28.02.2018

When it snows, it’s an event. How could it be anything else, when silence settles on rooftops in glimmering powder? Even your steps grow solemn, tiny geisha steps, and you and the stray puppies draw gasps at every slip backwards on the slush, like rocking horses.

“It rains all the time in London, doesn’t it?”, small talk when I return home. It would be no use to tell them – the ones back home – that it’s beautiful after it rains, that the puddles on the Strand are afternoon mirrors, that the sky itself seems to emanate steam and that the gargoyles seem close to touching it, the sky, as they drip drops from their balcony perches.

When it snows in London, I think I’m in a Bucharest of an alternate universe. Surely black and white. Surely antebellum, in an alternate universe. I don’t know why, I just know that there is no language in which the word for ‘snow’ isn’t beautiful.

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REVIEW: ANA BLANDIANA, The Sun of Hereafter and Ebb of the Senses

Poet Ana Blandiana, since the 1989 Revolution, has represented an elegant ideology in an era when Romanian political debates have been so fraught and so heated. Through her work with her husband, Romulus Rusan, in the creation of the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, she has become quite a figure of grace, but it is worth noting that she has been an encompassing poet with a distinct voice since her youth. In this discussion specifically, we situate The Sun of Hereafter (2000) and Ebb of the Senses (2004) within the contemporary political current that they encompass through their overarching preoccupations. This collection of two poetry books, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, appeared in the autumn of 2017.

Nearly all of the poems compiled share a simplicity of form, as well as a causational, implicit attention to linguistic harmony. This is emphasized by a repetition of certain words, such as ‘light’, ‘seed’, ‘sea’, and ‘lord’. Language is quite plain, favoring substance over opulence – though many have noted that English is something of a utilitarian, even stark language, as opposed to Romanian, which possesses a natural, even inescapable embellishment. With her finesse in simplicity, Blandiana is decidedly post-modern, but it may also be the merit of the translators that there is never a word in surplus. Derrick and Patea are to be applauded for their successful adhesion to rhyme schemes and musicality, although there is a tendency of a passive voice, which may be forgiven as a choice made out of thematic rather than formal motivations.

In her projection of a pervasive political scheme, Blandiana presents a reaction to the socio-historical events occurring around her in the form disturbing revelations. Often, the poems possess a sense of the indefinable, not presenting anything more than a feeling of vague terror, with the obvious intent of conveying that feeling and no more. As a result, there is an occasional strangeness or opacity, a barrier of ambiguity and bitterness and of negation: the deliberate lack of resolution reflects the larger feeling of hopelessness felt by an entire country. In tune with political stagnation, the poems mirror static reflection and static emotion. This in itself speaks to the theme of human agency, or lack thereof. A sense of geography is implicit in Blandiana’s poems: the feelings of outrage and of disappointment are central to the current political scene in Romania; although we are in physically universal locations like the sea, there is a stronger tendency towards a metaphysical space of a perceived paradise or an interiority, absolutely central to the poet’s self-definition. Indeed, an overarching tone is one that yearns for self-expression, an attempt to define aspects of the self as a woman, as a citizen, as a human being in the grips of passing time. The poems are self-directed (Kahlo’s self-portraits come to find) and possess a distinctive voice that the reader feels, at times, can be physically heard. This self-defining sensitivity offers a unique perspective: it is often a struggle for a woman, as a writer, to reconcile herself between the strictly political and the strictly personal. In this sense Blandiana has the courage to attack traditionally male discussion, and appropriates and even owns what is stereotypically masculine self-confidence and power of expression. Thus, geography is much more of a sentiment or a strong feeling for Blandiana, more of a sense of place than a spot on the map.

The poems are worth reading for the occasionally remarkably surprising words and phrases that necessitate a double take, sometimes seeming to have something of a folk song in them (take, for instance, the phrase ‘Cherry trees murmur cherries in reply’ from the poem ‘The Knell of Fruit’): Blandiana is contaminated by symbolism. Images of biblical salvation are repeated, invocations to God and to gods. Such primordial, mystical themes applied as responses to the modern world and its grander schemes give her poetry a singular complexity, as we see in ‘Plea’:

Help me to weep; help me to pray

            Help me to observe my unicorn’s fate          

            With the plaited star of a horn on my head 

            Stared at in dreams by silent crowds

She often relies on visceral imagery of the sea and its fauna, of the seed to present a contrasting and honest presence of sexuality, of fertility or lack thereof, which contribute to this being a book of both personal and national disappointments – sincere, brave, and weighted.

