximity drove this more than preference: I could see Forest Lawn from the nursing home parking lot. They shared a brick wall. It was the closest refuge I could find.

Needing whatever it is art gives us, I would drive around the block, pass though the formal entrance with wrought iron gates and grand fountain, cross sections named Vale of Memory and Eventide, and end up at the museum. The grounds look like a page from The Watchtower: bucolically landscaped hills with implied hints of deer browsing and cherubs picnicking. Most people think of Forest Lawn in terms of Hollywood royalty, as last known locations of Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart and Lon Chaney and Michael Jackson. Walt Disney is here, assuming his head is not in cryogenic storage, awaiting medical resurrection; Errol Flynn and Clark Gable are here; many early studio moguls. Ronald Reagan got married here. Anybody remember Joan Blondell? She’s here. She said her ex-, Mike Todd, had held her by her ankles out of a hotel window. We assume he never did that to his next wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who’s also here—along with Sammy Davis and Sam Cooke and two of the Marx brothers.

Besides hosting traveling exhibits, Forest Lawn’s museum also owns a quirky, mostly cheesy permanent collection. One good name for this would be schmaltzy sentimental pseudo-Victoriana, but another would be, a manifestation of the American fear of death, and a third would be, stuff my mom would really, really like.

Bouguereau was a sincere, polished, salon favorite whose academic perfection epitomized everything Impressionists hated; his wistful peasant girls and bland, de-eroticized nudes display what Degas called a licked finish: all technique, no heart. Even so, I spent entranced hours. Everybody in this painting is so clean and white it feels like laundry day. Look at that hair, those feet: the Madonna has a good pedicure, that’s for sure. The cloth drapes convincingly; light falls with gentle, flattering radiance, as if from a China ball, to use the language of film sets. And the seemingly specific (yet still generic) vegetation—see, even the weeds quote Palm Sunday—matches the actual landscaping of Forest Lawn. True, the wings are a bit paltry, with hardly enough lifting surface to propel a duck, but you’ve got to admire how they direct the composition: the V of the violin angel’s wings guides us down to her face and bow arm, which point to sleeping Jesus. Even the French government collected Bouguereau; the Orsay owns twelve.

For most people, arrival into the middle class must feel like hunkering down under a wool blanket after a long night at sea in an open boat. My parents, for example—I would like to say they survived poverty and war and never looked back, but the fact is, no matter how much they squirreled away in their IRA, they never stopped looking back.

Can we escape our own longing? Maybe your family praised Rothko at dinner but in my house we were more about Mt. Rushmore placemats and Thomas Kinkade desk calendars. We went to John Wayne movies and drove Buicks. Sure, it was all easy promises, but then so is a Twinkie and we know what they go for on eBay. Is that why some small, lewd part of me now likes these angels the painter force-feeds us with sentimentality and too much sugar? Brush your teeth twice before leaving. If you had to look at just once piece of art every morning for the rest of your life, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud might provide more to think about, but once you got used to them, angels by Bouguereau might more often send you out the door whistling.

In a painting like this the lute is forever in tune, the air is always thermostatted at 72 degrees, and the demure headbands always double as halos. So be it. It’s not my heaven but it sure is somebody’s. Do I wish this were a Vermeer? Well, of course—but then I don’t live in London or Den Haag. I live where I live and my museums have the art that they have, and maybe my most middle-class secret of all is that I am fine with that.

I don’t expect more, and in fact, I know that to demand too much puts the whole damn ship in peril. Accept your lot in life: that’s one message of the American dream; even the lottery is more lower class than middle, though my mother had some secret tickets hidden away most weeks. If she had won, she would have bought my brother a car, something small and sensible, and written a quiet and probably anonymous check to the Presbyterians.

I would like to think she also would have treated herself to a framed print of Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau.

If so, what would I have done with it? After my folks passed I loaded almost everything on the Salvation Army truck.

This one, though—this one I think I would have kept.

 

Charles Hood is a Research Fellow with the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. His most recent book won the Hollis Summers Poetry Award from Ohio University Press.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

NER Digital | The Movie Inside the Movie | Erica Ehrenberg

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

The Movie Inside the Movie:
Variations on Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

In Fanny and Alexander there is a season that doesn’t exist. It’s an endless winter. Interiors even in their warmth emit the same white glare as the air outside. In the outdoor scenes, in the streets of Uppsala, I hear the same creaking in the trees as I hear in the floors of the living rooms, the bedrooms where people sleep.

