Friday, October 31, 2008

Casual Friday--Poetry IV

Normally, my Friday poetry posts deal with fun activities in the vein of found art and piecing together random words in a sort of poetic collage. No, it's nothing that serious or revealing, but I find it enjoyable. However, for this installment (and for more future Friday poetry entries), I'd like to focus on a poem by Wallace Stevens. As I've mentioned quite a few times, I'm not as knowledgeable on poetry as I'd like to be, at least as far as having a basic eye for certain poets and styles. Undoubtedly there are "easier" poets I could have started with, but Wallace Stevens's name has continually shown up in my readings.

While reading one of his poetry collections, I came across "On the Road Home," and was struck by how it seems to reflect both the current American landscape, as well as my personal life:

"On the Road Home" By Wallace Stevens
"It was when I said,
'There is no such thing as the truth,'
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You...You said,
'There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.'
Then the tree, at night, began to change,
Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.
It was when I said,
'Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye';
It was when you said,
'The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth';
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest (164-5)."
I'm afraid that if I analyze it too much, the tone of this entry will lean to the side of technical rather than poetic. I'll try to keep my ideas to a minimum and let the poem speak to you (the reader) in the ways it personally should. The opening stanza seems to hold the idea that, even in the best of times, there is always a sad reality on the horizon. In these post September 11th years, we've experienced this. How quickly we've gone from prosperity to international woes and a sinking economy, complete with countless people giving countless opinions. "There is no such thing as the truth," indeed.
The fourth stanza, on a very superficial level, reminded me of next week's Presidential election, although the use of the word idol would be too grandiose for either Barack Obama or John McCain, based on your preference. However, they have both seen lots of poverty, both literally and figuratively, as they've made their campaign rounds these past several months. Whomever wins still hasn't seen the truth, since a position like that can only be known once the office has been obtained.
The third stanza speaks loudly to me, as it probably would to any writer and reader. "In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts." Again, making a connection that might be a stretch, projects can seem ungodly daunting, and at times it can be easy to be pessimistic, to get caught up in the tiny details without taking the entire project into account. This goes for writing, drawing, research, and pretty much anything creative. This very idea also highlights one of the poem's themes (as I see it): contrasts between pessimism and optimism.
Hmm...I have some more ideas in mind, but as I said, I'll let the poem stand on its own. I think I'm overriding it with unnecessary "touchy-feeliness."
Work Cited:
Stevens, Wallace. The Palm At the End Of the Mind. Copyright 1971 by Holly Stevens.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Jump Shots

I've spent bits and pieces of the past three days or so working on, editing, and re-writing this post, which to begin with was nothing more than a light preview of the upcoming NBA season. As much as I love the NBA, I've never really found myself thinking about an approaching season, at least not as much as I've been doing in the past month. Even though Seattle no longer has a team (which means limited TV broadcasts for me, unless Comcast miraculously decides to air Portland Trailblazers games), and the Chicago Bulls are probably not going to accomplish more than a first-round playoff loss, I've found myself wondering about teams that I normally wouldn't think twice about. This is very good, since I've expressed earlier excitement about the NBA returning to relevance, and I feel that after last year's playoffs, and all the coverage of the preseason, the relevance is genuine.

Also, the fact that writing a simple, breezy preview was so difficult is very good, since I found myself trying to "out-hustle" (yes, please forgive the obligatory basketball cliche) each previous draft. On a humorous note, the sport of basketball also contributed to delays in the writing. I live next to a church parking lot that has a basketball hoop, and I tend to try and alleviate bouts of lackluster readings and writings by going out to shoot baskets. It didn't help too much in this case, but at least I got a taste of irony by actively engaging in the very sport that I was having trouble writing about. All of this buildup might be too much. Instead of a strict essay, I'm going to try and answer my own questions about the 2008-2009 NBA season, which begins on Tuesday.

1.) Is Greg Oden going to be under too much pressure? Oden was the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, but missed the entire season due to knee surgery. Now that he's healthy, he's generating even more excitement than he did before last season, even to the point of overshadowing this year's rookies. His team, the Portland Trailblazers, had an excellent season without him, even though they missed the playoffs. I don't think he'll be under pressure, but everyone in Portland (and the NBA) will be holding their breath for at least two weeks to make sure his knee really is healed. The Trailblazers will definitely win 5-6 more games than last season, and a final stat line of ten points per game, fifteen rebounds per game, and two blocks per game would be an excellent first season for him.

2.) After this season, will Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets be considered the best point guard in the league? Yes.

