Sunday, February 28, 2010

Murder most foul

Just got back from an evening at the Guthrie that easily counts as the worst performance of Macbeth I've ever been subjected to. The kindest interpretation of what I watched tonight is that Joe Dowling, taking Act V Scene V to heart, decided that the best way to do Macbeth was to hire a couple of poor players, have them strut and fret upon the stage for a couple of hours with as much sound and fury as possible, and hope that the whole thing would signify, if not nothing, then as little as possible. If such was his intention, he succeeded admirably.

Easily the worst offender in this night's travesty was Erik Heger, whose turn as Macbeth combined gratuitous overacting with bizarre line readings to reach lows of incompetence many a high school wannabe could not achieve. The result was a performance that betrayed not the slightest glimmer of insight into Macbeth's psyche, while managing to obscure the power and flow of Shakespeare's poetry - no mean feat when one is playing Macbeth. I know the play was advertised as including graphic violence, but I didn't realize it was the language itself that was to be so butchered. Mr Heger, the playbill informs me, has performed in a number of popular soaps; I suggest he restrict his future career to daytime television and not sully the stage attempting Shakespeare again.

While Mr. Heger's performance was particularly cringe-worthy, the rest of the show wasn't much better. It didn't help that, for reasons known only to them, the company decided to restrict the play to a two-hour performance without intermission [1,2]. The upshot of this was that large swathes of the text had to be cut - including, for instance, about a third of Act IV Scene I [3] - and what remained was often delivered at such break-neck speed as to make it not only unintelligible to anyone not already familiar with the script, but also entirely inauthentic. Are we really to believe that all the tangled phrases of Act I Scene V trip lightly off the tongues of Lord and Lady Macbeth? These are words to be savored, phrases to be wrenched from the writhing pit of inner turmoil. Not lines to be rattled off with the speed of a waitress reciting the day's specials.

The one bright spot in this general wreck was Robert Berdahl's performance as Macduff, which rose cleanly above the mediocrity around him, so that the one scene in the entire play charged with genuine emotion was Act IV Scene III. It's fitting then, that the best description of tonight's performance can be found in the words of Macduff upon discovering Duncan's murdered corpse:

O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee!
What's the matter

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!

[1] I suppose that in itself should have tipped me off - a performance of Macbeth in two hours could hardly be anything but botched.

[2] In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about the 2 hours / no intermission thing. On the one hand, its shortness was the one mercy the performance afforded. On the other, if there had been an intermission I could have walked out and salvaged some part of my evening.

[3] What perverse, tone-deaf idiot chooses to cut, of all things, the full list of the cauldron's ingredients, Hecate's entire role and Macbeth's glorious speech as he enters the witches' lair?

Gran Partita

There is a kind of beauty so precious, so perfect, that even to try to put it in words leaves us in tears. The best we can do in its presence is sit very still, holding our breaths. Trying to do no damage. To it. Or to ourselves.


Returning to this music after a long time I am struck by how listening to Mozart is like falling in love. A sensation at once laughingly simple and unspeakably complex; a heady mix of profound emotion and delightful mischief; an excitement deeper than language, purer than breathing.

A feeling I opened myself to keenly, whole-heartedly. Naively. When I was young. Because that is all youth is, a capacity for concentration that is also a capacity for surrender. Not narcissism, exactly, nor arrogance, but a belief in the self sufficient to make giving oneself to the great things of the world seem an equal trade.

Young men serenade. Old men sit in their chairs listening to this music, dreaming of the balconies they could never reach.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Rumor

...goes around like a collection plate - everyone adding their two bits till there is enough for belief.

Loose talk, loose change. What you lose in your pockets, what you find in your heart.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Car Pedi? Umm.

Butterflies like yell-
-ow post-its to say: gather
these rosebuds while you

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hedda Gabler (2)

Because the opposite of suffocation is not freedom but breathlessness. The body denied. Death's beautiful vacuum.

All night the fish dreams of leaping clear of water.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hedda Gabler

Watching Hedda Gabler tonight, it occurs to me that sexual frustration ripens, in due course, into an appetite for tragedy.


An adequate but curiously unsympathetic performance. A Hedda worthy of Strindberg rather than of Ibsen.


There are two kinds of mistakes: the kind we have learnt to live with, and the kind we are yet to make. Everything else is ego, and self-dramatization. Regret takes second place to our need for forgiveness, our fear of being forgotten.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Waiting Room

Four strangers in a silent waiting room, trying not to meet each other's eyes. Accidents will happen. The passing of trains has as much relevance to this place as the passing of time. Which is to say it only an excuse. Which is to say there are five dimensions: length, breadth, height, long ago and far away.

