Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Love in All Its Many Forms—A Review of Craig Sonnefeld’s Heart of a Man

‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all (Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam)

Given a choice between grief and nothing, I’d choose grief (William Faulkner)


I stated in my 2006 review of Craig’s first two CDs—Reverie (recorded in 2004 and produced by Steve Rapson) and Storm Clouds Rising from 2005 
(New Roots Records, www.newrootsrecords.com), produced by Craig and Steve Friedman, that he “seems to have thought a lot about the comings and goings, the joys and sorrows of Love, as any poetic folksinger must.” This bears out in Craig’s newest release, Heart of a Man (2007) produced by Steve Friedman at Melville Park Studio, Boston, MA and put out by New Roots Records (www.newrootsrecords.com).

Friedman has done an outstanding job. The recording is very crisp and clear. Each note is distinct and the instruments played by Craig’s talented group of guest musicians are mixed together beautifully, accentuating Craig’s own rich playing and the simplicity and strength of his lyrics (Craig wrote all of the songs on the CD). 
Heart of a Man continues Craig’s pattern of having no more than two other musicians playing on any given song and it works as well as on his last disc.

Craig has taken the time to write short thematic descriptions of each of the songs in the liner notes, so I will keep my own remarks brief as well.

“Diamond Dove” is a Celtic-flavored ballad (a strength of Craig’s), featuring alto flute by Billy Novick and mandolin by Steve Sadler. Craig’s playing is crisp and clean, setting the tone for what’s to come. As Craig says in the liner notes, it truly is bittersweet.

“Hills of Wicklow” also appeared on Craig’s 2004 CD Reverie, and was rerecorded for this collection with guest harmony vocals by Debra Cowan. As I said in my review last year, this song brings to mind the ballads of Andy M. Stewart and Tommy Sands. “Hills of Wicklow” tells the tale of a young man sailing off to find his fortune after losing his love to another. There is a terrible irony that the bells of Saint Catherine, which signify for the couple that they are wed, mean for the young man that he truly has lost his love for good.

“Lately” explores the pains of a dying love when you can’t fix it, as much as you may want to or even try and features mandolin by Steve Sadler and Valerie Thompson on cello (both of whom played on Storm Clouds Rising).

“Since You Said We’re Through” has an old blues/jazz influence and is my favorite song on the CD, thanks to the impressively expressive and fun clarinet work by Billy Novick. You’ll want to play this one over and over again.

Valerie Thompson’s cello is again a highlight on “I’m No Longer Waiting (for Your Love to Come Around).” Her playing and Craig’s are seamlessly intertwined in a dark, minor scale piece with a great deal of atmosphere.

The next two songs, although very different, both showcase Craig’s guitar playing. “Can’t Go Back Again” is really a wisdom of the ages piece that first brought to mind the two quotes I used to open this review while “Lucky So-and-So” is an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek romp that shows off Craig’s lyrical wit and skill as a writer and guitarist. You’ll get a good chuckle from the lyrics.

“New Love Song” again features Valerie Thompson on cello and looks at the positive side of love as inspired by Craig’s wife. The lyrics (“A puppet dangling on a silver string.” “A desert flower that will bloom at dawn.” “A mountain stream that has a taste like wine.”) remind me of the poetic images of Harry Chapin’s songs.

“Brand New Day” shares the haunting atmosphere and thoughts about time at sea present in my favorite of Craig’s songs, “Lighthouse,” from Storm Clouds Rising. As simple as it is, “But when the sun comes up tomorrow/it’s gonna be a brand new day” is a powerful thought for these times. The song features Paul Shaheen’s beautiful keyboards.

“Heart of a Man,” the title track, was inspired by Craig’s friend Marc Gold, who runs the online charity www.100friends.com. I had heard about this project some years ago (it has been going strong for 18 years now) and I encourage you to check it out. Marc has done some amazing work. This song is a celebration of his larger work and a more contained but equally important instance of giving his gloves to a beggar on a city street. Paul Shaheen’s keyboards and Valerie Thompson’s cello contribute a great deal to the overall feel of the song, which is a notable celebration of the positive in an age of rampant negativity. My favorite lyric from the song is: “From my solitary tower/I look down at the abyss/I can see this world is suffering/so many ways I cannot list.”

Heart of a Man and Craig’s other CDs are available through his website, www.craigsonnenfeld.com, where you can also read some other reviews and find out some cool things about Craig.

You can also read my review of Craig’s previous two CDs at www.newmystics.com and at newmysticsreviews.blogspot.com

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Shots from the Heart: Of Basketball, Politics, and Soul—The Good Words of Robert Pomerhn, Poet

What is passion and unapologetic truth worth to an Artist? It seems this question is confined to lecture hall Lit classes and private discussions among the distrusted students of the arts and sciences condescendingly called Hyperintellectuals, but there is an argument to be made for judging all artists first and foremost by the depth of emotion and pure guts they bring to their work.

If such standards bear weight, then Robert Pomerhn is a poet of note and worth. His work remains in no genre for very long and he moves freely from spoken word poetry- slamming in his hometown of Buffalo, New York to treatises and homages to the Surrealists, Andre Breton first and foremost among them.

His life’s journey is clearly reflected in the path and progress of his work, as demonstrated by taking a close look at the form and content of his first three books of poetry, which is the aim of this review.

Some poets wear their heart on their sleeve—Robert wears his poetry on his heart…his first book, “Blest for this Poet Crest to Rest on My Crest” (published in 2003 by Press of the Third Mind in Chicago, who notably published the early poetry of Colorado poet, musician, and artist Patrick Porter) is a raw and unapologetic mix of pop culture and sports references delivered in high-energy spoken word rhymes. One of the more engaging and multilayered phrases is “asphyxiating on auto exotic exhaust.”