The camera sees like a remembering mind—every snow-drift, every glass glinting in the light belongs to the same person, to the same memory, the same dream. The camera is searching the places inside a mind: Bergman’s mind? Alexander’s? Now mine?

The winter moves in waves underneath the houses in summer. It is the ringing when the mother undoes her hair while her husband sleeps; it is the wailing that pierces her when he dies; later, it is the silent room in the new husband’s house the children must pass through without being heard or detected.

In my memory of the movie there is another movie—the movie that has no beginning or end—the movie that changes as I grow and remember it differently. I can access the winter in that movie at will. It’s not even strange that the children are dressed in white gowns, or that someone is cruel to them. There is a thaw—a rushing river, another winter.

I first saw Fanny and Alexander as a child and I’m still haunted by it. The children’s fears felt like my own fears. To think of it is to access a certain time in my childhood, when I could hear the sounds of my father watching a movie on the other side of the wall.

In some part of my mind it is Bergman’s Sweden in summer. I hold my hand out the window and mosquitoes come. The mother is in the house. I can hear the way the faucet runs. I can hear but I can’t see her children.

What is important is not to remember the movie but to return to it—to return to it as one would return to a house whose walls may have shifted or begun to lean more deeply into one another, while the movement of your body through it has also changed. Sometimes what you recognize is a place you have been, and sometimes what you recognize is the memory you have visited many times since. The actors walk through rooms like visitors, like people remembered after their deaths.

My father walks into the living room acting out the scene when the uncle farts up the stairs. I can’t stop laughing, but the uncle’s laughter is already the laughter of a ghost. The staircase will go blank; the child alone on the staircase after the death of his father will disappear into the landing where the winter air is bright but sealed inside a window. Is that window really there? How many times have I walked into the living room and the movie was on—my father there in the afternoon, some moment in the movie out of order—and even when I see the movie again all the way through—that scene is not there.

I don’t know what drops in my stomach when someone in a movie dies. This time I think it’s the child understanding that he dies.

Even in the longest movies everything is condensed. It’s a relief that life isn’t like that, that we don’t see things change that quickly. Sometimes I don’t want to be aware.

Winter is hanging over the children’s bed as if the ceiling of the house in Sweden was suddenly pliant, suddenly made of cloth. Why can’t we see the mother? Why can’t we lie against her?

In the stepfather’s house, the breath has been knocked out of the furniture.

While the mother is berated behind the locked door, the anger in the boy turns his mother into snow to protect her. Snow, the raging river, the glass of oil on the table, the cracking ice.

Erica Ehrenberg’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including Slate, Octopus, jubilat, the New Republic, CURA, the St. Ann’s Review, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet Series (Knopf 2008), and Guernica. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and at the Vermont Studio Center, a writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and will be a resident this summer at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and at Yaddo. At Fordham University she teaches writing and creative writing courses that often focus on the connections between literature, architecture, sculpture, film, painting, and photography. She has also given talks at the Storm King Sculpture Center on poetry and sculpture.  

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

NER DIGITAL | La Sagrada Familia: Spires | Alexandra Teague

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

SagradaFamiliaMy husband, his parents, and I stand at the top of La Sagrada Familia, spires spiking and tilting around us like great stone ocean waves, as if we are on the crow’s nest of a ship that is simultaneously pitching into sky and sinking. I’m usually scared of heights, but up here, even fear is under construction. After a century, only eight of the eighteen spires. After a century, the first stones of the Glory Façade: its roads to God and Hell both equally unbuilt.

After a decade, my husband still sleeping nightly on a pillowcase speckled with blood from his brother’s death, still angry at his father for, in the hours immediately after, disassembling his brother’s cage of finches, giving them all to somewhere. The sky. The ground. The noise his brother made gurgling blood into tubes because he had AIDS and no one had yet drawn the plans for pills to save him.

