Cinnamon Girl, St. Jack’s and the White Goddess

jackclubs

A few years back, after a particularly mind-numbing conference, a number of colleagues and I repaired to a little hole in the wall on 3rd Street called St. Jacks. The place, hung with erotic black and white photos and glazed with a patina of dust and grime, look as if it were waking up after a rough night. There were no other patrons and, if I remember right, the “kitchen” had been closed for a very long time.

The place was named after a character in the eponymous novel by Paul Theroux. (It was later made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich which has a weird history in itself.) At the time, I was reading Robert Graves The White Goddess, his archeological/anthropological/mythological treatise on pre-Grecian religion, primarily the matriarchies of early civilizations that spread throughout Northern Europe and the British Islands from the south.

Robert Graves The White Goddess

Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

Several of my colleagues filled the booths, and four or five of us sat at the bar. The bartender’s name was Cinammon. And she was good. In fact, she is perhaps the best bartender I’ve ever encountered. I put the book I was carrying on the bar, and preceded to talk to my colleagues and to Cinnamon.

Yes, her mother had named her after Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.”  And yes, she asked me about the book, but no, she had never read Robert Graves, nor had ever heard of him. After a while, the others wandered out, but my friend Jim and I stayed for a few hours more. The two of us–and Cinnamon–talked about the things we always do when sitting at a bar: music, film, and books. It was a good day.

But now comes the amazing part. We attended a similar conference, one year and a day from that original conference. And like the first one, we all went to St. Jack’s after the conference. And Cinnamon was still tending bar. I hadn’t been in the place since that first time, a year ago. But when I sat at the bar and ordered my pint she asked me if I had finished The White Goddess.

Now, a good bartender should remember the drinks of his regular customers. A very good bartender will remember the drink of the occasional customer. But it is an extraordinary bartender who remembers not only the drink of a customer whom she had served only once a year ago, but remembers the book he was reading at the time.

Jim and I stopped a few more times after that, but Cinnamon left a short while after, left to become a legal secretary. It is a great loss to the bar-tending profession. And St. Jack’s itself is now gone (It had once got in trouble with the Thai government for using an image of the King of Thailand on an advertisement that ran in one of the free city papers. How they came across it is a wonder? Much of the novel/film St. Jack takes place in Singapore and what was then Siam.)  And I have never warmed to the new place.

And for various reasons–I had just purchased James George Fraser’s The Golden Bough which reminded me of The White Goddess, and I have been lately banging out “Cinnamon Girl” on the guitar whenever I get a moment to myself–I have been thinking about St. Jack’s, about The White Goddess, and about Cinnamon.

So here, in memory of the greatest bartender I ever met is Neil Young singing “Cinnamon Girl.”  And as a treat, it is not his familiar fuzz-driven guitar version of the song, but a different version of Neil by himself on the piano from his upcoming album “Live at the Cellar Door.” Enjoy:

Icarus

Now some are born to fly high
Some are born to follow
Some are born to touch the sky
And some walk in the hollow
But as I watched your body fall
I knew that really you had won
For your grave was not the earth
But the reflection of the sun

“Icarus” by Anne Lister

Icarus                        ©2013 by                     J.P. Bohannon

Icarus
illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

The mythological character Icarus has been a buzzword at my job recently. Many of us on the staff have been reading a book called The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. To be honest, it is not my kind of read–more of a marketing, business oriented approach to things with a fair mixture of Dr. Phil and Oprah thrown in–but it has me thinking about Icarus.

I have always had a soft-spot for him. (See my post “Breughel, Auden and the Death of my Mother” from 2012/8/19.) There is something more than heroic in his quest, in his attempt at flying to the sun–(and I don’t want to hear any of the archetypal “primal disobedience” stuff at the moment. Sure, wasn’t it his old man, that grand artificer Daedelus, that had gotten them both locked up in the first place, locked up in that “inescapable” prison, because of his own disobedience and rebellion.)

And the more I think of it, Icarus’s “disobedience” IS NOT the story. The story is THE FLIGHT, where the tips of his wings glow white and gold with sunlight, where he becomes–for a moment–transcendent. It is all about the attempt, about the individual’s need to push further, to soar higher. For in a large way, to stop pushing forward is the real death by drowning.