3.) Will Larry Brown make a difference as the head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats? This is a tough question. They're a young, unproven team with a few good individual players (Gerald Wallace, Emeka Okafor, and potentially Sean May), but nobody can really expect them to make a playoff run. Brown has historically coached teams to better performances, but his tendency to jump from team to team wears thin after awhile. However, as comically inept as Michael Jordan has been as a basketball executive (he's the Manager of Basketball Operations for the Bobcats), he at least brought in a great coach and will hopefully leave Brown alone to call the shots. The quality of leadership too often gets misconstrued, especially in the sports world, but Larry Brown will at least bring stability to the franchise.

4.) After years of clearly being the lesser conference in the NBA, has the Eastern Conference caught up? Yes, finally, although the top to bottom talent still isn't as great as the Western Conference. As odd as this may seem, I think it's due to a single player not named LeBron James. Elton Brand's signing with the Philadelphia 76ers has made a decent team potentially one of the best in the conference. To me, that shows how close the East is to being equal to the West. All it took was a single player to elevate a team, and I feel that a few of the Eastern Conference teams are one or two star players away from being consistent playoff threats. Want another example? If Kobe Bryant had gotten his early wish last year and had been traded to the Chicago Bulls, he would have taken the team deep into the playoffs. Since the Western Conference rosters are quite deep, it's easy for a single trade or signing to help shift the balance. I envision more trades in the coming months leading into the new year, trades that will help teams get better.

5.) Which Western Conference disappointment has the "best" chance of losing in the first round again? I have to go with the Phoenix Suns, and it has nothing to do with the team getting older. I just simply cannot see Steve Nash, Amare Stoudamire, and Shaquille O'Neal getting deep into the Western Conference playoffs. The other disappointments have made improvements. The Dallas Mavericks have a new coach and an overall sense of urgency to shape up and stop getting kicked around. The addition of Ron Artest to the Houston Rockets, along with a healthy Yao Ming, should at least get them to the second round of the playoffs. The Suns? It should be another season of 50-55 wins and another playoff disappointment. Most of the articles I've read hint that the team will probably be dismantled if they fall short, but no matter what, they cannot lost Amare Stoudamire. Rebuilding is fine, but it would be fantastically stupid to let go of one of the best young players in the league.

6.) In regards to the new Oklahoma City Thunder logo: are you kidding?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cormac McCarthy--Language Landscapes

I recently finished reading what is normally considered Cormac McCarthy's greatest novel, Blood Meridian. While it's certainly among one of the best books I've read in a long while, I cannot place it "best-of" style among McCarthy's canon, since the only other novel of his that I've read is The Road. The film version of No Country For Old Men should probably count for half a point in this tally, since most of the essays I've read generally agree that the film is a faithful adaptation. However, I won't put too much stock into that, since I've always agreed with the old saying that the book is almost always better than its film version.

Before I get into specific thoughts, my reading of Blood Meridian put a spin on another longstanding literary "rule." When one reads an English translation of a non-English novel, it's usually a given that, no matter how good the translation is, something (whether it be specific passages, certain words, or entire intangible atmospheres) often gets lost. Unless you're reading a work in the original language, it's simply not the same in its English form, no matter how good. I've never thought of this adage in reverse until I finished Blood Meridian. Take this passage:

"They followed an old stone trail up out of the valley and through a high pass, the mules clambering along the ledges like goats. Glanton led his horse and called after the others, and yet darkness overtook them and they were benighted in that place, strung out along a fault in the wall of the gorge. He led them cursing upward through the profoundest dark but the way grew so narrow and the footing so treacherous they were obliged to halt. The Delawares came back afoot, having left their horses at the top of the pass, and Glanton threatened to shoot them all were they attacked in that place (McCarthy 149)."

The novel is full of paragraphs fashioned with rapid verbs and stark descriptions that sometimes don't stop for analysis; events happen and the story moves along. I thought about the ideas of translation in a couple different ways. One, as I hinted above, would this English novel lose its atmosphere in translation to, say, Spanish or French? McCarthy is writing about the Old West, a time and era unfamiliar to modern Americans, with "familiarity" coming through stylized, cleansed Western films and books. I cannot help but think that readers in other languages would understand the book, but still lose something innate and present in the descriptions...just like what happens when English speakers read Proust or Marquez. Another side of translation that I thought of was that Blood Meridian feels like a translation. Despite being filled with metaphors and allusions, passages like the one cited above might (at first glance) feel simple, as if they've been modified from a different source. Then, it struck me: a reader of this novel (no matter what language it is presented in) is reading a translation of sorts, reading a description of 1840s-50s Southwest America written by someone in 1985. McCarthy was obviously not alive during that time, but his gifts of language and description are so detailed that one cannot help but believe the authenticity of the novel's events (which were based on true happenings in the mid-nineteenth century). Dialects and meanings definitely change within a language from era to era, so in a way, we're reading a "translation" of sorts.