Gaudi wanted the Passion Façade to strike the onlooker with fear, the guidebook tells us. We are supposed to feel Christ’s sacrifice, to believe in death with high purpose. Forgiveness. But nothing is finished. The spire for Mary isn’t started yet; her body only more air.

My husband believed—does he still believe?—he would betray his brother’s life if he let grief go. He carried what he had—the fading stain on a pillowcase, the space where finches once rustled in the corner of a California apartment—like stone for a medieval cathedral. That blood:  brown into blue into white. He hated the inevitable washing. “Color is life,” Gaudi said. Also:  “My client is not in a hurry.”

Everything is possible in God’s time, but nothing is for sure, an Irish singer we love tells us. My husband’s family is Irish and Mexican Catholic. Mine, Irish Protestant. My husband and I are atheists. We believe in suffering for love. My mother is three years dead. We travel everywhere as a family. We play Quiddler and drink sidra and take pictures leaning into the blue between stones.

Asked why he’d lavished painstaking care on the tips of the pinnacles no one could get to, Gaudi answered, “The angels will see them.” My mother-in-law believed when her oldest son first came out he was a sinner. He died knowing she loved him. She still wouldn’t forgive herself for having to build backwards from faith to love.

My father-in-law never talked, in the six years I knew him, about the cage of finches. That hammering. The way the finches belonged to no one. I never talked about what I feared: that I could not go on carrying, around the world, the same unchanging stone.

Still: only eight apostles. Still no Virgin or Jesus. The guidebook says not even Gaudi drew plans for the whole basilica. He couldn’t know how others would need to complete it. A new subway tunnel shakes beneath now, like jackhammers, like heartbeats. The engineers say this is threatening the foundation. The engineers say this is threatening nothing. The angels say nothing. They roost, invisible on invisible spires.

 

Alexandra Teague is the author of Mortal Geography, winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and 2010 California Book Award, and The Wise and Foolish Builders (Persea 2015). She is Assistant Professor of Poetry at University of Idaho and an editor for Broadsided Press.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. 

 

 

NER DIGITAL | On Dostoevsky | Emma Lieber

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

000600 Two Boys - BarcelonaI have been in love with The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, but for a long time I was unable to write about it. Dostoevsky’s last novel is about many important things—sin and salvation and crime and justice and neighborly love—but, to me, it has always been mostly about the death of a child. Dostoevsky dedicated it to his wife; their son had died at age three two years before it was published, and every page of it screams their shared anguish and their passion.

There is beauty here in the death of innocents. At the end of the book, when Ilyusha, dead at age ten of tuberculosis, is lying in his grave, flowers are blooming, and a crowd of his schoolmates has gathered; they promise to love and remember each other, and they are full of grace and lust for life and boyish exuberance and appetite for the funeral feast and in their excitement they shout “Hurrah!” The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov is taken from the same lines in the Gospel of John that, a year after the novel’s publication, would become the author’s own epitaph: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” There is a fellowship and a flourishing to be found in death; a single death can feed a multitude. Yet Dostoevsky offers no easy assurances, and The Brothers Karamazov is equally about Ivan Karamazov, who hates God for letting children suffer. If God’s kingdom is one in which even one child dies, then Ivan will return his entrance ticket, and while his nauseous rebellion is the flipside of the novel’s concluding picture, it is equally as passionate and true. The most haunting figures in the book are the mothers of dead children, women who cannot be consoled.

Several years ago, I was in the middle of a long dissertation, the last chapter of which was supposed to be on The Brothers Karamazov. That year, we also wanted a child, and I found that I could not start writing the Dostoevsky chapter until I was pregnant. By the end of our son’s first year I understood why I had been saving the book for so long. With the birth of any child, parents are confronted, in their very joy, with the fact of mortality, the “Hurrah” of life always echoing with the murmurings of death: the dangers of childbirth, the pitfalls of infancy, the simple fact that all children are born to die. Amongst all of the triumphs of modern medicine, which assures us that so very many of our babies will survive childhood, one of the few drawbacks is how infrequently parents are able to avow their fears. We have been left unable to mourn the births of our children, and the anguished cries that would have been so familiar in Dostoevsky’s era have been muted into an underground melancholia, or a free-floating anxiety. I think I was saving The Brothers Karamazov until I had a child of my own as a way of making me confront head-on my horror at my baby’s mortality. What I couldn’t have known was that my son would have made me do that anyway, and that the intensity of my need for Dostoevsky’s novel was more profound than I had imagined.