No one had flown before Icarus and his father, but what we seem to remember is his drowning. That’s the wrong focus entirely.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In a previous life, I wrote ad-copy for an agency. And I listened to a lot of music on a good old disc-player. If it was critical, creative stuff I needed to be writing, I used classical music or Irish trad or instrumental guitar. If it was mindless stuff, I listened to songs.

MartinSimpson

Martin Simpson

It was during this time that I became enamored with the guitar work and songs of a man named Martin Simpson. His playing was exquisite, intricate and beautiful and when he did sing a song, his voice was strong yet vulnerable. Until this weekend, I hadn’t listened to him in a long while although I must own four or five of his albums. But Icarus was in my head, and he had done a cover of Anne Lister’s song “Icarus” that I loved a lot and which never failed to choke me up. Told from the point of view of someone too timid to take a risk, too hesitant to make that leap, the song nevertheless details the pride and admiration he/she has for Icarus and what he has done. I always knew that the lump in my throat was not so much for Icarus but for his companion who “never wanted to fly high.”

Here are the full lyrics:

I never wanted to fly high
I was too fond of walking
So when you said you`d touch the sky
I thought it was your way of talking
And then you said you`d build some wings
You`d found out how it could be done
But I was doubtful of everything
I never thought you`d reach the sun

You were so clever with your hands
I`d watch you for hours
With the glue and rubber bands
The feathers and the lace and flowers
And the finished wings glowed so bright
Like some bird of glory
I began to envy you your flight
Like some old hero`s story

You tried to get me to go with you
You tried all ways to dare me
But I looked at the sky so blue
I thought the height would scare me
But I carried your wings for you
Up the path and to the cliff face
Kissed you goodbye and watched your eyes
Already bright with sunlight

It was so grand at the start
To watch you soaring higher
There was a pain deep in my heart
Your wings seemed tipped with fire
Like some seagull or a lark
Soaring forever
Or some ember or a spark
Drifting from Earth to Heaven

Then I believed all that you`d said
I believed all that you`d told me
You`d do a thing no man had ever done
You`d touch the stars to please me
And then I saw your wide wings fail
Saw your feathers falter
And watched you drop like a ball of gold
Into the wide green water

Now some are born to fly high
Some are born to follow
Some are born to touch the sky
And some walk in the hollow
But as I watched your body fall
I knew that really you had won
For your grave was not the earth
But the reflection of the sun

I never wanted to fly high…

And here is Martin Simpson playing and singing. Give it a listen:

Brueghel, Auden, and the death of my mother

My mother died yesterday.

She was a simple, quiet, sweet woman whose last few months were horrible. And while it might sound cold-hearted, I can honestly say she is better off today than she was the past few weeks. For better or worse, at least she is now at peace.

And while I have a good number of siblings and a large network of friends and relatives with whom to share the loss, privately I turn to Art with a capital “A.”

The picture above is of a painting by Pieter Brueghel. Entitled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, it depicts the legendary fall of Icarus, who (in one story) famously disobeyed his inventive father and flew too close to the sun. The sun melted the wax holding together the wings that his father had fashioned, and he crashed into the sea.  Through the ages, Icarus has become a two-sided symbol for artists: he is either a symbol of blatant disobedience akin to Eve or Pandora or Deidre or a symbol of great striving, of “flying to the sun,” of grabbing all the gusto one can.  I usually lean to this second interpretation and see Icarus as an example of risking it all in pursuit of one’s dreams.

Anyway, this painting is one of my very favorites because

detai from painting: Icarus’ two legs in the water

Brueghel has depicted this grand, mythic tragedy as happening amidst the pedestrian goings-on of daily life.  If you look closely,  you can see Icarus’ legs darting into the water in the right hand corner of the canvas. If you are not looking for them –and did not have the title of the painting to clue you toward Icarus–you might miss them entirely in the busyness of the entire painting. There is a shepherd, a ploughman, a single fisherman, a stately ship and a far-away city, but the boy falling out of the sky barely registers on their existence.