I was first introduced to this book after receiving a note from Robert in August 2003 about my own work (we had both been published by Mark Sonnenfeld’s Marymark Press and had a common colleague in Porter) and was struck by the series of photos of Robert on the cover of “Blest”—hands in attitude of prayer, Poet tattoo on his bare torso, and his spirit and energy came through in his note. So I bought the book and read it several times, gleaning new things, removing layer upon layer each time.

He covers an immense amount of territory in the political, cultural, and entertainment landscapes—he references Al Pacino, Mr. Magoo, and Roderick Usher all in the same piece. He references personalities through word play—“burning Bridges like Todd” or “Donald holds Trump” and recalls infamous moments in sports, like the booing of Darryl Strawberry in New York.

His love and knowledge of sports—especially basketball—gives him an extended palette of metaphors on which to draw (hey—if our military can use sports metaphors to rationalize and dehumanize their conquests, why can’t a poet?). I appreciated his references to old-school wrestlers like Sgt. Slaughter. Robert and I are the same age and grew up in the NY–NJ area, so we work from similar experiences culturally and it’s good to see some of the forgotten names and events reborn. I also got a smile from his take on the infamous Holyfield–Tyson fight where mad Mike “de-earring[’d] him like Van Gogh” and a chill when he recalled Jack Tatum paralyzing Darryl Stingley with a vicious spearing. I still remember the images in Sports Illustrated that I looked at over and over again as a teenager.

He provides us with a wide array of cultural personalities and infamous icons—Anthony Robbins and his “turn-IT-around tapes”; Jared from Subway (who is STILL around); Jeffery Dahmer; he even gives us an image of Pinocchio and Dumbo exchanging their oversized appendages.

Being a spoken word artist, he’s keen to hear a beat, and so he talks about the “drummer from Blink” and white rap artists like Fred Durst, Everlast, and, of course, Eminem (who he refers to by his given name of Marshall—appropriate given that they are colleagues with different levels of audience reach). His musical tastes also run to the classical with a call-out to Chopin.

Robert’s work goes from the street straight into Heaven, as he implores his readers to “meditate, don’t medicate.” His anti-drug stance is appreciated by me, as the students in my writing classes seem to gravitate to his poetry books as they sit amongst the likes of Rilke, Kerouac, Whitman, Poe, cummings, Lorca, and a wide array of books from the small and independent presses. They are drawn first by the covers and next by the varied and innovative layouts of the poems themselves. Robert uses a variety of line breaks, fonts, and point sizes to emphasize his main themes and to cue the reader to the rhythms and emotional qualities of the poems. This is much more engaging for teenage writers than a book of verse poetry in 8 pt. Times New Roman.

He is obviously well read, as he references a wide array of writers, including Jim Carroll, EA Poe, Joyce, Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, and Allen Ginsberg. Antonin Artaud is quoted more than once. These writers share a common thread—their passion and even madness threaded through every word and every line they ever wrote.

Beyond sports and pop culture, Robert appears to be a student of mythology, spirituality, and history, as he references shamanism, Thomas Merton, and the myth of Osiris and name-drops the likes of Robespierre.

He intimates the fuller treatment he gives to the Surrealists in later books with a poem that he credits as an “ode to Breton’s ‘Free Union’.”

Not to be forgotten are his political poems, where he talks about the current Bush administration and its policies with word-plays like “Guerillas in the mist” and “Operation Iraqi Liberation.” That’s OIL, by the way.

Robert’s second book, “Til Death Do Us Art,” put out by Scintillating Press, already starts to show the growing maturity as an artist that is truly made manifest in Robert’s third book. He began teaching children about poetry and creative freedom around this time (the poems range from 2003–2005) and his own growth is made evident by the cover of “Til Death,” which has some cut-up word collage. The book opens with a longish quote from Artaud and one of the first poems says “the lord speaks through me to write down this rhyme.” That is abundantly clear.

He is not abandoning his former inspirations as he journeys on—not by any means. We get the sound-play of Kobe and Obi-wan Kenobi and a reference to another drummer (remember Travis Barker of Blink in “Blest”?). This time it’s Rick Allen of Def Leppard—I was a junior in high school when he had the car accident that took his arm. I still remember the shock of that afternoon, listening to the radio with friends.

We also get an array of references ranging from Rosemary’s Baby and the Son of Sam to Randy “Macho Man” Savage and his manager/lover Miss Elizabeth. As Robert himself admits: “I’ll throw everything at you including the kitchen sink.” We’ll take it, because he’s painting a portrait here, surrealist though it is. And they are right there with him—Breton, Dali and many others listed in his “Surrealist Smorgasbord,” including Artaud (yet again), Ernst, Freud, Kandinsky, and the Marquis de Sade.

But more than anything else, like many artists’ second works when they have met some critical acclaim and negativity with their first effort, this book is a defense of who Robert is as an artist. He says (and this is not at all unusual) that the critics don’t get it but the audience does. His poem “”I’m not your typical underground poet” enumerates some reasons why and also stands as a manifesto of sorts. He references the iconic prayer-posture on the cover of “Blest,” linking the two books overtly as well as thematically. He says he feels like a caricature in Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

His defensive stance plays through the rest of “Til Death,” as he takes on the spoken word scene in Buffalo, New York. If the spoken word scene is anything like the community that contributes to the University of Buffalo poetics listserv, and I suspect that it is, then I can see why Robert is frustrated. It is a pretentious and opinionated battleground where it is the Author not the Art that is most often discussed. He calls upon the ghosts of Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Huey P Newton as he admonishes the poor work going on at the poetry slam competitions, most notably in the poem “Hip Hop crisy.”

Robert’s third, and most recent book, “Abuse Art, Not Children,” signifies the fruition of his spoken word skills, his teaching, and his love of the Surrealists. He himself is aware that he has changed as he says later in the book: “I make a conscious effort not to write the same book twice.” This collection, presented in a much larger folio size than his previous two, is put out by Highest Hurdle Press and features color front and back covers, notable enough in the small press scene. He really takes the visual art leaps and bounds in this 2006 effort, and I have to say that having seen hundreds of word art collages over the past 8 years as part of the small press and independent artist mailing lists, Robert’s skill is considerable and the visual collages spread out through the book are well worth the price in and of themselves.