He was born on December 30, in the evening. It was a difficult and strange time. The doctors put him in the NICU, and once, as my husband and I entered the room to visit him, we heard shouting and panicked; we were relieved to realize that it was the sound of New Year congratulation, a few moments of well-wishing, the only celebration the staff allowed themselves. We were able to leave the hospital within a few days, though over the course of the next year we were back often, twice for long and complicated surgeries, the first longer and more complicated but the second—because he was older and, when the mask descended to put him to sleep, knew something scary was happening—more harrowing. After it was over someone asked me whether at any point during those hours in the waiting room I thought he might die, and I responded that I didn’t know what “think” meant in that context, although I do remember one day, shortly before the first operation—the one that changed his face most visibly, took away the gaps in his upper lip and smoothed the skin under his nose and corrected the beautiful defect that made his smile preternaturally wide and joyful, my baby—when the weather was stunning and we played outside nearly all day and I only brought him in when it was time for a late-afternoon nap, planning on heading out again once he was awake to walk our “loop”—a route in Central Park that I used to amble with him in the Snugli, the first times in my life that I have felt things to be as they should—and as the nap went on and on, and five o’clock turned to six and six to seven, I realized he was down for the night, and in the hollow of his unplanned absence I felt horribly and mutely bereft. In that moment, perhaps, I dimly thought the unthinkable.

Readers often cry at the scene in which Ilyusha’s father, having just lost the boy, notices his child-sized boots still standing in the corner and is overwhelmed by hysterical pity: for his dead son, for himself, for the shoes that are too small to go forever unworn. The year that my son was born I was surprised to find myself crying at an earlier scene in which Alyosha Karamazov, Ivan’s brother, approaches the group of schoolboys—Dostoevsky has no illusions about children, they are seething with childhood perversity, tormenting the already sickly Ilyusha, no sublime brotherhood yet—and, by way of intervention, starts making conversation with them about their school bags: “I used to carry a bag just like yours, but we always wore it on the left side,” for easy access. Just the right way to speak to a child, practical and kind. In my imagination, when Alyosha walks up to the boys their brows unfurl and they begin to smile. It is Alyosha who, along with Ilyusha, will teach the children to love each other better.

My dissertation adviser was the mother of two now-grown sons and once told me that when her boys were little and they lived in California she always had to send them to their first day of school with two backpacks each: the one that they would use all year, to carry snacks and number two pencils and maybe a calculator when they were big enough, and one red one, with meaningful trinkets and a note, to be stored away in a special locker, in case at some point during a school day an earthquake were to sunder parents and child. I thought that if I could paint I would paint a child, back facing the viewer, walking away, wearing a red backpack, taking with him his things, the instruments for his life. My son starts school this year; just preschool, so maybe too early for a backpack, although maybe not. He may need to carry snacks, and I think he will enjoy the feeling of independence and responsibility. I hope people talk to him in just the right way, and that they make him smile. I hope he will have everything that he needs.

Emma Lieber teaches Russian literature at Rutgers University.  Her work has appeared in New England Review, her essay Realism’s Housewives” in 33.4The Massachusetts ReviewSlavic ReviewSlavic and East European Journal, and Nabokov Studies Journal.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. 

 

 

NER DIGITAL | A VIsion and a Voice | John Poch

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

Poch-photo1

Todd Murphy: Untitled (1994)

When I changed my studies from nuclear engineering to poetry writing (Georgia Tech to Georgia State), my new adviser told me I had to choose a minor. If I were going to be a poet, she said, it was either philosophy or art history. I didn’t know there were more options, so I chose art history. I loved the image and mistrusted the abstract.

About that same time, a friend of mine and I used to go around to the art galleries on weekends wherever we knew there would be an opening. Free wine. The Lowe Gallery was a place where we often ended up because Bill Lowe represented the best work in the South and the wine was drinkable. It was there I became familiar with the work of Todd Murphy. Through a number of coincidences, I was introduced to Todd at one of his openings, and he gave me a great deal of respect as a poet. He ignored a lot of rich people right then and there to talk to me. I was going to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa in a few months. He had recently been to Iowa to photograph the floods! I had hardly read or written anything, but he said he wanted to stay in touch, and he struck up a small correspondence with me.