A very famous painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus also has been the subject of several poems, most notably by Auden and William Carlos Williams.

Below is W.H.Auden’s poem about the painting which now hangs in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Artes Belgique in Brussels:

Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

So yesterday, after the mortician took my mother’s body away, after my brother and sisters and I cleaned out her personal effects and donated her clothes to the needy, I drove away and stopped at a convenience store for a sandwich. The store was extra crowded, there was a particularly annoying man in line, and the cashier herself was particularly surly.  I wanted to yell to them, to say, “Hey, don’t you know my mother just died?!” But of course I didn’t and of course they couldn’t have. They were simply going about their normal Saturday routines.

Instead I thought of Brueghel and Auden and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Yet, Auden missed another part of the equation.  While it is true that the world goes on despite, and during, moments of personal tragedy, it also does the same in moments of great personal triumph. We tend to think that much of this existence is about us, about our heartbreaks and our victories–and very little of it really is.

Anyway, my world is different today than it was yesterday.  I must meet with siblings to arrange funeral services, arrange affairs at work for missed time, try to find a wearable suit for the funeral…and the entire time the great big world will go spinning along, unaware of what any of us are dealing with.

As Auden said, “they were never wrong,/The Old Masters.”

Margaret (Peggy) Bohannon

nee McNeila

1929-2012

Requiescat in pace

Northern California and Ireland, sea lions and selkies, and a powerful poem

I am not the first to make the comparison between the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California and Ireland. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a magnificent landscape, full of crashing surf and rock-strewn fields, dramatic cliffs and rolling mountains. The hills are more “golden” than green, and the roadways have much fewer sheep and doubledecker tour buses, but yes, it very much reminds me of the west coast of Ireland. Every turn in the corkscrewing highway offers another extraordinary vista.

But it is Goat Beach which is perhaps the most memorable. Goat Beach sits where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. In July the river flow is feeble, but it is then–between March and July–that the area is a breeding ground for sea lions.

By July the sea lions have already pupped and the adult ones seemed quite tired. At first, it is a bit jolting to see twenty to thirty adult sea lions asleep by the rivers edge. It looks as if they have all been slaughtered. But then a fin rises to slap a companion or another waddles to find a more comfortable position. They are just resting–and continue to do so for the rest of the morning.

But the seal pups are another story. Frisky and active, they plunge into the crashing surf of the Pacific or slide into the muddy waters of the Russian River. There is something fascinating about these creatures: their sleekness, their eyes, their movement.

A stamp from the Faroe Islands featuring a selkie emerging from her skin.

Seals and sea lions have long played a part in Norse and Celtic myth.  The legend of the selkie is perhaps one of the most famous and there are a wide variety of stories about them.  These creatures are seals when in the water but humans when they go upon land and emerge from their sealskin. And while there are numerous variants on the stories, there are basically two version of the selkie myth: one female, one male.  The female selkie is often a beautiful woman who is  “captured” by the man who finds her, unable to return to the water because the man has taken possession of her discarded skin.  The male selkie is also renowned  for its beauty and charm when it comes upon land and sheds its skin, and he is often noted for his ability to satisfy the unhappy and dissatisfied women of the area.  Fairly often, these women bear his children, usually children with some sort of “deformity” or oddity about them. These women too are in possession of the creature’s skin.

I can immediately think of two wonderful movies that deal with this myth.  One, is a 2009 film, Ondine, featuring Colin Farrell (and my personal favorite actress Dervla Kirwan from Ballykissangel)  and the other is an older film from 1994 called The Secret of Roan Inish.  Both are well worth finding, however you find your movies these days. And both deal with the female version of the story.

Anyway, so I am reading The Guardian online this winter and I come a cross a video of the Scottish poet Robin Robertson reading his poem “At Roane Head.” It is a powerful poem, and perhaps the most powerful reading I have ever witnessed. In it a woman cares for her four children. Her drunken husband has disowned them–for they have seal-like characteristics as well as human. At the tragic end, the woman returns the seal skin to her lover.

Here is the video.  Give it a view–I find it very powerful.