The book is dedicated to his father “for always serving as a safeguard to his two sons.” There is an excellent explanation of his visual art process on the inside front cover and the book begins proper with a 22-point manifesto called “heart attack,” a “tribute to Victor Brauner’s ‘On the Fantastic’.” This is followed up with a companion poem to the book’s cover art.

Not ever straying too far from his roots, Robert shares some works on the state of professional sports and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. He then gives us a Ginsbergian poem called “this hearse doesn’t have seatbelts” wherein each of 35 lines starts with the word “Like.”

Two poems on race relations make further use of the prayer photo from “Blest.” He then gives us a “Surrealist World Series” visual art piece and a “dadacument” on cut-up art. Bridging these treatises with his more mature and layered calling out of spoken word artists is a quote from William S Burroughs that I found to be a nice touch.

Toward the end of “Abuse Art” we get Robert’s longest published poem, “SHISH KABOB,” which is a remarkable culmination of everything he’s done, been, and read as of the time of writing. It brings all three books together by referencing a large array of personalities and subjects, all familiar to us, yet reconstituted in new and compelling ways.

We get his first love poem at the end of this collection, a 2006 Valentine’s Day gift to a girl named Meghan, as well as a tribute poem to the October 2006 storm in Buffalo that is an echo of his work on Katrina.

“Abuse Art” ends with a poem from the publisher, Highest Hurdle Press, laying down their gauntlets of intention through the past, present, and future. It is clear that Robert Pomerhn—with his triple armory of vision, talent, and passion—is at the vanguard of this intention, and I look forward to seeing where it takes them.

We as artists are trying to reinvent ourselves and respond and adjust to the state of the world in this new millennium—a post-9/11 world on the brink of natural and spiritual changes in which we all will play a role.

It is good to know that the likes of Robert, who signs all of his notes and works, “Pomerhn, Poet” is right there in the trenches, leading the way.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Into the Multiverse: A Review of Paco Ahlgren’s Discipline

As we settle into the 21st century, amid unending, questionable wars; escalating gas prices and the undeniable existence of Global Warming; a growing reliance on ubiquitous computing; and an ever-enlarging sense of coming Change (whether it be the far-right Christian Rapture or the mostly misunderstood implications of the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012), there is a growing focus on quantum theory and the idea that our universe is one of many, all existing in parallel (a collective entity called the multiverse). Within this multiverse are infinite probabilities and the ability to create our own destinies and realities on a daily basis. Films like What the Bleep?!? and the numerous theoretically accessible titles in quantum physics from writers like Fritjof Capra, Daniel Pinchbeck, Fred Alan Wolf, Michael Talbot, David Bohm, and Gary Zukov (or self-help systems like “The Secret”) give the interested reader lots to think about as he or she struggles down (this) life’s path.

One writer, first-time novelist Paco Ahlgren, has taken these ideas and married them with the fundamental theories of chess and international finance in a compelling new novel called Discipline (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2007).

The story is so intricately woven that any story-based elements in this review would only serve to lessen the ultimate enjoyment of the reader, so I will stay general with my remarks.

Ahlgren is an excellent storyteller, able to present complex theories in a conversational and easily accessible way. There is a danger of losing the audience when talking about international monetary systems, trading in futures, and the intricacies of chess in a mass-market novel, but Ahlgren never comes close. His main character, Douglas Cole, is intriguing enough that we follow his every move (whether at the chessboard or saving the world) with interest and I was interested in hearing his thoughts and explanations.

In a compelling twist on the teacher–student relationship, Douglas has two mentors, each with a very different approach to his education. While each of the relationships brings to mind such partnerships as the Star Wars pairings (Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan, Darth Vader/Emperor, Luke/Obi-Wan), Carlos Castenada/Don Juan, and Dan Millman/Socrates, the double mentor device opens up a world of possibilities for Ahlgren, and he takes advantage of all of them.

In the spirit of The Matrix, Equilibrium, and films and stories that tackle time travel and parallel universes, this subject matter brings up some thorny problems of story structure, plausibility, and readability, and again, Ahlgren succeeds with each of these challenges. He never writes over his head, and takes the time to explain the theories and circumstances that many authors don’t, for fear of slowing down the narrative. In addition to the illuminating conversations and first-person passages in the book, there is a helpful reading list at the back, which makes the case that virtually everything that takes place in Discipline could, when considering quantum physics and its parallel field of spiritual manifestation, actually happen. I found myself on more than one occasion putting the book down and giving thought to what had just transpired—given what I know of quantum physics and what Ahlgren shares in the course of the narrative, there is a remarkable plausibility to the fictional events he depicts.

He obviously did his research—when Douglas’s little brother has life-threatening asthma attacks, the story reads like a diary—such is the level of realism and detail.

Every good story has its villain and Discipline is no different. Groeden calls to mind the great Stephen King antagonists and helps to ground the fantastical in the everyday cruel. As elegant as Ahlgren’s writing is when he is fleshing out complicated theories he can be brutally cruel and vivid in depicting violence, and this book certainly has its share. I found the combination to be one that works amazingly well.

Pay attention to the section headings, dates, and the little details of seemingly unimportant meetings, places, and events. As you complete the book you’ll want to go back to them a few times (or more) and see what you gathered and what you missed.

Paco Ahlgren is one of the promising new writers of a promising new age. I look forward to seeing what comes next. Visit www.pacoahlgren.com for more information and check out the Discipline book trailer while you’re there—it’s another sign of things to come.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Just Like Us, Only Smaller, A Review of Simon King’s Insect Nations: Visions of the Ant World from Kropotkin to Bergson

After recently reading and reviewing two fiction titles from the up and coming British publisher InkerMen Press, I was looking forward to reading something from their nonfiction Axis Series.