When I had dropped out after only a year in Iowa, I came back to Atlanta. I got in touch with Todd, and he invited me to his gigantic studio down near the old Mattress Factory so we could talk about art and poetry. I must have visited him there only three or four times over a few years.

One winter morning, I paid him a visit. I remember he showed me around to see his latest work. I followed him up to the loft that overlooked the warehouse. We drank coffee, and we talked about Pound. Todd brought out some of the Cantos and he read to me. I believe I recited a few poems that I had committed to memory. After I had sufficiently taken up the time of an actual artist, I felt I should go. Somehow it came out during our conversation that it was my birthday. We were headed down the stairs on the way out, and he pulled a big framed artwork off the wall. He pushed it toward me and said, “Happy birthday.”

I said, “I can’t take this from you.” His smaller work even then was worth many thousands of dollars.

He said, “Okay,” and started to put it back on the wall. Then he smiled and said, “Please, take it. I don’t have anything else to give you.”

I said, “But I don’t have anything to give you, either.”

“You give me your poems,” he said. This was true. I had been pushing my dreadful poems too full of feeling on him whenever I visited.

I said, “But your paintings are worth a lot. My poems are worth nothing.”

“They’re worth a lot to me,” he said, and he held the painting out to me. I didn’t actually believe him, but I took it, and walked out into the December morning. I put it in the back seat of my little car where the 36 x 39 frame barely fit. I drove off thinking that no stranger had ever done me such a kindness in my life. I hardly knew him! He believed in my poems, my art, when even I wasn’t sure what in the world I was doing.

The artwork is a huge piece of thick white cotton bond with a small figure at the center. The image appears to be made of broken beer-bottle glass and there are drops of the polyurethane all around it.

Todd told me this: at work one morning, he had peeled away the skin from the surface of an open can of polyurethane to use for the surface of another work, and when he cast these pieces aside, he saw they resembled a butterfly. And he had been working on a series in which butterfly images figured in various ways. So he rearranged the pieces on the paper and signed it with his trademark MURPHY.

The artwork hangs on a wall behind my chair in our dining room. I like that it hovers over me, a kind of encouragement, a reminder that an artist saw art in me. Over the years, I have followed his work. The larger body of it continues to amaze and challenge me as a poet. He seems to be relentlessly pursuing a vision that reminds me I might do the same with a voice.

John Poch’s poems have appeared frequently in NER, most recently in 34.3–4 with “Pomegranate Queen.”

You can see more of Todd Murphy’s artwork on his website: http://www.toddmurphy.com.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. 

 

 

NER DIGITAL | A Sense in the World | Maria Hummel

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

http://themodern.org/sites/default/files/kiefer3_0.jpg#sthash.TagUBRyf.dpuf

Die Aschenblume Anselm Kiefer
Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth, and dried sunflower on canvas
149 5/8 x 299 1/4 inches
Image courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

The day I first encountered Anselm Kiefer’s paintings, I was seven months pregnant with my first son. Because I am no longer that not-yet-mother, I can see her in my mind’s eye, wearing her mint green jacket, blond head tilted back, hand on her belly as she enters a gallery filled with massive, brooding landscapes. At first she doesn’t know where to look—all the canvasses are so arresting—and then one catches her eye and she drifts slowly over.

Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945, the year the Third Reich ended. He is nine years younger than my German father, who raced down to the basement shelter when his hometown was bombed by the Americans and emerged the next day to smashed streets and imminent surrender.

Kiefer’s paintings made windows of the museum walls, with dramatic views of a black, gold, battered-but-still-fertile earth. I remember the paintings as a collective, except for one giant gray canvas depicting a ceremonial hall. A sunflower hung upside down at its center, its blossom husk nearly touching the floor. The label read: Die AschenblumeThe Ash Flower. The hall was the Grand Mosaic Room in the former Third Reich Chancellery, painted and then smudged with ash.