As I mentioned, the novel is rife with metaphor, biblical comparisons and allusions, and is the type of work that requires intense study and re-readings, so anything I mention in this post should be taken with a grain of salt, since I'm merely going on a single reading. The story follows the exploits and adventures of "the kid" who teams up with an anti-social, violent gang made up of intimidating, colorful characters, many with two sides, hidden motives, and descriptive names such as "judge" and "ex-priest." What can safely pass as one of the main plots is the murder and scalping (for sale) of Indians in the American Old West. Like William Gaddis, McCarthy has no need for quotation marks, simply letting the dialogue stand on its own. At certain points, I was reminded of two other novels.

"All to the north the rain had dragged black tendrils down from the thunderclouds like tracings of lampblack fallen in a beaker and in the night they could hear the drum of rain miles away on the prairie. They ascended through a rocky pass and lightning shaped out the distant shivering mountains and lightning rang the stones about and tufts of blue fire clung to the horses like incandescent elementals upon the metal of the harness, lights ran blue and liquid on the barrels of the guns. Mad jackhares started and checked in the blue glare and high among those clanging crags jokin roehawks crouched in their feathers or cracked a yellow eye at the thunder underfoot (186)."

In seventh grade, my English class read Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. I clearly remember that our teacher had us make a list of all the colors that Crane mentioned, and by the end, there were well over one hundred examples of color adjectives. The same is true of Blood Meridian. As desolate and violent as the landscapes and the people are, there are constant references to hues and colors, which serve two functions. One, these adjectives highlight and give the reader concrete mental images of the book's settings. Two, in the case of the works of Crane and McCarthy, colors provide an ironic contrast to the violence. While The Red Badge of Courage is nowhere near as violent as Blood Meridian, there's definite angst when a page has meticulous details of violence mixed with vibrant colors of nearby objects.

The other novel I had in mind was The Road. It's been about a year since I last read it, and I don't have a copy available in order to make specific, cited comparisons. However, as I was reading, I felt that the two McCarthy novels were sort of linked, whether as similar entities or opposites. Blood Meridian's "kid," at least at the beginning of the novel when not much is known about him, reminded me of the son in The Road. They're both young, somewhat innocent, and subconsciously know that violence is looming. The bandit gangs that abound in Blood Meridian are not unlike the unseen villains that the father warns his son about in The Road. Even the time periods, while separate, can be connected. The futuristic, post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road would likely resemble the landscape of Blood Meridian, especially if more people were introduced in the former.

In both cases, McCarthy uses his incredible gift of language in all forms. Whether he's giving us a scenario at face value or layering it with metaphor for interpretation, he can take utter depravity and somehow make it beautiful, forcing readers to admire the situations even as they recoil from them.

Work Cited:
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. Copyright 1985 by Cormac McCarthy.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

(Needless?) Nitpicking on Jenny Lewis

(Note: As I've mentioned before, music writing isn't my strong point. I'm trying to rectify this, so accept my apologies if this post is a bit scattered.)

(Note II: As I wrote this, I had the title in mind, but had this nagging feeling that I had seen the word "nitpicking" used very recently in another headline. This turned out to be correct, as it was used in a Culture Snob posting about Sarah Palin. Granted, this article and that one deal with two very different women, but I feel that I owe it to Jeff (the creator of Culture Snob) to acknowledge this. I'm sure he wouldn't accuse me of plagiarizing an essay title, but to me it's the right thing to do.)

I recently bought Acid Tongue, the latest solo album by Jenny Lewis. It's as solo as a musician can get, considering the appearances by Elvis Costello, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Robinson, et. al. My purchase of this disc came about in this manner: I heard it was coming out a few months back and got very excited. The release date came and went, and I finally came around to picking it up about two weeks after the fact. I listened to it, enjoyed it, and am left wondering if it will become part of my laptop listening rotation. I'm also left wondering: am I really a Jenny Lewis fan?

At first glance, "Yes, absolutely" is what I would say if someone asked me this on the street. As muddied as the genre "indie rock" is becoming as a definable entity, Lewis has undoubtedly been one of its reigning queens. She first came to my attention a few years ago, when I really enjoyed her faint, beautiful vocals on a few Postal Service tracks. She's physically beautiful, too, but this has nothing to do with her talent. I think I was fourteen the last time I bought an album based on the attractiveness of the female musician in question. Maybe it's strange that I'm questioning my fondness for a vocalist based on my feelings for an album that I enjoyed. Perhaps this essay is my feeble attempt to make sense of this. I was never really big on Rilo Kiley, but I only have one of their albums, More Adventurous. It was an enjoyable power pop album, but I could name a hundred better discs. In the interest of not going off on too many tangents, I'm going to stick to her solo work.