I was not disappointed.

Simon King has put together an entertaining and thought-provoking collection of three essays (plus an introduction and a coda) looking at the relationship of human society to ant colonies through the joint lenses of Cultural Entomology and the fiction and nonfiction writing of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, the novelist/socialist HG Wells, and the philosopher Henri Bergson, among others.

King’s journey into the social world of the ant began when he received as a gift a modern ant farm, contained in Perspex and filled with a blue-green gel, based on a 2003 NASA experiment.

Along the way, we get everything from philosophy to hard science, to sociological and anthropological considerations examining the influence of the ant’s (perceived) daily condition on that of humans. There is plenty of literary exploration as well. After all, as pointed out by Dr. King, ants appear in the Old Testament and the Koran and are the model for Achilles’ warriors in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King also draws on the likes of Eliot, Conrad, Jules Verne, Blake, Orwell, Ariosto, and DH Lawrence.

I have always found the human propensity to compare our very unique species to everything from ants to the Gods to be telling. The Other is frightening, which assigns it power it might not otherwise have. Either through assimilation, assumption, or annihilation, the Other is then dealt with in tidy and limiting ways. To have value, Cultural Entomology, when considering an insect species’ influence on humankind, would do well to take its cue from Cultural Relativism as originally formulated by the anthropologist Franz Boas (as opposed to its present, corrupted form) and not see the Other in terms of better or worse, but simply as different and of equal worth. This book for the most part, takes that tact.

King considers the more insidious mechanisms of comparison and judgment in the sense of “politicised science—Social Darwinism, eugenics, degenerative and racial theories of all kinds.” There are also numerous references to ants seen as mere machines (think slave labor), evidenced by the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory making robot ants an inch and a half long. Ant are seen as mindless, unfeeling masses swarming over the Earth, ruining picnics and contaminating kitchens in their quest to serve the Queen. Of course, throughout history, politicians and war-mongers have categorized dozens of world cultures in much the same terms.

We get thoughts on the condition of anthood/ant-ness from a wide variety of authors: Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (who calls the ant “a profoundly mystical being”), novelist Bernard Werber (who says that “ants are incapable of suffering and this is the basis of their society’s cohesion”), and the authors mentioned above. The brain-hologram work of Karl Pribram (misspelled as Pribaum) and David Bohm is also touched upon.

Werber’s book, Empire of the Ants (1991; which King compares to Watership Down in the sense of anthropomorphized animals) is considered in some detail. Interestingly, one of the characters is named Wells, an homage to HG Wells (who wrote a story of the same name in 1911), who said in War of the Worlds (1898) that you don’t make war on ants, you exterminate them, which certainly smacks (one might imagine) of the private conversations post-9/11 of some right-wing U.S. politicians when considering foreign policy.

It is apt that King’s ant farm was modeled on an outer-space experiment, because he pulls in some writers and works from the field of science fiction as well. There is Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and some of Maeterlinck’s quoted writing brought to mind Sigourney Weaver battling the Queens in the Alien films.

In the first essay, “Renouncing Hobbes: Kropotkin on Ants,” we look at the coldy mechanistic view of Nature espoused by the likes of Thomas Hobbes (such as in the 1651 Leviathan), Newton, and Descartes. And, although he is not mentioned in the book, Francis Bacon certainly applies. Hobbes’ works have been co-opted (much like Boas’) in the name of social and political realism, something all too evident in the numerous “non-partisan” foreign policy journals put out by think tanks that take their cue from such political theorists as Hans Morgenthau. This very Hobbesian notion that war and violence (and, on a far larger scale, the mere threat of them) are inevitable and can be used to keep societies in line (consider “shock and awe” in modern times) is overthrown by Kropotkin who said in 1902: ants have “renounced the Hobbesian war and they are the better for it.” Although I have to wonder at ants making a conscious choice to not engage in war (I think they are probably, like most of the rest of the animal kingdom, not genetically designed for it, which seems to be in line with Maeterlinck’s saying ants are a holy order who have taken a vow of poverty—they simply are not “strong” enough to riser higher on the food chain), Kropotkin was giving human society an alternative model (although he does admit that ant communities make war on others, and King quotes some stirring examples of ant wars being likened to World War I trench warfare). Kropotkin, along with Werber, believed that ants were nation-builders, just like humans. The message appears to be: if you build a nation, you sure as hell have to defend it.

The second essay, “The Ant Invasion: Wells on Ants,” begins with an analysis of ant-like warriors in a 1964 episode of Doctor Who, which King says “seems to anticipate Czechoslovakia in 1968.” He then moves to the appearance of ants in the work of Salvatore Dali and other Surrealists. Wells is the key focus of this essay, however, and there is a discussion of his 1903 short story “The Land Ironclads.” Dr. King discusses Wells’ interest in Eugenics (a subject I have looked at in my fiction writing), the essence of which I have always found clearest in his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. There are some excellent biological explorations in this essay as well.

The third essay, “Coming to Consciousness: Bergson on Ants,” looks at several important considerations concerning the differences between ants and humans (and other species as well), such as the lack of autonomy in the ant and the author’s understandable observation that ants “are not dogs and cats” and cannot be bonded with in the same way. This last notion brings to mind a bit by the comedian Denis Leary where he talks about humans only wanting to save “cute” animals like seals and dolphins and being utterly cold and brutal when it comes to turning cows into baseball mitts and leather jackets. Ants, it is pointed out in this book, don’t have faces, so, despite what Maeterlinck purports—that their lives are barely divided by our own—the distance between us is far greater than he would like.