My only qualm was that endings tended to occasionally falter in comparison to the early-established crescendo in several poems (one such example would be ‘Lanscape’) but perhaps it is this very feeling of dissatisfaction, characteristic to reality, that Blandiana wants the reader to feel. I felt that, importantly, she gives voice to the ‘negative’ feelings that we, in western society, are often encouraged to suppress, and validates them. One poem that exemplifies these merits as a whole of her presented work is ‘Within a Pod’:

 

Because I haven’t hulled myself

            Into other similar beings

            All ages are still enclosed in me

            Like seeds asleep in a pod,

            Too happy to try to break free of their coffin.

All in all, The Sun of Hereafter and Ebb of the Senses are thought provoking… thought provoking and unique.

 

 

FILM REVIEW: OCTAV

OCTAV is a film as big as a soul, as big as a life. In a sphere that has long preferred to showcase the post-communist, impoverished Romania, Serge Ioan Celibidachi’s film is like an open window, breathing cool air into a loaded atmosphere.

The film follows the story of Octav Petrescu, played by Marcel Iureș, an elderly man that returns to his childhood mansion in Romania with the intention of selling of it. Arriving there after an decades-long absence, Octav is confronted and transformed by the memories and spectres of his childhood, as his soul is thawed and made young once more.

It is a beautifully spoken tale, bearing the aura of a confidence or rare intimacy between its creators and the viewers.

Marcel Iureș is a remarkable countenance. Throughout an empty domain, his is a voice that resounds, as you would expect from an actor who played Richard III. Initially walled-up and enigmatic, although heavily intense as the elderly Octav, Iureș enters a child’s personality in an old man’s body without being absurd or repulsive.

Alessia Tofan, as the little Ana, played remarkably expressively and spontaneously, defying an age where children usually play in a bland manner. Lia Bugnar is memorable as the mother, resisting the urge to overly dramatize a stormy character and remaining understated but at the same time, haunting.

There are many characters in the film and I found some others a bit wooden and lacking in expression. This may be a result of restricted character development.

Attention to detail pervades the cinematography, as the viewer usurps the artist’s eyes through panes of glass and wild summer plains. It is a slight twist of the Italian style that has served as a successful art house alternative to Hollywood in the past few decades: director of photography,  Blasco Giurato who is famous for his collaboration with the director Giuseppe Tornatore, calls this film his ‘testament on 35mm’. The Romanian-British co-production, like these others films, is accompanied by an enchanting melody composed by Vladimir Cosma.

The cinematographer is not the only commonalities with Tornatore’s films: OCTAV, like Malena and Cinema Paradiso, leaves in its wake a reverberating impression. This is in part due to the heavy presence of biographical elements: the name is no coincidence; director Serge Ioan Celibidache is the son of Sergiu Celibidache, the renowned conductor. As such, Iures bears a physical resemblance to the elder Celibidache and plays a character that has spent a life in exile. A scene in which Octav’s father (played with much finesse by Ioan Andrei Ionescu) likens a life to a piece of music quite touchingly seems to be a personal testimony to an extent.

The idea of traveling to an ‘inner time’ brings to mind a film adaptation of Mircea Eliade’s short story, ‘Youth without Youth’. It is troubling, very troubling. Considering the film as I watched it, I was overcome with a notion that has struck me fleetingly looking at old family photos: the past is present within us, present somewhere, and therefore is never really past. This film makes that idea seem almost palpable, and the viewer finds him or herself rather surprisingly hoping for that extra stretch: please let it be real, let it be real again…

In my admitted gushing, I don’t intend to imply that the film is perfect. Some structural perfecting would have made it a true masterpiece, and the artificial manner of speech adopted by some minor characters did occasionally jar the viewing experience. What is remarkable is the lack of vulgarity in an age so sexually oriented.