You use your chair as a ladder. climb up to where the window looks back at you, looks through you. The others watch you as though you were a clock.

The appointed hour is late. You go down to the station bar, order yourself a sonata. You come back shaken. No one else has stirred.

Monday, February 08, 2010


"what I feel when I am told that my neighborhood is dangerous is not fear but anger at the extent to which so many of us have agreed to live with a delusion - namely, that we will be spared the dangers that others suffer only if we move within the certain very restricted spheres, and that insularity is a fair price to pay for safety.

Fear is isolating for those that fear. And I have come to believe that fear is a cruelty to those who are feared."

-Eula Biss, from Notes from No Man's Land

The trouble is: fear is not invented but inherited. And the fears we are socialized into are fears we cannot empirically disprove, because there is never enough evidence, and what there is is biased by selection, and therefore self-fulfilling. And there is always, underneath that social fear, a second more private anxiety - of looking foolish, of being ashamed.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Top Poetry Picks 2009

I know, I know. The time to post best of the year lists is the last two weeks of December, not the middle of February. But well, I've been busy. And some of these books took time to get hold of (I'm still waiting to get my hands on the new Ashbery). So here they are, better late than never and in no particular order, my top 10 picks from books of poetry published in 2009:

1. Rae Armantrout, Versed

Few poets writing today understand the fault lines of language as intuitively as Armantrout, or are as willing to stand on its cracks. These are poems from the crumbling edge of poetry, every line a tripwire; poems that require a mind nimble with meanings, alert to possibility; poems that leave you with a joy so fragile, so insidious, it can feel like loss.

2. Albert Goldbarth, To be read in 500 years

If Armantrout subverts with precision, Albert Goldbarth's long-winded poems seem like a manifesto for expansiveness, for inclusion. Goldbarth's mind ranges everywhere, like a maniac let loose in a grocery store, picking allusions from shelves high and low, the poem magically coming together at the (invariably witty) check-out line. Goldbarth's inimitable style can seem garrulous, but this is a ruse to disarm you, to win you with trifles before engaging in ideas of deepest consequence. The result is a book of poems marked by generosity, good humor, and an almost philosophical tenderness for the world and everything in it.

3. Ann Lauterbach Or to Begin Again

I confess: I'm still only half way through Ann Lauterbach's Or to Begin Again. This isn't because the book is unreadable. On the contrary, it's because every time I sit down to read Alice in the Wasteland, the long poem at the center of Lauterbach's book, I barely manage a page or two before my mind is totally blown, and I have to stop and just breathe. Alice in the Wasteland is, nominally, an encounter between Carroll and Eliot (you can see why I love this already), but it reads like the love child of Ed Dorn and Anne Carson with a fondness for LSD. One of these days I hope to make it to the end of the poem. Or to begin again.

4. Shrikant Verma, Magadh

And while we're on books I haven't read, I may as well include Shrikant Verma's Magadh, a long extract from which (in translation by Rahul Soni) appears in the current issue of Almost Island, and was enough to convince me that I needed to get my hands on more of Verma's work the next time I'm in India. Verma's poems have a Cavafy-like quality, combining a sparseness of style with an eye for the metaphysical to create poems that seem both conversational and revelatory, both historical and timeless.

5. Anne Carson, An Oresteia

Strictly speaking, Carson's new book - a version of the Oresteia with one play each from Aiskhylos, Sophokles and Euripides - is not a poetry collection. Yet you'd have to be blind and deaf not to sense the poetry pulsing through every line of this book, just waiting to be spilled. Carson's translations - particularly her rendition of Aiskhylos' Agamemnon - breathes life into the old texts, restoring to them their full-throated lyricism, the power of words so savage, so devastatingly beautiful.

6. Kazim Ali, Bright Felon

Kazim Ali's Bright Felon is a book that doesn't so much defy description as evade it. An autobiographical account of the poet's life in the United States, Bright Felon engages with issues of religion, nationality, sexuality, family - all the things that define and complicate identity - in lines delicate and vivid, introspective and indignant. This is a book about displacement pregnant with a deep sense of place, of homes both lost and found, exiles both chosen and enforced.