I highly recommend taking the time to carefully consider Bergson’s ideas on wholeness and the true nature of the falsely dual tracks of intelligence and instinct. This point of view—which led Betrand Russell to condemn Bergson for being a metaphysician (as if this is somehow a bad thing)—is now gaining greater steam over the mechanistic because of quantum physics. I say, it’s about time. The nexus of thought and feeling, science and spirituality, form and function could take us out of our own mundane ant-like lives and into a richer, fuller experience of the Universe.

The book ends with a Coda discussing such animated films as Antz (I have always thought casting Woody Allen as a neurotic, against-the-grain ant was a stroke of brilliance), A Bug’s Life, and last year’s The Ant Bully.

Insect Nations is a book I will go back to over and over in the course of my own writing, research, and consideration of life’s larger issues.

I look forward to reading more books in the Inkermen Press Axis Series and applaud Dr. King for this very interesting and thought-provoking work.

For ordering information and to learn about InkerMen Press and their talented authors, go to http://inkermenpress.tripod.com and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lost Lore: A Review of James Scott’s Just Maybe…Stories (InkerMen Press, 2006) by Joey Madia

Every so often we are lucky enough to stumble across a collection of stories that speak to us on several levels all at once—the tone, the atmosphere, the characters, and the locales all coalesce into a whispering wind in our ear—the unconscious is awakened and vaguely recalled stories from our childhood come bubbling up to the surface of our carefully managed swamp of secret information.

This is one of those books.

From the moment I opened the Just Maybe..Stories and mistakenly read the table of contents as a disjointed, fascinating poem, I knew that I was walking in a familiar wood. I was none too surprised to see on the inside cover that the stories were all Traditional, and arranged by the author. I read each story with growing interest and a buzzing in my gut and as soon as I was done I hit the Internet, searching out the distinctive character names and when that turned up dry, entering every combination of keywords my mind put forth.

I came up as empty as the treeline as the morning sun that never quite broke through in the mysterious land of these tales.

In talking with the author, I learned that these were not traditional tales—not in a, well, traditional sense of Traditional, anyway (although they do have thematic and phrasing roots in British folklore and a feeling much like Machen)—and that Scott wanted to add a little more mystery to his already mysterious tales with those notations. The full scope of his plan included burying copies of the book around the countryside and sponsoring a treasure hunt.

My copy of the book has no author’s name on the cover, although a graphic on the InkerMen Press My Space page shows the book with the author’s name included, which works in a fine kind of juxtaposition with the way characters come and go in the tales.

The book is advertised on some bookseller sites as a found text discovered among the briar on a lonely hillside (a remnant of Scott’s original plan). The stories certainly lend themselves to such a feeling—nothing is ever too clearly defined, and most of the characters either die or disappear, the latter being the far more sinister way to go and the Narrator is a voice out of time—at certain instances he seems to be a pre-teen boy, at others middle-aged, and at still others as old as the wood itself. He speaks from a place of wisdom: “i’ve seen what you know, but know more than you’ve seen” [notice the lowercase possessive—it is used throughout and gives the Narrator his childlike quality]. He speaks youthfully of hidey-holes and says more than once “i am no big silly.” He says: “People will talk, although they have been known to stop when they are dead.” Precocious youth or fading mind of a dying man? Neither and both, it seems.

What I like most about the nearly 30 stories that make up this collection is the pervasive feeling that Nothing is what it seems (as Scott told me, there is nothing that is “just so,” referencing the Kipling tales from which his own title is a nod) and no place and no one (especially the Narrator) can be trusted. He plays with us throughout, saying (and I can picture the Narrator’s grin): “do not ask me how i know this, as i would never think of telling you” and in my favorite of the stories, “the owls of darkly lane” he says in a nastier tone: “don’t think you know the truth, because you don’t.” We are on the outside looking ever-greedily in, like the voyeurs JD Morrison truly knew we are.

There are gaps and unexplained references in the stories that bring to a knife’s point the fact that all fairy tales and just-maybe stories are derived from an oral tradition where the larger legends and archetypes are well known among the people of a certain place. This couples nicely with Bruno Bettelheim’s astute observation that fairy tales speak to the viscera precisely because they have undergone so much revision over the course of their existence. The story most representative to me of the fairytale model is “when I went to market” with its use of threes and repetition. There are also three “touches” and one of the characters, Lazily Watchful, has told the Narrator three stories.

Scott told me that he wrote the stories in ten days in a “windowless, breathless room” and the very imps and gnomes of inspiration that must have lodged upon his shoulders and keyboard-tapping fingers in that period still pervade the pages of the book. He said that the book occupies “an empty space in the wake of faded magic”—a place we can read about and imagine, but which (regrettably) no longer exists in a world so stainless-steely modern and proudly impervious to the bad ends that befall the children who populate this out-of-time woodland of briar and blood; this gnarled world of “angry and grabbing trees.”

But some of us know better.

Beyond the backs of milk cartons, bulk mailer coupons asking “have you seen us?” and Amber alerts, we know that some children simply disappear, never to be seen nor heard from again.

Where then, do they go?

None of the possibilities are hopeful. Some are lured away by such things as “the song of yet to come” or by invisible beings that make the trees and bushes noticeably grow as a little girl named Piper swings on her swing and one day disappears. There is talk of cooking babies and of swallowing people whole. This village of briar reminds me of a place of the damned, forgotten by God—the kind of town or island that exists in Stephen King’s Maine-of-the-mind—a place where secrets and an unidentified, pervasive evil conspire to target the Unjust and Just alike, while most adults pretend not to see (“…the thing roasting on the spit resembling the missing Franklin boy goes unnoticed by the Cavalcade of Fools”/children with “sticky fingers, oozing lips, [and] … raw stares”). This is a place of darkness—and a place where children are always prominently in the lens (although adults get their share of abuse as well—consider the old lady tied to an old oak tree). Images such as “deceitful signposts pointing one direction and then the next” call to mine the forest on the way to Oz and the way to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Most sinister of all is the old man who lures a little girl away by chanting “just a little further, just a little further…” all the way to her custom-laid grave.