After seeing it in the cinema, I thought about this film before I went to sleep. I am intrigued, and enchanted, by the idea that people and places may exist indeed forever, by the fact that someone was there to witness and remember them. It awakened something in me. There is no plot, it is definitely a film for connoisseurs.

Finally someone has decided to show that Romania is beautiful. It was time.

DOUBLE Book Review: Sonnets from the Spirits and Petals of Vision by Christopher Villiers

Christopher Villiers strikes one’s interest. In Sonnets from the Spirits, a young theologian undertakes an ambitious project: I am reminded of a contemporary philosopher who noted that nothing coming after the New Testament has achieved its beauty. A tiny gameshow host appears on my retina asking, ‘will this guy live up to the challenge?’.

The answer is yes, tentative only out of piety. The medievalist Orthodox in me rears her head, thinking inevitably of the iconography dispute.

Formally speaking , poems such as ‘My Eve’ wear a mantle of angelic harmony. I feel these poems to be mimetic, functioning in an almost didactic way as an impetus: reconsider the Bible, the book tells me. There is a mixture of high and low sentiment, presumably catering to the contrast between man and God, which most of the time plays out pleasingly. Sometimes I would have liked a departure from that almost naive style clearly usurped from the Old Testament, but the poems have substance and are representative. Particularly powerful is the verse from ‘Abraham and Isaac’: ‘God will give us a lamb,” I speak kind lies/Or desperate hope, faith beyond reason’.

First person narrative makes the experience tense and heavy with the aura of stone millennia on one’s shoulders. ‘Samson’ is such a powerful poem, and has the quality of being more than reflective.

Cavafy’s historical poems come to mind, particularly Cavafy’s ‘Caesarion’ in comparison to ‘Saul’, although Villiers lacks the artistic preoccupation and prefers a sober tone. I am certain that things get complicated when it comes to such a delicate subject as Christianity, but I do wonder if Villiers will develop in this direction. His frankness when describing lust is a positive element in his writing, and he glows in the moments of expression that transcend ‘re-telling’. Evidently, the best poems by far are those in which you see the poet immersed absolutely in the communicated episode. Some are more remarkable than others in this sense, and the one that strikes me in particular is ‘Bathsheba’:’I see her bathing, her hills and valleys /Are ripe for conquest, Bathsheba thrills me.’

I cannot have the pretension of a contemporary work adding something to the most-read book in history. Villiers, I think, is conservative too in this sense, but he aims for something mimetic rather than impressionistic. His writing is like a prism: a bit of angular mirror reflecting light in many colors, quite lovely.

 

Petals of Vision is a collection that brings you close to the man inside. In a manner quite different from his previous collection, the poet weighs petty and momentous topics with the same sweet, meditative voice. Take a  ‘A Park Revisited’, which, like many other poems in Petals of Vision, possesses a piercing simplicity:

Where are you now? Do you remember me?

Can you still remember our summer here

And hereabouts?

Have years been kind to you?

There is both sadness and wonder well encased within this poet’s microcosm. No fanfares are present (though indeed sometimes I would have liked a bit more aplomb and even a sort of aggressiveness). Villiers possesses, however, a certain old-world elegance in word order and choice, sprinkled among a quotidian world of amorous deceptions and…the occasional presence of animals. Unusual, perhaps: it seems to signal an introvert who is in quiet communion with owls and dogs, and sometimes less so with people.

The book is a work not lacking in labour. As it progresses the reader finds him/herself sinking into aquatic introspection, as one does before the stars and the sea. Villiers’ poems are not elusive, but sincere and sensitive. The complex imagery indicates understated passion, a voluptuous and candid confession.’Morning was an unripe plum’: the poet bewitches us.

Some poems are remarkably intense, heavy with feeling in a strangely surprising way, like ‘Episode’:

I sit on the rim of my sanity,

Gazing down into the stony basin

As if expecting some new calamity;

A vineyard shrivelled into a raisin.

Value lies in the unexpected: the baby in ‘NewBorn’ is likened to a beetroot. Phrases like  ‘Can some time tell out the spring?’ are eyebrow-raising and effective. Also singular is the formal consistency of his poems: rhyme is so natural that you don’t notice its presence unless you look for it.

Christopher Villiers will flourish. I look forward to it.

