Thursday, December 15, 2011

Monsieur de Sainte Colombe’s Viol

Pascal Quignard’s All The World’s Mornings is a perfect read: a novella, which one can move through in an hour’s time, carried away by the story and by the oddity of its characters.

Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, the book main’s character, is Pascal Quignard’s fictional rendition of the real Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, a seventeenth century French composer and viol virtuoso whose mastery of the instrument is thus described:

“One of his pupils…declared that he contrived to imitate all the inflexions of the human voice: from the sigh of a young lady to the sob of an old man, from the war cry of Henri de Navarre to the soft breathing of a child trying to draw something, from the distracted groan sometimes produced by sexual pleasure to the almost voiceless gravity, deprived of nearly all force and harmony, of a man lost in prayer.”

Monsieur de Sainte Colombe’s personality is as out of his ordinary as his musical gift.

This gift appears to mark the lives of others and offers us titillating scenes in the novel: Monsieur Caignet, the king’s emissary, invites Monsieur de Sainte Colombe to perform for the king at Versailles; the offer is quickly turned down.
The king’s envoy does not leave the musician’s household right away however; he secretively spies on Monsieur de Sainte Colombe and draws a few conclusions:

“He spoke to the king, reporting the reasons the musician had put forward and conveyed to him the marvelous and complex impression that had been made upon him by the music he had listened to in that secret hiding place.”

The ‘listening in’ theme (woven throughout lines of the novel), reminds us of the scene in the garden from the Princess of Clèves and makes one wonder whether this is a literary device intentionally (and successfully) re-used in All the World’s Mornings.

Unless perhaps listening in on one another was a reflex of the Baroque era itself, as customary as parting in enmity after moments of tension (but still adhering to some semblance of etiquette):

“Monsieur de Sainte Colombe was shoving M. Caignet towards the house as he was speaking. 
They took their leave of one another with formal bows. “

The title of the novella comes from a sentence at the beginning of chapter XXVI: “All the world’s mornings are gone without recall.”

And, to end this post, another quote from this interesting book:

“What are you seeking, Monsieur, in music?”
“I am seeking regrets and tears.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"A Scattering" by Christopher Reid

The finalists for the 2011 Costa Book Awards have been announced.

Perhaps a good time to be reminded that Christopher Reid’s poetry book, A Scattering won the Costa 2009 Poetry and 2009 Book of the Year Awards. 

A Scattering is a book of transformation through mourning, a collection of poems dedicated to the author’s wife, Lucinda.

The poems in this collection are a fascinating mixture of light and shadow, courageously undertaking a voyage that resonates, alas, only too well, with the myth of Orpheus and Euridice – pain, beauty and loss intricately intertwined:

“The seed-case you picked up and showed me, remember,
                        on the tip of your finger?
Like a fractional coin, the mite
                    of a mite, dropped and forgotten and yet
so pleasingly fashioned - spiral- 
                     compact against spiral –
it seemed a talisman, fit emblem of an island
                    where labyrinths and lucky finds abound.”
(From The Flowers of Crete)

The elegance of the books stems, among others, from the simplicity with which its author gathers seemingly irrelevant details, in balanced overtones, that unveil for us the grace of a moment.

A highly effective poetic formula of ‘ less is more’ punctuated with rhetorical questions that keep the reader engaged:

“What do we gain by it –
blind to the tiger’s leap,
voiceless under the avalanche?
Somebody must know.”

(From A Reasonable Thing to Ask)

Friday, December 09, 2011

Poetic renovations

A very cool online poetry project is Project Rebuild whose initiator is poet Sachiko Murakami, a finalist for the Governor General's Award for Poetry. 

The rules of this poetry project are simple: "renovate" one of the houses by posting your own poem.

I gave it a try to with a short poem:  Stories.
(It is my own version of a poem, that was previously translated from French - much to my delight).

The formatting of the poem did not come out as I meant it to, so, I will try again with a different poem.  


Thursday, December 01, 2011

Ion Barbu and the Poetry of Riemannian Geometry

Ion Barbu - pen name for Dan Barbilian - (1895 –1961) was one of Romania's intriguing personalities: a superbly gifted mathematician and a poet. 

His contribution to the theory of mathematics, while significant, is probably less known than his poetry.