Will anyone make it home? And if they do, are their chances of surviving this odd land any better? After all, there are cats being skinned alive, pop up books that “get bigger at night,” and “vomit on the dinner table, what it contained, and my [the Narrator’s] grandmother’s resulting heart attack.” And the houses themselves (like those of Jackson, Matheson, and King) are not safe—there is the “house of angles,” with a “living room that had done so for far too long.”

So who are these people fighting the monsters of shadow and mostly not succeeding?

There is Swoon, who disappeared for seven years although she thought it was a mere five minutes. There is Lorelei, who becomes a queen of the wood, complete with a tiara of twigs. There is Ox Eye Daisy, who has a bulging, dripping, dead eye like a blood orange. There is mother Leftfinger and Harry-with-the-Wound, the latter of which is “grinning like a rotten apple.” Then there are the “ladies of the may”—in their kitchens are the “muffled cries of babies” and “the bits your cat was missing.”

Some of these, and other characters, recur, such as Pigskin (who had “dead rats knotted to his untied shoelaces”) and his sister Cherry (whose name evokes sexual and secret things), who is rumored to “live off bacon fat”; a “giant of a girl” who gutted owls with her knife because they “screech without feeling.”

No one here is well, which works to sustain the fairytale atmosphere. As the Narrator observes, “the words of the sick are like magic”.

The Narrator, who we once encounter “chasing a goat through the woods at dusk,” is not just an observer-reporter; he has experienced first-hand the strange goings-on of his town. In fact, his own baby sister was transformed into a hairy, monkey-like creature after he was called away momentarily under false pretenses. True to the off-kilter nature of this world, he steadfastly swears, “she will always be my new baby sister and I will love her forever.” She shows up in a later story (now with a “scaly wing”) as the lone companion of Ox Eye Daisy. Like a Carnival of Outcasts, these oddities stick together.

I find it very appealing that the Narrator (and one would presume, his creator) is forthcoming enough to let us know that the stories are subjective and their details not Absolute. He tells us: “As far as i know this is the truth, i can picture it in my mind, so it must have a certain truth to it.” And like a game of Telephone gone gruesome, he says of the stories told to him by Lazily Watchful, “i will try and repeat the stories exactly as he told them, but be warned that they might become stories of my own.” Any story we tell, whether as writers, family members, or in other facets of our lives, must, by necessity, be that way as well. Such is the plastic nature of memory and the deep-rooted desire for self-expression.

The story that hits me most viscerally is “the ugly thing that tried to sing,” which has a sinister little rhyme that recalled the equally less-than-pleasant (if you know their origins) “London Bridge” and “Ring Around the Rosey.” It goes: “all the children formed a ring, formed a ring, around the ugly thing that tried to sing.” I get the image of a child with a physical or mental disability being taunted on your average, everyday school ground.

Scott is as potentially enigmatic as his narrator. His bio simply says: “James Scott was born in 1972. He is still not dead.”

The book is laid out well, mixing typeset text with handwritten sections. Two of my favorites of the latter are “as i explore the Open countryside often i wonder, open to what???” and “like the woods i am a lyre.” Hannah Taggart’s illustrations are varied and illuminating—I especially enjoyed her rendering of the village, complete with labels as to where each event in the book took place. She has contributed artwork to the last Yeah Yeah Yeah’s album and has been having successful exhibitions as of late.

We’ll no doubt be hearing and seeing more from them in the future.

You can find out more about this relatively new and promising small press at http://inkermenpress.tripod.com (their website design is what initially drew me to them) and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

In the Shadow of the Lizard: A Review of Grey Crow’s The Underside of Flight

The Underside of Flight is a stark, poetic chronicle of one artist’s journey into the darkness brought on by losing his job after 10 years and facing the uncertainties that poured forth from such a deep, piercing wound. It is a collection of 120+ pieces categorized as Poems, the writer’s own Quotes (e.g., “Life is a granting of living; when is the last time you lived?”), and Mind-Blasts (e.g., “Some of my favorite madmen were scholars of their craft”).

The collection opens with a page full of dedications to family and friends—a signal that although the word-shaman has gone into the wilderness, alone, to seek the darkest of caves and deepest of rivers, he has not forsaken his vital connection to his Tribe.

These works are some of the most raw, honest, and at times brutal that I have read in quite some time. The artist wrote with his mental blood as he bled and was not so presumptuous or cowardly to feel the need to go back and cover his tracks, soften his truths, or make any apologies in the form of veiled allusions. He was “cast into the mystery of misery” and took the journey (“a map appeared as an engraving upon his eye-lids”) with eyes and ears open. When he says “I can testify,” it is well worth listening because he went into places the vast majority of people won’t even explore third-hand and he lived to tell the tale. In truth, the experiences have strengthened him and given him the ability to fly (“IF NOT FOR THE DARKNESS/I would have no wings.”)

Namaste.

Grey Crow and I share an affinity for the poetry of James Douglas Morrison (one of several alter-egos of the rock god most people know as Jim Morrison, front-man for The Doors) and I saw a great deal of direct influence throughout The Underside of Flight. The book opens with a quote of Jim’s about poetry, and phrases such as “mystic rivers,” “hello…I lust you!,” “glide immaculate,” “a butterfly; screaming,” “dancing naked in a forest,” and “I died between her gates” seemed to stem from the same palette of ancestral and mythic images Jim was working from, and there were also more direct uses, such as the phrase “dance on fire” and a quote by Jim (from the song “Peace Frog,” itself an amalgamation of two poems)—“Blood is the rose of mysterious union”—placed right in the middle of a poem. Given that Morrison borrowed freely from Blake and Rimbaud and a host of other writers, this connection and extension of such words and images seems all to the good.

