Review: Oscar: “Bugger! Queer! Sodomite!” sang the chorus.

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

On an extremely cold Sunday afternoon in February, I attended the Philadelphia Opera Company’s production of the opera Oscar.  There has been a lot of enthusiasm about this production beyond  the expected buzz that a premier would cause. Recently, the Free Library of Philadelphia discovered three unknown manuscripts of Wilde in its basement as it was in the long-going process of digitizing its collection. Because of this find–academics and scholars are quite astounded–and the accompanying exhibit at the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a good deal of Wilde paraphernalia, the arrival of an opera based on the Irish playwright, poet and bon-vivant seemed particularly timely.

I don’t attempt to be any sort of expert on opera.  I know the stories of several of the most famous and can recognize the melody of several of the more familiar arias, but other than that seeing an opera is basically always a jump into the unknown for me.

And perhaps because of my inexperience, I found the music to be the least memorable part of a very memorable performance.

First the story itself is a mesmerizing tragedy–a tragedy in the literal sense of a great man falling and a tragedy in the “man-on-the-street”  sense of a heartbreaking story.  Wilde, one of the most famous personalities of his time, is brought into court for crimes of “gross indecency”–which in 19th century England meant homosexuality.  And while his friends arrange for him to escape to France before the trial commences, Wilde believes its the honorable thing to stay and fight the case in court.  And of course, Wilde loses.  He is found guilty and his years of hard labor at Reading Gaol, make up the second half of the performance.

And secondly, the staging and the sets were extraordinary.

The opera begins when the orchestra finishes the overture and the house applauds. During this applause, Oscar Wilde makes a curtain call, coming through the curtains,

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

accepting the applause–which has now been combined with recorded applause–to thank the house for its generous reception to Lady Windemere’s Fan. We then move quickly to Wilde talking with his friends about his options in the celebrated court case. (There is a bit of slapstick with two Keystone-Kop type henchmen that are busy poisoning Wilde’s name among innkeepers so he cannot get a room anywhere. He ends up hiding at his friend Ada Leverson’s house.)

The court case–a circus in itself–was mounted as a Fellini-esque carnival with the jury represented as so many toys from a child’s toy box. There were tumblers and rocking horses, clowns and rag-dolls.  The judge, when he appeared, popped out as a jack-in-the-box, all loose-limbed and spineless with a simpleminded smile on his face. The scene closes the first act.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

As bizarre and surreal as the court-room scene, the next scene is stark and daunting. Wilde is given his prison clothes and his hard labor. And throughout he is haunted by the presence of his beloved Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas whose father initiated the criminal action. (Actually, Bosie’s father’s initial action was leaving a calling card for Wilde that called him a “posing sodomite.”  addressing him.  Against the advice of his friends, Wilde charged him with libel.  It was during this libel case that evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality came to light and allowed the crown to prosecute him for “gross indecency.”)

In the opera, Bosie has no lines or any singing.  He is simply an ethereal character who throughout both acts flits into Wilde’s memories. He is played by Reed Luplau, a dancer whose sinuous moves are both graceful and haunting. In prison, he climbs upon Wilde’s prison bars like some avenging angel.

Bosie--Lord Alfred Douglas--haunting Wilde before the trial.

Bosie–Lord Alfred Douglas–haunting Wilde before the trial.

When Wilde is released, he is a broken man. He left England for the continent and spent three years in poverty before dying in a shabby Paris Hotel. Oscar Wilde was 46 years old.

The opera has been reported as being written by Theodore Morrison (with John Cox as co-librettist) with the countertenor David Daniels expressly in mind. And the visual is a very good one, for Daniels at times looks very much like Wilde.  As a countertenor, however, the voice to me seemed much, much too high–almost a falsetto at times–and off-putting. Contemporaries had noted that Wilde had a “lilting” voice, but I don’t know if that accounts for  high pitch.  Wilde was a relatively big man and that voice does not seem to fit the body.  An acetate (of dubious authenticity) of Wilde recording Reading Gaol at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 replicates a higher-pitch voice, but that–it can be argued–could be a result of recording speed and early technology.  Nevertheless, to me it seemed unreal, at odds with those around him–including his friends.