7. Joshua Clover, The Totality for Kids

Treading a fine line between the visionary and the bizarre, the poems in Joshua Clover's The Totality for Kids inhabit an exhilarating alterverse somewhere between the solipsistic and the apocalyptic. An architecture of urban mythmaking with windows of disillusion.

8. Heather McHugh, Upgraded to Serious

There is a special joy one gets from reading McHugh, whose poems combine a pitch-perfect ear with a twinkling eye. Reading Upgraded to Serious is a bit like listening to Mendelssohn, one is charmed by the sparkling surface of the thing, all wit and melody, then one discovers the music of echoes that lies underneath, an abiding seriousness, idea and insight laughing quietly between themselves.

9. Carl Phillips, Speak Low

The third of the National Book Award finalists on this list (and the one I would have given the prize to) is also one of my 'discoveries' for 2009. In Phillips' best poems you sense a mind treading water, a mind probing, without caution but with care, the nature of what matters - longing, death, thought itself - a poet aware, as only a poet can be, of the fragile arrangements by which inanimate words are brought to resemble life.

10. Rachel Zucker, Museum of Accidents

How can you not love a poet who describes herself as the mother in smothered? Rachel Zucker's Museum of Accidents is a book filled with hilarity and hi-jinx, a verbal trapeze act that is also a half-ironic, half-desperate attempt to ward off the terrible gravity of parenthood and the anxiety of being middle-aged. For all the tedious mommy poems out there, with their propaganda of fulfillment, their miracle-of-life banality, Museum of Accidents is a shot in the arm and a spit in the eye.

Bonus picks: Two of the finest books of poetry I read last year were both technically published in 2008, but need to be mentioned anyway - Jack Spicer's My Vocabulary Did This to Me, which showcases one of modern poetry's most electric and original voices; and Sarah Lindsay's Twigs and Knucklebones, which marries artifice to lyrical insight, and provides an object lesson in how a collection of poetry can be more than the sum of its parts.

Bonus picks [2]: Finally, I feel I ought to include a mention of Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense, which I'm still in the process of working my way through, but which I'd highly recommend to anyone seeking a friendly introduction to contemporary poetry (see also: Burt's blog)


No shrieking demons, no fire and brimstone. Just a drab little room at the end of a hallway, the size of a walk-in closet, no light bulb, no ventilation, and a sign on the door saying Lost and Found.

A room cluttered with all the baggage our heroes have taken down there, the things they have left behind, returning alone and empty handed, their eyes unused to the light. A faraway look that we mistake for wisdom. That they mistake for pain.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Death by numbers

Symptoms multiply. You try to divide yourself from the pain but there is always a little left over. Injected with decimals, you grow diminished, then irrational. Death a kind of unity, the lowest common denominator.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Asolando makes the night's acquaintance

You said you wanted to walk away from this
with dignity

like a man walking into the sea
in a suit and tie.

You said you wanted to face it head on
"breast and back as either should be"

which is why

I didn't call you back
or say goodbye.

Monday, February 01, 2010


You always were a slob.

The day of your funeral I clean your apartment, putting the surfaces in order before your family returns to claim them. A pall of used smoke hangs over the house. As though your breath were reluctant to leave. Cigarette butts everywhere, on display in every room like souvenirs from a bitter country, the debris filling all the ashtrays, then spilling over into glasses, saucers, flowerpots, whatever happened to be at hand. It is as though death, in those last days, was marking its territory, claiming this space for its own.

Carefully, I gather it all in a plastic bag. Your ashes. I imagine taking them home with me, not to display, of course, but to hide away in some corner of my closet, a memento, a keepsake. The touch of your vanished lips.

I must be going mad.

I go into the kitchen, find a thermos, empty the bag into it. Then I throw the bag away.


The security guard at the airport doesn't believe me, of course. He insists on opening the flask to check its contents. Your ashes scatter everywhere, a minor cloud wafting over the other passengers-to-be, tourists, businessmen, all clutching their shoes in their hand, all panicked to see this gray dust settling on their clothes and skin.

There is a commotion. Voices are raised, accusations levied, alarms set off. Boarding Area C is closed for two hours while the necessary tests are completed. Meanwhile I sit in an interrogation room in the bowels of the building, trying to explain.

At first I am angry, indignant. Then just very sad. I feel as if I have let you down.

Later, I consider that it may not have been a bad thing. I imagine all the passengers passing through that gate, unaware that they carry a piece of you with them, your ashes traveling to a thousand different destinations, scattered to all the corners of the world.