The Golden Gate

by Vikram Seth. The third of four verse novels I’m reading in bits and pieces and all at the same time, kinda.

I have to say that this one is going nowhere for me, absolutely nowhere. The lives of a group of San Francisco yuppies, rendered in 690 Pushkin sonnets. Modeled on Eugene Onegin, one assumes.

I haven’t read Eugene Onegin, but ouch is all I can say about this one. Really ouch.

Definitely a cautionary tale for those with verse novel ambitions, I would say.

Be interested to hear from anyone who has had a better experience.

The Dirty Napkin

My poem a poem for mother’s day is up at The Dirty Napkin.

This is a great publication, edited by J. Argyl Plath, and this fourth issue completes its first full volume. Check it out! And while you are there, check out its great submission system. Honestly, it’s the coolest thing — lets you painlessly submit, and then just as painlessly check on your submission. It even tells you whether your submission is Unread or Read. Has my vote for Most Painless Submission of the year.

the valkyries on bald mountain

I’ve lately developed a rather absorbing hobby — picking through years of digital photos and compiling a photo-story on a particular theme and setting it to music. I line up the individual shots in whatever order suits the theme, apply various panning and zooming effects (as allowed by Windows Movie Maker) in order to give the collection movement and dynamism, then set the whole to a particular piece of music.

As you pick individual photos and put them together, you find they actually begin to call for a particular kind of music, and so in the end, the photos and the music seem to come together for a bit of mutual definition. As choices become clearer, the challenge for you, the compiler, becomes finding enough pieces (or cutting down to enough pieces) to match the exact length of a particular soundtrack (fading in and out early is for wusses!), and to arrange the photos so that the shifting mood of the music is at least peripherally reflected in the shifting atmosphere presented by the photos.

So far, things have been pretty anodyne — a series of portraits over several years of my two sons, for example, set to an unexceptionable Mozart piano concerto, or to a Bach for oboe and violin, or something easy by Vivaldi. We’re not talking Debussy or Rachmaninov and we are definitely not talking Wagner.

Well, we weren’t, that is, until I started putting together this crazy family reunion series. (My family is wonderful in its component parts, but am increasingly less sure what the sum of those parts is. And if I even want to know what that sum is, frankly.)

So, I’m pulling together these family reunion photos, going tum-ti-tum and ho-hum and wondering in an abstracted half-assed kind of way what music I’d end up picking for the series, when suddenly I realize I’m hearing The Ride of the Valkyries! Which I totally hate. I mean, really hate.

So I resist and fight that one – it’s the wrong length, and it doesn’t really fit that piece and that piece and that piece, ok? Fine. 

So what do I start hearing instead instead?

Night on Bald Mountain!

Which I totally hate just as much, if that’s possible.

Time for a commercial break. Here’s Arthur Rackham’s Ride of the Valkyries:

Shamrock Tea

by Ciaran Carson, is number two of the verse novels I’m looking at (and, yes, probably number six in The Big Pile Of Books I Am Reading At The Same Time). It has 101 short chapters, each named for a color, and I’m at 24.

The best way I can think of to describe its form is by evoking one of those photo-portraits that are made up – when you zoom in and in and in — of hundreds of other individual portraits. A tapestry/mosaic form, with lots and lots of zoom-inable detail in each stitch of the tapestry, each tiny square of the mosaic. A behold the particular, and therefore the general sort of worldview.

So far, there seem to be three overall focal points — a 15th century painting (the Arnolfini Portrait), its subjects and colors, by Jan Van Eyck; Catholic saints, their devoutness, their reported miracles and their feast days; and the deductive reasoning method of Sherlock Holmes. The chapters are tightly-written and each labeled with the name of a particular color. They link to each other, and within themselves, in myriad ways — the whole thing is a continuous flow of word-association, color-association, thought-association, concept-association, date-association — in a knitting, reaching kind of way that links lives and feelings across centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present day, looking askance at received notions of space and time. So far the present day “action” is taking place in relation to and through the prism of the Arnolfini portrait (which sounds magical/miraculous, which it is — there’s quite a bit of that in Shamrock Tea).

So far, anyhow. The “verse” part is prose-poem rather than free or formal stanzas, by the way. (Bizarre to be reading Barret-Browning in blank verse and this colorful poetic-prose in the same breath, as it were.)

I am reminded almost continuously  in reading Carson of Annie Dillard (Holy the Firm and For The Time Being, but also Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Although Carson’s focus is narrower and more specific, they share the same penchant for weaving historical, sociological, religious “trivia” into commentary that spans the ages and ends always in the present day. (No-one asked, but I have to say Dillard’s language and her “reach” win hands down for me….)

Here are three extracts:

From Ch 4: Scarlet – “For my twelfth birthday [my Uncle Celestine] gave me an omnibus edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories. To a great mind, says Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, nothing is little; and from a drop of water, he maintained, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara, without having seen or heard of one or the other; for all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known when we are shown a single link of it.”

From Ch 14: Raven – “Although he was occasionally mistaken for a wild animal by passing shepherds, Benedict’s reputation for sanctity and wisdom eventually became such that he was importuned to descend from his desolate cavern. He established a community of monks at Subiaco; about the year 530, he withdrew from thence to Monte Cassino, near Naples, where he founded the greatest monastery the world has ever known.

As recorded by his hagiographer, St. Gregory, the life of Benedict abounds in miracles. Standing one night, praying by his window, he experienced a vision whereby the whole world seemed to be gathered in one sunbeam, and brought thus before his eyes; for to him who is granted the light of eternity, all things are that light; and therefore every point in the universe can be visited from every other point.

St Benedict’s emblem is a raven.”

Ch 21: Permanent Black: “Van Eyck duplicated with the brush the work of goldsmiths in metal and gems, recapturing that glow which seemed to reflect the radiance of the Divine, the superessential light. For viewed in that eternal light, all things are equal, from the glint of a nail in the wooden floor of a burgher’s house, to the glittering spires of the New Jerusalem.”