We also share a connection with Crow and are both exploring the condition of the Visionary¬–Shaman. Grey Crow says in one poem: “I’m told that the visionary dies slow” and in another he asks: “did those without vision crucify them?”—meaning the gods and (s)aints of the poem’s title. The author has experienced some of this first hand as he says they “rape my shine” and “nailed me there/stitched to the sun.” When he writes “I have been throbbing within the throb,” “My wants have even been screamed as pleas,” and “In my mind I’ve died a thousand times,” it does not read like a would-be artist of no experience throwing around bullshit lines of pseudo-feeling, but the words of the Initiate, who has begun his or her journey through the secret death rites and has begun to emerge, reborn and transcendent.

Raw and untempered though the poetry may be, there are some notably well-wrought phrases along the way. In “Pulse and Pause” he says: “Her eyes were ice storms circled by flames…her flicker grazed my flesh.” While in Dar-nger he writes: “I saw an angel named Jersey rise from the grains—/of tan shores painted by on coming tides./Shells fell from her hair—/As the surroundings launched from her piercing eyes.” Many of the poems evoke the image of the blood-goddess Kali, the serpent queen of wisdom, Sophia, Lilith, Proserpine, and a host of other misunderstood and vital aspects of the Sacred Feminine.

The collection never holds too long to one path or one level of spiritual, cultural, or political consciousness. Poems like “Dry Love and Liars” are unapologetically slicing when it comes to the current political situation in America and the larger world, whereas poems such as “Your” are erotic explorations of the male–female blood-bond.

Speaking of the political, one passage in particular stands out: “They have these ideas of what the perfect-productive-piece of shit-numb-programmed-multi tasked-walking corpse should be like. The sad thing is that it is working.”

Proud of and shaped by his life-long connection with Detroit, Grey Crow brings a sense of place to his poetry that is akin to Jim’s connection to LA and Jacques Roubaud’s or Charles Baudelaire’s to Paris.

In his publicity materials, Grey Crow says that his work has been compared to that of EA Poe and William Blake, and these comparisons became readily apparent as I made my way through the book. In the case of Poe, there are plenty of dark images of ravens, razors, vampires, and the like, while the ghost of William Blake seems to be breathing sacred life into poems that speak of beauty in unlikely, counterintuitive places.

I’d like to add another favorable comparison, because of the flight, wing, and bird imagery (and the tone and themes of “De Authors Prayer”)—James Joyce, especially in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which opens with the quote: Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes, which the mythologist Joseph Campbell translated as “He turns his mind to unknown art.” In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from where Joyce took these stirring words, Daedalus decides to fly from his island prison of Crete to the mainland of creative abundance on the wings of his Art. This was Joyce speaking of Dublin, and I sense that Grey Crow has sought his own escape from mental prisons in much the same way.

I wish him safe and speedy journey, as all of us learn that the darkness burns just as thoroughly and cleansingly as the sun to which Icarus flew too close. Intent is everything, and Grey Crow’s intentions, as illuminated in his “Author’s After-Flight” are well worth exploring either before or after reading his works.

You can order this fine collection and learn more about Grey Crow’s other artistic endeavors in both music and short story by visiting his My Space page at www.myspace.com/greycrow or by e-mailing him direct at GreyCrow2099@yahoo.com

Tell him his brother Crow Feather sent you.

A Theatre of Horrors: Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers, by D.P. Watt (Inkermen Press, 2006)

Pieces for Puppets… is a well-written and engaging collection of six short stories (totaling 89 pages) split into two sections: Past Puppets and Modern Marionettes. Watt is a skilled writer whose precise use of language, attention to rhythm and flow, and capable story structuring weave subtle tapestries of the supernatural where the darker, more sinister world of the popular theatre is never far out of reach.

Past Puppets opens with a quote by the influential Swedish playwright August Strindberg: “The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge. But one consciousness rules them all: the dreamer's; for him there are no secrets, no inconsistencies, no scruples and no laws.” (Although it is unattributed here it is from the prefatory note to Strindberg’s 1901 A Dream Play, produced in 1907.)

It is a most fitting opening quote in many ways, as the first three short stories take place soon after the turn of the century and Watt is a drama lecturer who seems well equipped to tread on the fine line between the theatre space and what is just beyond.

My intention here is not to spoil the surprises, twists, and turns of these six stories but to highlight what I as a fellow theatre practitioner and lover of dark tales from the Victorian and Edwardian eras enjoyed most about them.

The first selection, “Dr Dapertutto’s Saturnalia,” takes place in a “tattered” theatre in post-Revolutionary Russia and is one of two stories that takes its cues (pun intended) from the world of the popular stage. Dr Dapertutto, the self-styled “Direktor, Entertainer, Reveller, Charlatan and Misanthrope” of this theatre of horrors, takes his name from the title of VE Meyerhold’s journal of the theatre, The Journal of Dr Dapertutto. Dapertutto means “open for [or over] all.” Meyerhold was an innovator in the Russian theatre who was tortured and imprisoned because of his opposition to Josef Stalin. He is well known among theatre practitioners because of his work with Biomechanics as a method of training actors (referencing back to an image of manipulated puppets) and his intense dislike of Realism.

The Saturnalia is, of course, the winter solstice feast and it was in the Roman tradition during this time to have masters and slaves switch places, which figures into the story’s ending. As we go along, we meet some interesting characters, most notably a “peculiar projectionist” whose laugh was “like a midnight breeze that awakens fallen leaves.” Watt draws his characters well, in the tradition of Poe, Doyle, and Lovecraft, which made it easy for me to be drawn into the tales. Also in the tradition of such craftsmen we meet an Inspector who stands in opposition to what Dapertutto is unfolding on his stage, although he cannot help but be drawn in to “the gratuities of theatrical indulgence” (the very thing that we in the theatre want from all those who enter our doors) and become an almost willing participant in what Dapertutto has in store for him.