Ion Barbu's poems, wrapped up in a tight metaphoric cloud continue to escape any attempt of extracting meaning from his verses - his is a poetry often called  'modernist' and 'hermetic'.

In some of Ion Barbu's  poems, such as the one rendered below, mathematical terms appear: "groups", "sum", "inferred", "inverted". The concepts created with these words however, lead us not to equations, but to metaphors.

Some poets wrote of Elysian fields; Ion Barbu's poetry talks of spaces described by the Riemannian geometry.

Here is my translation of one of Ion Barbu's poems: 

[Out of an hour glass, inferred…]

                                            by Ion Barbu

Out of an hour glass, inferred, the depth of this calm highpoint
Seeped through a mirror inside redeemed azure
Cuts out from groups of water, through drowned celestial herds, 
A secondary game, more pure yet.

Latent nadir! The poet raises the sum of
Scattered harps, lost in inverted flights,
And songs subside: secretive, as only seas can be,
Floating off jelly fish beneath green bells.

and the original:

[Din ceas, dedus...]
                                                  de Ion Barbu

Din ceas, dedus adâncul acestei calme creste,
Intrată prin oglindă în mântuit azur,
Tăind pe înecarea cirezilor agreste,
În grupurile apei, un joc secund, mai pur.

Nadir latent! Poetul ridică însumarea
De harfe resfirate ce-n zbor invers le pierzi
Şi cântec istoveşte: ascuns, cum numai marea
Meduzele când plimbă sub clopotele verzi.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

…is an interesting read, that requires, among others, patience  to deal with what appear to be superfluous repetitions at times, after key concepts have been advanced.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNB, as the author likes to refer to himself in some instances)  has prefaced each of the chapters in the book with intriguing summaries that mimic techniques employed by French writers.

The preamble of Chapter One, "The Apprenticeship of an empirical skeptic" reads:

 "Anatomy of a Black Swan - The triplet of capacity - Reading books backwards - The rear view mirror - Everything becomes explainable - Always talk to the driver (with caution) - History doesn't crawl, it jumps - "it was so unexpected" - Sleeping for twelve hours."

The Prologue of the book introduces us to the Black Swan - an event with three main attributes:
  • "it is an outlier"  (an event "outside of the realm of regular expectations")
  • "it carries an extreme impact"
  • " in spite of its outlier status human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact."
To the writer of these notes, the book's intent is, apart from dwelling in the realm of black swans, to invite the reader into a journey in which preconceived ideas and mannerisms are tossed aside in favor of doubt, humility and creative thinking. 

It's an area where the author both succeeds and - at times - fails. The few low points appear to stem from an overdose of irony which feels out of place with the out-of-the-box thinking suggested by the author:

"Traditionally, bankers of the lending variety have been pear-shaped, clean-shaven, and dress in possibly the most comforting and boring manner."

The wealth of information to be found in the book fortunately masks some of the faux-pas that may grate at our sensitivities.

Here are some of my take-aways from this book. 
I enjoyed these lines on my first go-around of the chapters and felt compelled to go back to them later:

"There are two varieties of rare events: a) the narrated Black Swans, those that are present in the current discourse, and b) those that nobody talks about since they escape models. "

"Some blindness to the odds… is necessary for entrepreneurs to function."

"To be able to focus is a great virtue if you are a watch repairman, a brain surgeon or a chess player. But the last thing you need to do when you deal with uncertainty is to "focus"…"
"Prediction, not narration is the real test of our understanding of the world."

"Just as we tend to generalize some matters but not others, so there seem to be "basins of attraction" directing us to certain beliefs. Some ideas will prove contagious, but not others..."

And - at the end of this post -  the question of whether the book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable may become such a "basin of attraction", should perhaps be posed.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Esi Edugyan - 2011 Giller Prize winner

Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, 33, wins the 2011 Giller Prize with her second novel Half-Blood Blues, a book described at as "an entrancing, electric story about jazz, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art."

Articles in the Globe and Mail about Esi Edugyan and her book and the other 2011 Giller Prize finalists.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Robin Robertson – Three Poetic Themes in "The Wrecking Light"

Robin Robertson’s most recent poetry book The Wrecking Light, (Anansi Press, 2010) was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot poetry prize and the Costa Book Awards for Poetry . 