The music itself was atonal and the lyrics seemed pedestrian. One would expect more wit coming from the mouth of Wilde.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

whitman

Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman in Oscar

In front of the desk where I write there are two bookcases. The one holds volumes of poetry. The other biographies.  I happened to look up–for assurance–to see if my Oscar Wilde biography was there and was pleased to see that it sat next to Justin Kaplan’s life of Walt Whitman. For I forgot that Whitman’s ghost is also a character in Oscar. As a narrator–he mentions that the events of the trial and imprisonment took place five years after Whitman had died and fifteen years after he had met Wilde in America– he seems to serve as the maitre ‘d to the pantheon of literary greats that line the wall in the first and final scenes. His brilliant white suit and steely-grey beard at a touch of gravitas, that seems to rise above the nonsense of British legality and the circus of Wilde’s trial.

In the end, Wilde dies and enters the halls of literary greatness, escorted by Whitman himself.

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Emerson, the Transparent Eye, and photos on my iPhone

 

image

Illustration of Emerson’s “Transparent Eyeball” that accompanied the essay “Nature”

In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said:

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

I know of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” and his essay “Nature,” but it is not my area of expertise.  (Although I confess, it is the illustration that accompanied the “transparent eyeball” passage in Emerson’s  essay “Nature”  that I recall most readily. It is a wonderful illustration.)

If I remember correctly, in “Nature,” Emerson is propounding a way of looking at the Universe in general and Nature in particular. It is Emerson’s “transcendental” way of finding communion with a divine being through observing the “scripture” that is Nature.

But lately I have been thinking of the “transparent eyeball” in a different way.

On a Monday in mid-April, I was reading a piece by a woman named Yoon Soo Lim.  In it, she mentioned that she had taken up a challenge of keeping a photo journal , in which one photograph was uploaded each  day of the year. The site was called blipfoto.

I didn’t think much of it, until my walk home through the city.  I started seeing possible “photo ops” everywhere: a funky display in an art gallery, a shadowy alley with a latticework of fire-escapes, a graphic advertisement for a boxing studio.  I had become an “eye” and had begun seeing things that I passed every single day and had never seen, or at least never paid much attention to.

Fog Rolling In 2014 jpbohannon

Fog Rolling In
2014 jpbohannon

 

I took up the photo challenge myself.  And it has changed the way I look at things.

Doors on N. 4th Street 2014 jpbohannon

Doors on N. 4th Street
2014 jpbohannon

No longer do I walk aimlessly from the bus to my door, from the street to the train station, from my desk to the cafeteria.  I walk now with a purpose…the purpose of seeing.

 

Sculpture at Market East Train Station 2014 jpbohannon

Sculpture at Market East Train Station
2014 jpbohannon

I am not sure why, but this leaves me feeling very alive.  I feel that I am “seeing deliberately”—a term that echoes Emerson’s disciple Thoreau who advised us all to “live deliberately.”  I am excited to see things, to find things, to re-discover things that had been invisible for so long, behind the cloak of daily routine.

And I am having fun with it.

 

Billy Collins … and how to think better of poetry

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

The other night I went to see the poet Billy Collins deliver a lecture. It was a pretty fancy event–I’d been given the tickets– held in the  beautiful Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. As Billy Collins remarked, it is like standing inside an enormous cello.

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Anyway, I don’t know a lot of Collins’ poetry, except maybe two or three poems, but I always use his poem “Introduction to Poetry” at the beginning of any course I teach in poetry.  In it, Collins claims:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

It is those last five lines that are important. They describe why poetry is met with such an “ugh” from people whose only experience with it has been in classes where the well-intentioned teacher urged them to “find the meaning.”