“Salty-eyed and steaming”: Interview with Caroline Petty on her new album, “Mineral Woman”

In high school, Caroline broke convention and she did it with flair. This was immediately before “alternative” became the norm, and in those days she rocked neon colors and jelly flats as a theatre kid. Today, Caroline has just completed her degree in Written Arts and Music at Bard.

Start us off by introducing what you do and what you’ve done. Have you always sung?

I’ve been singing ever since I was a kid. When I was about 4 my dad brought out a microphone and a tape recorder and just put it in front of me. I made up short songs and stories and he later put them to his own guitar playing and onto a tape I titled “Kitty Lovin'”.

Other than that, I mostly sang in choirs and school plays until I started school at Bard College where I studied jazz voice and written arts.

My favorite in your album is ‘ice’. Do you write your lyrics? How did Crystalline germinate and evolve?

I’m glad you like “ice”! That’s actually the tune that probably changed the most from start to finish. It began as a much more sparse song in regards to instrumentation and rhythm, but the guitar player, Christian, had a different and exciting vision for it and ultimately took on the role of arranging most of it.

I do write my lyrics! I also write poetry separately from my music, and there are times where my poetry influences the content of my lyrics, although I haven’t used a poem directly as lyrics before; those two writing processes are very different for me.

So Crystalline is a bit of a play on my name, Caroline. I can be a bit shy in my everyday life, but Crystalline connotes a sort of hardness, brilliance, and boldness that sometimes I wish I embodied. The name has also allowed me to form something of an aesthetic around my music in addition. An assemblage of iridescence, vibrant colors, glitter, and other ethereal outfits and accessories give the performance aspect of Crystalline another layer that distinguishes the character from my own self.

Cool! Why is the album called ‘Mineral Woman’?

The title of the album comes from a poem I wrote of the same name. It was meant to be an exercise in putting into words what/who Crystalline is.

Here comes the inevitable cliché: what inspires you? I remember you being really into Sufjan Stevens – is that still the case? Who else do you cite as an influence?

Hm that’s a tricky one! I mean, nature is a huge one (also cliche, honestly). But more specifically on that, there’s a lot of water in my lyrics, and “yellow” goes through various yellow and red birds and flowers. I also tend to write lyrics that address the feeling of being an outsider in one fashion or another. Yes! I still adore Sufjan. My absolute musical hero is Bjork. But I also love Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond, Fiona Apple, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Corinne Bailey Rae. Lots of everything, really!

Did any old music, tapes or CD’s, or music in the family influence you?

My dad is a musician, so I’ve grown up around his music as well as all the different music he and my sister would play around the house. My sister actually introduced me to Bjork at a very young age. I have a mixtape she made me when I was probably five-years-old that has all sorts of gems on it.

I know it’s hard to pick just one – what are your absolute favorite three songs, ever?

Ho boy that is a tough one. I would have to say “Possibly Maybe” by Bjork, “Sprout and the Bean” by Joanna Newsome, and maybe the standard “Lazy Afternoon” but Eartha Kitt’s version.

Is music something very technical, cerebral to you? Do you believe in quite strict rules regarding music and music theory? Are you a feeler or a mathematician in the creative process?

Oh gosh no, it’s hardly technical for me. Math was never my strong suit, so whenever a music teacher tried to teach music to me in a more mathematical and technical fashion I just got scared and sad and rarely absorbed any of it. I’m not necessarily proud of that aspect of myself, it can make communicating my ideas to other musicians pretty difficult! I come up with the piano accompaniment for all of my original music solely by ear. I can sometimes take what I’ve learned about chord progressions and implement them when I get stuck.

What is the relationship between the written word and music to you? Are they inextricable or not?

Music and the written word are very linked for me in certain aspects, but also incredibly separate in others. For instance, many of the themes and ideas in “yellow” came about from a short series of poems I had written, however there are no direct lines from the poem in the song. I tend to write lyrics in one sitting (with minor edits made later) or each section in a separate sitting, whereas for my poetry each piece will go through a much more intensive and elongated editing process.

Do you feel the same when you write as when you sing?

I don’t feel the same! I feel much more confident when I sing. I’m full of seemingly endless doubts when I write, and I’m constantly putting energy into warding those off. When I get an idea I love, then that feeling gets closer to the feeling of singing.