The sonata-like structure of the book (made of three sections I- Silvered Water, II- Broken Water,  III- Unspoken Water and the Notes and Acknowledgements ) provides some disparate clues as to how the poetic matter appears to be orchestrated inside this volume. 

I would suggest that reading thorough the
Notes and Acknowledgements first may be a good way to pick up on some of the threads of the book. 

Silvered Water
, notes the author, hints at a Scottish tradition: “placing a silver coin in a bowl of water or throwing it into a well is a traditional Scottish blessing, or preparation for a wish.”

This first section of the book renders a point of equilibrium – a glittery yet stifling surface caught under the magnifying glass of a second, from which an unraveling is about to begin:

"The sun’s hinge on the burnt horizon
has woken the sealed lake,
leaving a sleeve of sound. No wind,
just curved plates of air
re-shaping under the trap-ice,
straining to give; the groans and rumbles
like someone shifting heavy tables far below.”

From Signs on a White Field
The long prose-like poem Leaving St. Kilda ends the first part of The Wrecking Light with a haunting scenery, reminiscent of  John Glenday’s poems:

“all eyes hold the gaze of the rocks
as the boat turns east – as if
to look away would break the spell –“

From Leaving St. Kilda

And the breaking of the spell does indeed happen in part two of the book, Broken Water

This section of
The Wrecking Light, includes poetry whose goal appears to be the piercing of the harmonious shield painstakingly constructed in Silvered Light. It is a section that includes a few poems rewritten by Robin Robertson based on texts from Ovid, Baudelaire and Neruda. 

Robin Robertson’s rendition of Neruda’s Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market is overflowing with images and rhythm:

“Only you:
dark bullet
from the depths
carrying only
your one wound
but renewed
always resurgent”

From Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market

Past the turbulence of Broken Water, we enter the calming fjords of the last section in the book: Unspoken Water, whose title is, once more, explained in
Notes and Acknowledgements: “In Scotland, this is traditionally regarded as a powerful charm against the Evil Eye and for healing the sick."

Thus we find ourselves in the redeeming territory of half-uttered spells, full circle from where we have started off – an invisible concept of a home (as in the poems The Wood of Lost Things and Landfall.)

“…nothing but the names
of the places I came from, years ago;
and you pull me from the waves,
drawing me out like a skelf,
as I would say:
a splinter.”

From Landfall

There is, of course, no  conclusion to a poetry book, especially a well-written one, such as
The Wrecking Light.

But there is perhaps a quote from one of Robin Robertson's interviews that might be borrowed  in lieu of a conclusion to this post: ‘Writers write for the void.”

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Art Toronto 2011

 The international art fair Art Toronto 2011 was held between October 28th and October 31st, 2011 at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. 

Canadian and international galleries brought to the show contemporary art that simply dazzled through its variety and accomplishments. 

It was an opportunity to view up close and personal the seminal work of established artists such as Jeremy Annear and David Andrew  (Messum’s Gallery), Soíle Ylí-Mäyry (Walter Wikiser Gallery), Keld Moseholm (Bruno Dahl Gallery) and to discover new artists such as Rámon Urbán, Jenaki Lennie, Calum McClure and Nicole Katsuras through other vibrant gallery exhibits.  
Here are some images from Art Toronto 2011:



Thursday, October 27, 2011

The art of the novel: People (Les Gens) by Philippe Labro

People  ( Les gens), published in 2009 by Editions Gallimard,  is one of Philippe Labro’s recent novels.
A prolific writer, journalist and iconic media figure, Labro was born in 1936 in Montauban, France.

People is a good read, a book that charms through its intellectual vivacity and the intersecting stories of three main characters whose destinies make us turn page after page.

Maria, an orphan girl of sixteen is able to escape a dire existence through both grit and chance and in the process crosses paths with Caroline, an elegant and sensitive woman in her late twenties and with Marcus, a grotesque character whose portrayal is steeped in derision and sarcasm.

Labro’s inventive, ultra-rich vocabulary and the author’s kaleidoscopic view of the world blend into a creation that echoes Balzac’s Human Comedy, in its cross-section of mentalities, social milieus and values.