As I stared into the gritty, cracked canvas, I felt a thrum of recognition. My father was a good man, raised by Mitläufer, Germans who went along with Naziism, reaping its benefits and later its consequences. My father witnessed his own father, a doctor, deployed to an army hospital in Weimar, then after the war, get stripped of his license to practice public medicine and sent to work on a logging crew. My father experienced his mother dying in the childbirth of his youngest brother in 1942, and lost all the fingers on his right hand in an accident in 1944. By the time Anselm Kiefer was born, my father was orphaned, permanently injured, and starving under the strict international aid laws of the reconstruction.

All my life I had weighed these facts against the Holocaust and come up empty.

I stared into Kiefer’s Ash Flower. The ruined interior, the dried flower-stalk hanging upside down—it was an arid scene, but it contained the residue of life and renewal.

“There is no history,” the artist said in a video outside the exhibition. He sat loosely before the camera, a shaved-headed, intense man with a quirk of humor about his mouth. His English was broken but emphatic. “[But] each human being tries to create a bigger context.” To create that context, you created an illusion that you stayed on the earth for a century and saw what unfolded. “This reassures you to find a sense in the world because there is no sense.”

Kiefer had borrowed his image from a Paul Celan poem, and now I would borrow it from him. I would seek my way by writing toward the Ash Flower and my own sense of it, my own meaning. The ash flower: the blossom of fire and dust over bombed Germany. The springtime end of the war, the Holocaust exposed, renewal and guilt and suffering spun together. The blighted innocence of children like Kiefer and my father.

My own son was born. I began writing a book. At first it was about my grandfather’s experiences at the Weimar hospital and his flight across war-torn Germany to reunite with his family. A year into the draft, my son fell acutely ill, and I realized the heart of the novel was elsewhere, mostly in the home, where the children were. It was watching a new mother try and fail to keep three boys safe and well as the Reich crumbled. Retreating armies and liberated concentration camps drifted offstage, and in their place rose intimate scenes of neighbors betraying neighbors, a baby struggling to walk in a cellar shelter.

The novel’s original title was The Ash Flower. I knew the title would change: I had entered my book through a doorway that Kiefer had made, but I would exit through my own. The travels of a novelist are always one way, and once-great vistas become postcards in a long, idiosyncratic journey. Yet Kiefer’s work will always possess, for me, a humbling and magnetic power. When I think back to the young woman I was, gazing at the upside-down sunflower, I realize how tall that bloom must have been, when it first grew upward from the earth. It would have towered over me.

Maria Hummel’s most recent contributions to NER include her poem, “The First Turn Might Be the Right One Home” in NER 34.1, and her story, “No Others Before Me” in NER 31.2. She is the author of Motherland (Counterpoint, 2014) and House and Fire, winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman Prize.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” is a bi-weekly series in which we present a writer’s encounter with a work of art such as a book, play, poem, film, painting, sculpture, or building.

 

NER DIGITAL | Carousel | Kathleen Chaplin

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

DSC_0098

My father died suddenly a few months before I turned fifteen. Overnight the August heat gave way to the briskness of autumn and going-back-to-school. It was the early 1980s; he had just had cable TV installed, and one station repeatedly showed the 1956 film Carousel. I sat on the living room floor, watching it over and over again.

I can’t recall him ever taking me on a carousel. But when I was little, he won a stuffed red bull for me at a carnival. I called her Red Rose and clutched her as I fell asleep in the back seat on the way home, looking up at the shadowy canopy of leaves lit by streetlights.

I grew up in Hough’s Neck, a working-class neighborhood on a peninsula just south of Boston. Four miles across the water is Nantasket, once one of the grand seaside resorts. The old amusement park there was torn down just a few years after my father’s death, but the Paragon Carousel, built in 1928, was saved.

When the restoration artist began stripping away the layers of garish paint, he found that the wooden horses, carved in a realistic style, originally had been dapple gray, black, chestnut, piebald. They stretch their necks, rear their heads, and shy, muzzles jerking aside. Some have been restored: painted by brush, glazed, and richly varnished. Like greenery on a marzipan cake, a garland of daisies, roses, and petunias trails across a horse’s white shoulder. An emerald saddle blanket is radiant as silk, its corner blown back gently by a sea breeze. The horses waiting for their turn appear cracked and riven, and have an air of bravery.