What do you like to do that contributes to your music indirectly?

One thing I’ve already mentioned a couple times is writing poetry and sometimes fiction. Other than that, rollerskating outside by myself gives me a freeing feeling that probably sneaks its way into my music somehow.

You can listen to Caroline’s album here.

Vestigial Structures

I wish I could yearn to write the way I yearn to walk. The art of strolling began after my first big deception, and although I’ve long come to from the initial trauma, the walks have remained indispensable to the pruning of my soul.

A walk is like a cup of coffee. It takes time to refine, to perfect. It’s a ponderous act. It’s a sensual digestive act, and one that leaves you with a feeling of refreshment. I don’t often feel refreshed, but I associate the word with the feeling of cold hair bunched up in in a fist.

The perfect walk, like the perfect cup of coffee, is savored slowly. Delicious is the absolute lack of destination that characterizes them: it all goes to rot if you’re pressed for time. And there is nothing worse than being waited for – no! Better to imagine that I’m being awaited at the end of the road, quite unexpectedly of course, at the evening hour of church bells.

Time passes for me too, although I am young, and clinging obsessively to youth as if it’s already gone. Who it is that jealously keeps trying to snatch it away, I do not know. Stop wanting so much, I tell myself. Be simple, like your shadow, and happy with small pleasures. Picking out cherries one by one at the market. Hanging clean laundry to dry in the morning sun. Walks before the dying light – both the dying light of day and that which Dylan Thomas defies.

Still, the dying light is a caress in the right color. Golden, water-washed, familiar like a book of fairytales. Enough with philosophy for now. It is summer, fuzzy green overrides our little world and the breeze whistles flute-like in duet with the padding of white tennis shoes on the pavement.

 

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Anybody in the contemporary literary scene has heard the name of Elena Ferrante. This past week, as a first act of vacation, I immersed myself in the first of her four Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend.

The story is narrated in semi-omniscient first person by Elena Greco, a young girl growing up amidst the violence and misery of a small town in 1950’s Naples. Setting served as an influential and interesting driving force of the plot, as the acute and insightful descriptions of how poverty shaped people reminded one of the wonderful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Evidently, social struggle is a central trope of the novel, but comes second to the tense whirlpool of Elena’s friendship with Lila, the magnetic and intelligent classmate.

The novel begins with a phone call from Lila’s son to an older Elena, announcing that Lila has disappeared after essentially erasing her physical existence. Elena, in reaction, recounts her and Lila’s intertwined tale, fighting against Lila’s self-destruction. She recounts how she met the remarkably bright Lila in elementary school and was fascinated by her. This fascination continues as their relationship grows both close and fraught as a result of shared experiences in the neighborhood: love, sex, local politics, and social struggles. The book spans the period from the first grade, when they meet, to the age of sixteen, when Lila is married while Elena continues her education.

I am very critical of contemporary books. With the extraordinary tradition of literature we have built up to the year 2017, we should be reaching more fabulous heights. Unfortunately, books nowadays generally fall flat in the face of the twentieth century, for instance. It is not that books are poorly written per se,  but rather that they have begun to adopt the superficial and banal tone of our lives. This is why I am not hopeful for the books of the twenty first century, though I hope to be wrong, and cling to the idea of a desperately needed Romantic revival in the future.

That said, I have mixed feelings about Ferrante’s work, which is much adored at the moment. There were things I liked: the assured tone of a woman looking back on life and analyzing her past self objectively, for instance. The poignancy of childhood and the awkwardness of adolescence were well defined, at times even elegant. I also enjoyed the setting – it seems that every film and book about Italy is based in Sicily, so it is nice to see another side of the country. I disliked the emphasis on petty feelings and would have liked some deeper reflection on what Elena was feeling. Particularly bothersome was the fact that Elena’s fascination with Lila seems fairly unjustified: Lila is meant to be ‘brilliant’ but simply comes across as cold, detached, and not easy to empathize with.

As a result, I don’t know that I would continue to read Ferrante were it not for the dreadful cliffhanger that the book concludes with (and this is a personal preference, too: I do not like books that cannot stand on their own and I’m sure others feel much the same). We shall see: I may change my ambivalent opinion into a more positive one if curiosity eventually triumphs.