The novel Clio’s Mobile Home is a facet of my creative work. Several characters in my novel write poems; I am serious about writing poetry. I also work on short shorts, and short stories. They are all modes of thinking about identity, transcendence and beauty in contemporary life. Art keeps us aloft, but it is more than decoration. Its force can be astounding. The artist becomes an instrument, and art lives to tell the tale.
Lisbon is a haunting city. It is misty, caught in the process of decadence; its ambiance suggests a city that people long to hold onto yet haven’t been able to. You feel the old grandeur of gracious villas, private palaces, 18th century buildings. The narrow blue tiled apartment buildings trace the fate of the wealthy seafaring country, globalizers whose cinnamon, elephants, Brazilian music is intertwined. The empire was badly lost over a century ago and the poor country of Europe recently plunged into depression.
Lisbon is holding onto its history, tints and traces although much of the city was lost in the Great Lisbon earthquake in 1755. This is at odds with the European trend of erasure. Fado is the music of what was; what was lost at sea, left behind, left in the unknown and ungraspable. In a small tavern, the singer accompanied by a master of Portuguese guitar, it all makes sense. The stunning church of São Domingos is like Pompeii, its grandeur mottled and gnawed away at, an eloquent sign of earthquake, fire and beauty. The centuries meet not as strangers but in active dialogue.
Now the last unreconstructed capital of Europe has a skyline of construction birds. It also has superb modern art museum, the Berardo Collection, and an edgy avant-garde that pushes off from tight tradition. The in-betweenness makes it a place of spontaneous giving.
The face, I’m guessing, is itching for a comeback as a place of truth and confrontation. The dalliance in real life with the grotesque distortions is priming us for a reality check. I was moved by two shows in Paris – small sampling! – but each did the old-fashioned thing of demanding an accounting from its subjects – and having adversaries face each other in a dialog of the eyes.
Yan Pei-Ming, a Chinese painter, who is both fully modern and full frontal figurative. In a new show called “Dating,” he puts thickly painted, liberated and sexually engaged subjects across from Popes and cardinals who glare down their noses. Time, ravages and risk of living is inscribed in guttral unavoidable ways. Pei-Ming has painted Mao, Obama, Picasso and others in the past. He gets a guttural response from the harrowing intimacy and existential individual struggle.
August Sander, a German who was one of the pioneers of psychological portraiture, took pictures during the Nazi era. The show of “The Persecuted and the Persecutors” at the Memorial of the Shoah shows vulnerable and complex humanity on the foreign workers, prisoners and Jewish citizens. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are frigid, autocratic, tightly bound; as executors of a master race ideology, they refuse connection with any other. While there is derangement on both sides, the soft eyes of the victims bear psychological violence and poignancy of intelligent awareness. As Sander said, “I never made a person look bad. They did that themselves.”
Oh, the charms of having grown children!
The Nor’Easter knew I couldn’t miss my visit to Planet Rachel! It let me slip out under the wire and get that plane to Paris. After a spell of ersatz sleep (as much as the tattooed and beefy gents going off to St. Patrick’s Day allowed me), I met my darling daughter. Now that she’s finished her undergrad work, she’s in her town. That little crevette who was born premature in nationwide French strikes of ’95 is now a beautifully fluent cosmopolite, flowy red hair following behind her.
We’re bopping around the city, dashing in and out of thunderstorms; sitting under heated terraces with the Parisians who don’t let a gleam of sun pass unattended. We analyze the clouds, noting their individual identity. Baudelaire wrote about them, Paris designers must have coordinated the tint of the apartment buildings to resonate with the vibrating but flat light.
I’m relying on guidance of families and friends to put my finger on the pulse. A few things I’ve gleaned: Paris has long reveled in its self-selected role as standard bearer of values and artistry. How far does that go these days? Not very far. It now sees itself reflected in a mirror, or in images of others, then appropriates that image for itself. Paris is taking “food concepts” (country/decadence/colonial) and making them fey, cute, designed.
France used to hide its commercial tendencies so as not to put forward a capitalist or “Anglo-Saxon” face. It made entrepreneurial spirit take backseat to other values. That’s changing. The latest “grand projet” (the French love massive redefining projects) aims to make Paris a start-up capital. Station F, a large complex built downstream from Notre Dame, not only lends up to-the-minute hipster designed space to start-ups, it also makes available government officials, bankers and soon-to-be living space. In Pantin, at the end of the metro, Bogosian and others have built important galleries around a small runway that makes it easy for buyers to whisk in on their private jets.
We still managed to land in cafes with only Turkish toilets. And find wonderful food and wine. And the cheese – ah, the raison d’être. How many ways can they make fromage chèvre? Let me count the ways.
Joshua Primmer’s “Place Setting II”
It doesn’t matter
that the concrete of this setting
is less than elegant,
neither marble nor oak.
In Emily Post’s eyes, such form
is near perfection:
“the utensils are placed in the order of use;
Forks go to the left of the plate
knives and spoons to the right.
Finally, only set the table with utensils
you will use.
No soup: no soup spoon.”
We are part caveman, part modern,
though the differences are shrinking
and atavism more prominent
One thing’s set in stone: We Eat.
Standing at my mother’s vanity
I, girl child with wide eyes
her self transformed nakedly
with knots and tricks towards elegance,
her hair teased to an oblong,
her neck, like Cleopatra’s, lengthened:
I eyed the miniature Obelisk
that cased her red lipstick.
Heir and standard bearer
of beauty, of glamour
from a temple at Luxor
to Place de la Concorde.
I learned in a museum recently
Dior made this emblem of Luxor – y,
raising the everyday with this nifty
piece of glass and tube of wax.
Though the lipstick wore down
and my mother passed on, she’d say,
Let it fly, trip from lip to lip, Beauty,
pass along your open secrets:
blow your kisses widely.
I imagined an old-fashioned thatch —
bamboo, birch, cat gut –
a magic, organic weave of the kind
that keeps our lives from sinking.
We fitted our new shoes, meshed
now in high-tech plastic,
then went thrashing in deep snow.
We managed, though they broke.
In the sixties we had 1-2-3 Jell-O,
opaque, medium, and frothy layers —
a bright pink trio.
When the sun sinks in three pink zones,
is it the same freak chemical show?
Please, God, say no.
The Shape of Snow
Needlepoint of snow in the streetlight
cross stitches in the gusting wind.
Cars begin to disappear, the nearby elms
fade in the distance.
By the shore, four sharks roll up,
bone dead, though a dog learns
to amuse himself with a hill and a sled.
Warm inside, a fire rages like twin sisters,
one blond tresses, the other red-headed.
The fire in the fireplace begins to die.
“I’ll always love you!” shouts the child.