Such an exploration is the almost cinematic treatment of what appears to be a tour of guest tables at the Gretzkis dinner party, during which one of the guest addresses another: “Have the kindness to let my generation now become infamous, sir. Yours has been long at it.”

There is indeed a generational gap that is surreptitiously surfacing in the novel at times: quotations which have run their course and turned into clichés, picture-perfect establishment characters such as Liv Nielsen contrasted to her creative team hard at work texting one another during meetings.
Arguably, the structure of the novel itself, with the centrifugal mechanism that aggregates the three narrative threads as the novel marches towards its ending, is a somewhat older (albeit trusted) technique leveraged in this new French novel.

It’s a book I have enjoyed reading; Labro’s observations, buttressed by brilliant interludes made my time spent reading worthwhile: the Caroline-David amorous episode, the descriptions of Paris, and quotable passages:

“The speed with which a rumor propagates usually depends on the nature of its contents.”

Criticism of high flying professional circles which become disconnected from reality through aggrandized self-image is delivered through a comparison to the altitude sickness experienced by a group of Japanese alpinists during the ascent of Mount Everest in 1996:

“Naturally, they have become almost crazy due to altitude sickness.”
A specialist of this activity drew the following conclusion: 
“Altitude sickness signals the end of morality – and the end of morality is the end of true alpinism.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The man in the scarlet vest and his symphony in white major

The French writer Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) was known for his rather unconventional way of dressing: he wore a scarlet vest during the opening night of the play Hernani by Victor Hugo, an attire with which his name became associated. 

Gautier's poetry  is steeped in an air of silvery, cool shimmer: fused metaphors and similes which can perhaps be best described using the title of one of his own poems: a symphony in white major.

Here is my translation of the opening stanza of the sonnet Adieux à la poésie (A farewell to poetry) by Théophile Gautier:

                    A farewell to poetry

Come, fallen angel, pull back your petal-pink wing; 
toss out your white dress, and its glittering rays; 
from the height of the sky where your blossom swayed 
you plummeted, as a star would, into a page of prose. 

Théophile Gautier (approx 1869) - credit Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Chaos theory, the butterfly effect & an ounce of lucidity

Apud wikipedia:

"In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. The effect derives its name from the theoretical example of a hurricane's formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before."

Perhaps the concept noted above can also become a description of the frame of mind that may arise from reading a few metaphors laid out in a wet puzzle, amid rain drops, in the progressive and infinitesimally golden fall colors. 

A widely quoted sentence in Romanian literature belongs to the novelist Camil Petrescu: “every ounce of lucidity is paired up with an ounce of suffering.”

To paraphrase the above quote, I’d like to suggest that every ounce of lucidity is paired up with an ounce of poetry. 

A page of poetry transforms us, gradually, through successive openings and closings into something new: a larva, a pupa and, finally,a putative butterfly, held captive by an exodus of wings at the edge of our awareness.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Poetry, Newfoundland and Labrador and "where the whales dive"

Coastlines – The Poetry of Atlantic Canada , published by Goose Lane Editions in 2002 - is a high caliber poetry anthology edited by Anne Compton, Laurence Hutchman, Ross Leckie and Robin McGrath.

Its preface carefully explores the concept of poetry within a regional space and notes that the anthology is in nuce an opportunity to celebrate the current Atlantic poetry renaissance. 

To the writer of this blog post, the poetry included in Coastlines brings to light in varying degrees of intensity some of the key differentiators of the contemporary Canadian poetry: the subliminal integration of the vastness of the Canadian landscape, prose poem-like poetic constructs, a framework of reference that favors interaction with the ‘external’ & ‘internal’ world in a manner that is, in many instances, highly kinesthetic.  

The chapter dedicated to poets from Newfoundland and Labrador in Coastlines includes poetry by Michael Crummey, Mary Dalton, Tom Dawe, Richard Greene, Randall Maggs, Carmelita McGrath, Al Pittman, GordonRodgers, John Steffler, Agnes Walsh, Patrick Warner and Enos Watts.

Michael Crummey’s poem Painting the Islands, one of the first poems in this chapter, sets the tone of this section’s  brooding eloquence:

"Approaching Nain, the islands
are bare and burnished black,
metallic glint of the afternoon sun
and for the few minutes it takes
to sail beyond them the stones
are alive with light."