The Carousel News and Trader catalogued all the carousels made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company between 1904 and 1941. Only twenty-five of its ninety-three carousels are listed as Operating—at the Santa Monica Pier, Hershey Park, Disney World, Nantasket—while the fates of the rest read like a casualty list, or a dossier of missing persons: Fire, Dispersed, Unknown.

In Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical later made into a film, Billy Bigelow is a carousel barker in coastal Maine. Broad-chested, he wears a striped roll-neck sweater, and his slick, wavy black hair falls over his forehead. I have a picture of my father as a teenager with two friends, taken at Castle Island in South Boston in the late 1950s; they all have something of the look of Billy Bigelow.

The carousel owner, a jealous woman, fires Billy for flirting with a young mill-worker, Julie. Julie and Billy marry, but he can’t adjust to respectability; he loafs and sulks, and one night, he hits her. When he learns that she is pregnant, he is thrilled at the idea of becoming a father and vows that, however he has to do it, he will get enough money to make a new start for his family. In a bungled robbery attempt, he falls on his knife and is killed. After that he sits on a ladder polishing and hanging stars in purgatory, until he is given the chance, for one day only, to come back to earth to help the daughter he has never met. She is now fifteen, and unhappy.

The stranger approaches the girl as she sits at a picnic table, head buried in her arms, weeping; he tries to comfort her, telling her that he knew her father. But when he attempts to give her a gift—a real star, he says, from up there—she becomes frightened. Coaxing, pleading, grasping her hand as she tries to pull away, he finally hits her, and she flees.

Thirty years after I first saw the film, I stand at the balustrade that surrounds the Paragon Carousel. Floating out from the Wurlitzer band organ is “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or “In the Good Old Summertime.” It must play “The Carousel Waltz,” sometimes. I used to know the lyrics to almost all of the songs from Carousel—though after “This was a real nice clambake,” I only ever got as far as “and we all had a real good time.”

I would cry at the end, when Billy’s ghost sings “If I Loved You” and, in parting, whispers to Julie what he never told her while he was alive.

The sun starts to set, apricot, pink, and lavender, like colored sand in a jar. Lightbulbs and mirrors seem to be everywhere: they wink and streak as the carousel rotates, faster—then faster than I would have thought a carousel could go.

I spot them in the distance, just as they clear the motor-house, and I see their backs after they have swung past. I try to wave in time, but I just miss them. Interspersed and revolving, it all moves as one: milky polka dots on glossy, blue-gray hindquarters; three teenaged girls, gliding up and down and laughing as they snap each other with camera phones; a Roman chariot whose yellow-haired muse clasps a lyre, her eyes shrunken and skin flayed; fear of a recurrence, followed swiftly by fear of the unforeseeable, of some trick of fate; hocks and shanks, coronets and hooves, frozen in various attitudes of motion, falling and rising; father and daughter.

In a Twilight Zone episode, a man pursues his boyhood self onto a carousel. He wants to tell him to enjoy this time of his life, to urge him to seize his childhood and enjoy it. Terrified of the stranger who is chasing him, the boy falls off the carousel: and in the end the man walks away, limping.

The children rush through the gate onto the platform and scatter to find their horses. He lifts her onto one, a different one each time, and she gives it a name, always the same name. If there are reins, he puts them in her hands: she holds them loosely, unsure of what they do, and looks around in anticipation.

Soon she will be old enough to ride by herself. Every time, my husband offers, “Would you like to go on with her?” Every time, I reply, “No, you go.” When the bell rings and the carousel begins to turn, smoothly and slowly, time stands still. I stand at the railing, as if banished, and watch.

Kathleen Chaplin’s essay “The Death Knock” appeared in NER 34.1. She lives in Milton, Massachusetts. 

Excerpted from “Waiting for Billy Bigelow,” a chapter of The Death Knock, a memoir in progress.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.

 

NER DIGITAL | Waiting for Nauman | Michael Coffey

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” is a bi-weekly series in which we present a writer’s encounter with a work of art such as a book, play, poem, film, painting, sculpture, or building. We launch our series with Michael Coffey’s “Waiting for Nauman.”