I tell my students that human beings are innately wired to respond positively to poetry (think infant lullabies, toddlers’ picture books, nonsense riddles, jump-roping songs). It is the English teachers who teach students to dislike it. To think of it as something to fear and dread.

And that is a shame.

For last night, Collins (who repeated what I said about poetry being innate) was as entertaining as could be. He told the audience a bit of his life and his term as Poet Laureate of the U.S.  He spoke of his influences and literary influences in general. He spoke of the death of humor in poetry–he blames the Romantics who he said “replaced sex and humor with landscape.” And he spoke of the difficulty for some people used to hearing formalist poetry to hear the acoustics of what is commonly called free verse. (He doesn’t like the term.)
He also read several of his poems, although half of what he read came from others. Here is a wonderful two line poem by Howard Nemerov called “Bacon and Eggs”:

The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.

See it’s good to laugh.  And have fun in poetry.

And so he spoke of the importance of humor and used a poem by Ruth L. Schwartz to demonstrate how humor can be used as a transition point, moving from light to darkness (or vise versa). He got a laugh on the line “look at that DUCK,” which is how he wanted it to be:

The Swan at Edgewater Park

Isn’t one of your prissy richpeoples’ swans
Wouldn’t be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
at that big duck!
Beauty isn’t the point here; of course
the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible—no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesn’t know yet she’s gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back—and
He’s a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It’s not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both—
That’s the kind of swan this is.

But the most effecting poem that he read was the one that he read last. It is his beautiful poem about the love between a mother and son–told with sweet humor:

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

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:

Renoir…Cotton Candy…and Barbie’s Bordello

photo Ralph Crane

photo Ralph Crane

We probably all can imagine that little boy or girl at a fair, a carnival, or an amusement park, who seeing an enormous pompadour of pink or blue cotton candy (spun sugar to some of you) insists on getting the largest size. We can see further the sticky stains upon their faces, the crazed shock of sugar in their eyes. And we can empathize with them and their queasy stomachs that a night filled with cotton candy is certain to produce.

That’s how I feel about Renoir and his nudes.

Pierre Renoir "The Bathing Group (1916)" Barnes Foundation

Pierre Renoir
“The Bathing Group (1916)”
Barnes Foundation

I spent more than three hours at the Barnes Foundation last Friday night. And as always, it is a mind-boggling collection of early modern art, African sculpture, and American furniture, decorative and industrial arts. I could spend a lifetime looking at the Modglianis and Mattisses. I am fascinated by Chaim Soutaine and George Seurat. And Henri Rousseau I find thoroughly relaxing and amusing.

But it is the Renoirs that I find cloying.

Barnes owns 181 Renoirs that encompass the span of the artist’s career. Now, there is much that I like about Renoir: his early works, the group portraits and the early nudes. But the more famous nudes, those cotton candy swirls of creams, oranges, pinks and yellows, I find difficult to look at.

By contrast, one of my favorite paintings in the collection is also a nude: Amadeo Modgliani’s Reclining Nude from Back. Is it lifelike?  No.  But it is sensuous and intriguing and narrative and appealing and pleasing. And what more could a person want from a work of art?

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Modgliani’s attenuated figures with their mask-like visages, I find fascinating. I find a story in each of their stony faces. Likewise, I delight in the classical innocence of Picasso’s Girl with a Goat or the bold outlines and patterns of Mattisse’s Reclining Nude with Blue Eyes.  Each is so distinct in itself, so original in its view of the human body.

Renoir’s nudes, on the other hand, I find distracting in their busyness. I find them tiring and I tend to pass over them quickly.

To me, they look like how Barbie would decorate a bordello if she ever became a Madam.

Barbie and the Bordello

Barbie and the Bordello

A Chance Meeting: MK Asante on public radio

I rarely drive, so I rarely listen to the radio. That might not make sense for many, but I know that some will understand. The radio is simply not part of my home life.