2006's Rabbit Fur Coat was a collaboration with the Watson Twins, but it was undeniably Jenny Lewis. Her songwriting was impressive, but most of the album's acclaim came via the song "Handle With Care," a Traveling Wilburys cover. While Lewis gave an excellent interpretation, the standout for me was the song "It Wasn't Me," an aching, bluesy song that truly deserves the hyperbole of "haunting." Any discussion of Lewis's best efforts has to include this song. Overall, even the album's up-tempo numbers had a tinge of sadness and echoes of smoky bar laments. The more I think about it, this might be why I'm confused as to how Acid Tongue affected me. Was I expecting the same thing as Rabbit Fur Coat instead of listening for what it is? If so, that might be a first, a listener taking the blame instead of doling it out to the musician.

I think part of my apathetic view of this album is that I wasn't expecting what I feel is its core--which is normally a good thing when a piece of art goes in a different direction than one assumes. Is she trying to emulate classic female vocalists? It sort of feels that way, since, in some way, she's wrapping an old-fashioned voice around contemporary lyrics. However, there's a touch of originality missing that was evident on Rabbit Fur Coat. To me, it sounds like her voice is trying to catch up to a given song's intensity, but it cannot quite catch up. On a positive flip side, she oftentimes sounds a lot younger than she is, giving her work a hint of vulnerability. For example, Neko Case is arguably my favorite female vocalist, but even when she's trying to sound softer (i.e. trying to soften her voice to Jenny Lewis's style), she always sounds tougher and can't always nail the atmosphere of innocence. Sure, these might be intangible qualities, but every listener picks up on different ideas and intentions in a given song.

Then again, as the title of this piece implies, am I just nitpicking? Am I merely trying to rationalize that I didn't like Acid Tongue as much as Rabbit Fur Coat?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Beauty, Desolation, Redemption

Several months ago, I planned on re-screening and writing about David Gordon Green's 2003 film All the Real Girls. This is arguably one of my all-time favorite films, and while it's taken me awhile to get to this post, it worked out in a wonderful way, analytically. While the definitions of a "great film" are eclectic, I firmly believe that one of the factors is the potential to discover different aspects of a given film on multiple viewings. This is definitely the case with this film. I think my college newspaper review of the film went on and on about the beauty of All the Real Girls as a realistic relationship movie. This is still true, but at that time, I didn't have the sharpest eye for some of the smaller details, not to mention the stunning production design.

The main character, Paul (Paul Schneider) lives at home with his single mother, works odd jobs, and bums around with his friends: Tip, Bust-Ass, and Bo. One of the early shots in the film captures them as children who happen to be adults. They wander around their small town, sharing a single bicycle, and engage in playful banter:

Their friendship gets tricky with the arrival of Tip's younger sister, Noel, who has returned from boarding school grown up. There are immediate sparks between her and Paul, which Tip immediately disapproves of, for two reasons. One, there's always an unspoken rule in male friendships that a sister is off-limits. Two, Paul has a history of sleeping with women in the town and intentionally ending relationships before they start. Noel is played perfectly by Zooey Deschanel:

She captures intelligence and innocence, and her physical beauty is not exaggerated, unlike some of the other women in the town whom Paul has bedded. He sees more in Noel than he's accustomed to, and fears Tip's wrath. Quite a few times, he looks over his shoulder before engaging in a simple kiss or conversation with her:

However, his greatest fear is himself and his history. At one point, when Noel reveals her virginity and says that she trusts him, Paul cannot bear to even lie next to her or consistently look her in the eye. Ultimately, as he falls in love with her, human instincts take over, but not in the expected ways. One of the major ideas that I missed in earlier viewings is that the film is not so much about Paul and Noel's relationship, but primarily about Paul finding himself, learning how to be happy, and accepting his mistakes with women.

My recent screening showed a definite hierarchy in the friendships. As similar as Paul and Tip are, Tip has the (for lack of a better term) upper hand, simply based on being Noel's brother and his tendency to lose his temper at a moment's notice. The film later shows that he has a lot more inside than he normally shows:

Paul is in the middle by default, because as immature as he is, he's no match for Bust-Ass (Danny McBride):

Bust-Ass has his own feelings for Noel, and while he can be chauvinistic, there are hints that he has a sensitive side.

Finally, All the Real Girls has some of the most breathtaking imagery, courtesy of production designer Richard Wright. Jeremy at Too Many Projects Film Club has some excellent writings here regarding Wright's production design on Green's 2000 effort, George Washington. I'll let these images speak for themselves to close this post. Note the stark differences of the landscapes, which all represent the same area. The contrasts between rural nature and rural small town desolation are staggering.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...