Bruce Nauman, Square Depression Photo by Rebecca Smith

Bruce Nauman, Square Depression
Photo by Rebecca Smith

I never wanted to go to Germany. So much unimaginable blood and death and guilt there. I didn’t need it. But my wife, Becca, is an artist, and we decided to go to Germany for art—to visit the once-every-five years documenta show in Kassel and the once-a-decade Skulptur Projekte in Münster, a lovely Catholic city that had been mercilessly bombed in the war, but which now bristled, shone, and surprised with permanent sculptures added to the cityscape every ten years.

I didn’t like Kassel, our first stop. The art show was spread all over and we went from room to room and building to building and saw the kind of art you can see in trendy Chelsea galleries. Then, a long walk up an absurdly steep hill through a small forest cut by a terraced waterfall to a gaudy palace once inhabited by Kaiser Wilhelm. Dull old masters there, and no fun to look down upon the town from such a redoubt—a view of a quaint city that had once been a local subcamp of Dachau.

Doubtful of what I might find in Deutschland, I’d determined to reread Beckett’s trilogy during the trip—I had a scholarly interest in Beckett’s second stay in Berlin, in 1936, when he was looking at art and hiding out from some legal contretemps and a romantic humiliation back in Dublin. On the train from Kassel to Münster, I was nearing the finish—the end of The Unnamable—which I knew contained a hideous image—a creature of sorts, a single thorax, with vacuoles at either end, one unlidded eye, a large worm with human consciousness—sited in a place that had eluded my ability to envision it.

They look down upon him . . . he’ll have to climb to meet them . . . The slopes are gentle that meet where he lies, they flatten out under him . . . . This grey to begin with . . .  a nice grey, of a kind recommended as going with everything, urinous and warm.

We checked into our hotel and set out to see what we could on our first day. We had a map of art works and locations. Some were bells that chimed at intervals where buildings once stood; one was a recorded chant beneath a bridge. Another was an encampment of objects such as a routed circus troupe might leave, on the side of a hill. Jenny Holzer had a granite bench in a park with an antiwar inscription.

In late afternoon, we rode bikes looking for a Bruce Nauman work. It was supposedly near a small campus on the outskirts of town. After canvassing the site once and finding nothing, we checked the map, and tried again. And there it was, an empty space, a plot of sorts, in the ground: Nauman’s Square Depression—four concrete triangular planes sloping from ground level to a vertex in the center about six feet beneath ground level. The place of the unnamable.

The first light rain all week began to fall. I waited for some visitors to the site to leave, and slowly they did, so I could have Nauman’s work to myself. I walked down his Square Depression. At first, walking toward the center, I felt I was entering a drain or a spill catch. When I arrived at the bottom, however, I looked up, as one will. The sky sat above me, stilted by the four cardinal points. I was in an architecture of both earth and heavens. No longer a sluiceway but a kind of reverse temple, reaching down—a conceptual verso to the sacrificial altar to Zeus. The sky above was gray. Becca stood on the apron at the top; she took my picture. I felt for the moment invisible in Germany but in it, six feet under but alive, hidden from all but my wife and the eye of the sky, just me there. I have the photograph.

Then we walked down toward a body of water; saw a frank Donald Judd piece there—two chest-high, foot-thick concrete rings, one inside the other, set on a gentle slope; and a sublime redwood pier built by Jorge Pardo that angled out from shore to brave the middle of the long, narrow lake. We wandered to the end of the pier and sat down. It was evening. Lights came up in Münster, streetlamps counting off their measures and car lights winding their way along the lake drive into town. I wanted to live right there, on the water, in the words we spoke about what we had seen that particular day—the art, the fourteenth-century Catholic cathedral, half-destroyed by the RAF in 1945, rebuilt with the help of the citizens of Coventry. We felt ourselves very much in a world of history—frozen, broken, yet restored. Something horrific had been pounded out here in Münster, perhaps in all of Germany. The dead souls that flew, that flew above us in the dark I couldn’t see, but I knew they were there. I could imagine them. It was Nauman’s piece that made me look up.

Michael Coffey’s collection of stories, The Business of Naming Things, will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in January 2015. His most recent pieces in NER include “Sons,” in NER 34.1, and “I Thought You Were Dale,” in NER 32.3.