But anyway,there were reasons for my being behind the wheel this past Thursday and I was listening to RadioTimes on Public Radio (Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY in Philadelphia.) The guest was MK Asante, a hip-hop singer, filmmaker,  writer and creative-writing/film teacher at Morgan State University.

I was blown away.buckautographed

Asante was plugging his new book, Buck: A Memoir about his life in “Killadelphia” during the 1990s.  At the same time it is the story of his family’s breaking apart and then coming back together.

Asante was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia.  His parents’ marriage disintegrated, his idolized brother had a series of run-ins with the law and was imprisoned, his mother suffered from clinical depression, and he grew up in the “hood” full of anger, confusion, and energy.

This coming-of-age story is probably more familiar than it ever should be, but, oh, the language itself is extraordinary. Like nothing you ever heard.

Here is the first paragraph of the book: (Asante reads it in the interview attached below):

The Fall

      The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in air like sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother, Uzi, in the kitchen. He’s rolling a blunt on top of the Source, the one with Tyson on the cover rocking a kufi, ice-grilling through the gloss. Uzi can roll a blunt with his eyes closed.

     Cracks, splits, bits.

     The rawest crews in Philly are all three letters,“  he tells me. I read the cover through the tobacco guts and weed flakes:  “The Rebirth of Mike Tyson: ‘I’m Not Good.  I’m Not Bad. I’m Just Trying to Survive in this World.’”

Awakening crews in a rude fashion
On they ass like Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant•

      I do this–spit lyrics to songs under my breath–all day, every day. The bars just jump out of me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s like hip-hop Tourette’s.

     Dumps, spreads, evens.

    “JBM–Junior Black Mafia. Of course us,  UPK–Uptown Killaz.  PHD–Play Hero and Die.”

     Tears, licks, wraps.

    “HRM–Hit Run Mob. EAM–Erie Ave. Mobsters.  ABC–Another Bad Creation.”

    Folds, rolls, tucks. Another perfect blunt, jawn looks like a paintbrush.

    Jawn  can mean anything–person, place, or thing. Sometimes if we’re telling a story and don’t want people to know what we’re talking about, we’ll plug in jawn in for everything. The other day I was at the jawn around the corner with the young jawn from down the street. We get to the jawn, right, and the ngh at the door is all on his jawn, not nowing I had that jawn on me. Man, it was about to be on in that jawn.

“ Wreck Your Ears (Can Do),” The B.U.M.S. (Brothers Under Madness), 1965

This is language at its most alive, its most energetic. (To hear him read it is even more electrifying.)

Asante mentions in the interview that the first book that turned him on was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Besides the plot of the novel–drugs, sex, wildness–which he was surprised to learn could be the focus of serious literature, it was the style of the writing that attracted him, the energy, the speed, the exuberance.  As he said, from it he learned he didn’t have to worry about commas.

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

MK Asante’s journey from the hood to plugging his books on national radio is one story. But it is a minor story.  The true story is the language of this memoir. It is hypnotizing, energetic, alive and present.  It puts me to shame.

In two more weeks I begin teaching a class in creative writing. My students are quite a distance from the world that MK Asante grew up in.  Nevertheless, I am opening class with readings from the book.  It is a lesson in being true to oneself, in being true to one’s voice, in being able to plumb one’s life for the story we all need to tell.

Here is the interview in its entirety: (this is Radio Times web site and will feature the day’s current show. Scroll down to the middle of the page to hear MK Asante on yesterday’s show. As time passes, the 8/22/2013 show will be placed in the easily accessed archives. And check out MK Asante’s web page, above, to see trailers, past works, etc.)

RADIO TIMES INTERVIEW WITH MK ASANTE

Yes, Yes, Yes: Affirmation ala Molly Bloom

yes I said yes I will Yes.

Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.

The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.

And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Text of Ulysses on yellow rubber gloves.

Jessica Deane Rosner's Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …

I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.

It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!

And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”

illustration 2012 jpbohannon

illustration © 2012 jpbohannon

I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.

He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!

So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.