Richard Greene, the 2010 winnerof the GG Award for poetry, depicts a stunning scenery in Utopia:

“An immense acreage of solitude.
I am always here
On a hillside of quartz and juniper,
A ridge over water
Where the whales blow and dive”

and Tom Dawe surprises his readers with a re-write of Daedalus’ myth:

“On morning wings
across the sun
he comes before me,
there at the seabird’s cove”.

(from Daedalus).

I recommend reading this book. 


Thursday, September 29, 2011

A fragment from "Endless Poem"

"In a modern museum
In an old synagogue
In the synagogue
Within me
My heart
Within my heart
A museum."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Italo Calvino & the place where it always rains

I recently discovered the book "Six Memos for the Next Millennium" by Italo Calvino, the author of Invisible Cities. 

Six Memos is a book of literary essays on what Calvino identifies as "certain values, qualities or peculiarities of literature" attempting to situate them in "the perspective of the new millennium." 

These values, in Calvino's opinion, are: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency.

Calvino began writing Six Memos in 1985, as the material for his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1985-1986 at Harvard University. He died a few days before his planned trip for Harvard and only five of the essays were completed at the time of his death.

Here are a few quotes from Six Memos, a thoroughly illuminating book on the art of writing:

1. Lightness:
"Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world - qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them." 

 "Conciseness is only one aspect of the subject that I want to deal with, and I will confine myself to telling you that I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram. In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and thought."

"In Mallarmé the word attains the acme of exactitude by reaching the degree of abstraction and by showing nothingness to be the ultimate substance of the world."

4. Visibility
"There is a line in Dante  (Purgatorio XVII.25) that reads:
Then it rained down into the high fantasy"

I will start out this evening with an assertion: fantasy is a place where it rains".

5. Multiplicity
"Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond hope and achievement."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mysterious barricades

...and, at the end of summer,  we are ready to push forward towards fall's mysterious barricades:

Mysterious barricades by François Couperin - 1668-1773

Here is an interesting link with regards to literary creations inspired by Mysterious barricades:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stubbornly beautiful: the black swans of poetry

Black swans, I’m inclined to believe, have become all the rage in the last couple of years: a film, a fascinating book (Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable) articles in the Barron’s online edition, and the list goes on.

So why not talk about black swans in poetry in this post?

Swans carry an ingrained symbolism, undoubtedly rooted in archetypes that these suave birds, their eerie appearance and a multi-layered cultural context evoke for us.

Some of the earlier swans in modern poetry appear to bring forth the closing of a chapter, a premonition of passage in an aura of wings as they take on the role of a go-between:
"The bird, on the dark lake where beneath it
The splendor of a starry & violet night
Lurks close, as a silvery vase amid diamond shades,
Sleeps tight, head under its wings, in between two horizon lines."

(Sully Prudhomme, The Swan)

One of the most enigmatic birds of this feather erupts in the verses of  Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “Sonnet”:

“This virgin, vivacious and beautiful thing
Will tear apart with a drunken wing slap
The hard lake that haunts from under the frost
The transparent glacier of flights not yet abandoned!”

Black swans per se appear in three magnificent contemporary poems.

These poems share a trait: they are set up as fantastic narratives whose main character is (aside from the black swan) a child.                        

Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem Black Swan talks of a secretive realm defined  boy and a black swan:

"...And a giant bird  
With burning feathers. And beyond them both  
A pond of incredible blackness, overarched
With ancient trees and patterned with shifting shades,  
The small wind in the branches making a sound
Like the knocking of a thousand wooden bells....  “

Randall Jarrell’s The Black Swan depicts a transformation which would fit well in a page from  Ovid's Metamorphoses:

"Out on the lake, a girl would laugh.
"Sister, here is your porridge, sister,"
I would call; and the reeds would whisper,
"Go to sleep, go to sleep, little swan."
My legs were all hard and webbed, and the silky

Hairs of my wings sank away like stars
In the ripples that ran in and out of the reeds."

And, stubbornly beautiful,  James Merrill’s poem The Black Swan "assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor", whose ending concludes our post:

"Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
       The blond child stands to gaze  
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon  
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
       Forever to cry aloud
    In anguish: I love the black swan."

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