Perhaps most compelling and enlightening of all in this story is when Dapertutto says “There are moments played out for the delectation of the spectators…and others for the pleasure of the players.” Anyone who has spent any time in the theatre understands this line in our deepest, darkest places.

“Room 89” is a classic English tale of the supernatural, complete with an ill-tempered and pompous main character, Dr Alexander Weatherby, and well-rendered descriptions of the Isle of Wight and its environs. Watt shows his dexterity in weaving in local lore and historical fact from the cultural, political, and scientific fields from turn of the century England, laying a detailed background but never letting it get in the way of the story. There are elements of this story that will appeal to those interested in the modern stories of Dan Brown and the mood again recalls the supernatural stories of AC Doyle and HP Lovecraft.

To say any more would be to spoil the fun.

“The Hobby” is a story of barely five pages that takes the idea of people as puppets to its most extreme point and Watt does it with some compelling characters and a heart-wrenching story of loss.

The three stories that comprise Modern Marionettes are prefaced with a quote from Georg Fuchs, a relatively unknown theatre avant-gardist who proposed that all boundaries between audience and actor be removed so that the audience could participate in the process. He is linked historically with Meyerhold (who read Fuchs’ works), a bridge which links the two halves of the books historically as well as thematically. The quote goes thus: “This whole sham world of cardboard, twine, canvas and gilt is ripe for destruction.”

The first story in this section is called “Glorious White Marble Lady” and is the most ambitious of the stories in this collection. It uses the backdrop of the pre-production of a staging of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” to explore the emotional life of a man torn between his troubled life with his wife and children and the mysterious lure of a woman tortured by the memories of the atrocities inflicted on her Serbian relatives by the Croats. Watt explores a great deal in the pages of this story, from the theatrical and psychological implications of Shaw’s Pygmalion (and by extension those of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea) to the captured essences held in such static art forms as photographs and sculpture. He also uses the intriguing device of a third person narrator who shares with us information that he has read in the protagonist’s diary. His ambition pays off as the story flows into a cohesive and satisfying conclusion.

Reminding me of the book El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and the Roman Polanski film version The Ninth Gate, “Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche” is a finely constructed tale of the pursuit of occult knowledge figureheads and the madness and destruction that ensues. I particularly enjoyed the brisk pace and compelling Voice inherent in the narrator’s relentless pursuit of the works of this metaphysical grandmaster of secret, “syncretic vision,” a character who brought to mind the likes of Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky.

The final story, “The Comrade,” crafted with a fine Lovecraftian tone, was the most distinct of the stories in terms of its modern feel and pacing. Like “The Hobby” it is a very short tale that leaves much for the reader to ruminate upon in the end.

While working from a long and venerable tradition of Victorian and Edwardian craftsmen of supernatural tales, Watt’s voice and theatrical background make each of his tales distinct and noteworthy in their own right.

The book is nicely illustrated by Amanda Wilson and the photographs and illustrations that adorn the cover and dedication page add much to the feel and themes of the collection, as any wisely chosen graphics should.

All too often in the small press I find a lack of a strong editorial hand in the books that are being produced, as if a small budget and audience means that professional presentation and proper attention to typos, typesetting, and grammatical errors are no longer applicable or worth the worry. I am happy to say that Pieces for Puppets… is well edited and nearly error free, which is a credit to both the author and his publisher, Inkermen Press.

If you love the tales of Poe, Lovecraft, Machen, Doyle, Blackwood, and the like, I highly recommend Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers and other works from the ever-expanding catalogue of The Inkermen Press.

You can find out more about this relatively new and promising small press at http://inkermenpress.tripod.com (their website design is what initially drew me to them) and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Truth “Hurts”—Why Johnny Cash was Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was an artist. Maybe one of the last remaining on the scene.

Johnny ran with a no-bullshit, hard-living, hard-partying crowd of artists. Forget the label
“Country”—it could be argued that the Highwaymen—Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie
Nelson, Waylon Jennings—defied any label. Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you
negate me.” Johnny and his gang wouldn’t be negated—battles with record companies,
fighting to have their music heard the way they knew it should be, private battles they
were never ashamed to make public—they fought to communicate what they felt, no
matter what it might mean.

That, to me, is the heart and soul of Art.

I think the epitome, the sheer embodiment of what it meant to be Johnny Cash—man and
musician—can be found in the song and video for “Hurt.” I talk to my acting students
about Truth—what it means to have enough conviction and faith to stand naked in front
of the world and just Be, whatever that means. So many performers are just that—
Hollywood “bad boys,” scantily clad buxom bimbos who wouldn’t show their
intelligence in public for anything, temper-tantrum athletes, and smarmy politicians.
Everything is so carefully considered and staged and scripted that there’s no hope of
communicating any Truth, and that’s probably not their aim. They have moved so far into
Character/persona that there’s no person, no connection, nothing but a big glossy finish
and desire to make everyone else feel Small.

I can’t imagine Johnny had much patience for that crap.

I don’t think I need to rehash all the lyrics or do a frame-by-frame analysis of the song
and video for “Hurt.” If you loved Johnny, you know both of them quite well. Those
thundering Am and F chords in what might be called the “chorus” (it’s all so solitary,
chorus seems a grossly inaccurate word for that moment in the music) invade and pull
and talk until a mirror rises up and I am suddenly considering myself within those words
Trent Reznor wrote.

Johnny was good at making you think about yourself with his simple, personal story-
songs and piercing eyes.

The song is short—like life; like most messages of Truth. If you consider that Rumi could
say in 16 lines what it takes the entire New Testament to fumble thru you’ll see just what
I mean. The video visually resonates through no more than five or six repeating images—
the table of uneaten food, the closed-up Cash Museum, Johnny and June, instruments and
awards, shots from younger days. But isn’t that the way? I find myself picking up my
guitar in odd hours of the day and night and picking out those opening chords over and
over—Am/C/D, Am/C/D—all the while playing out my own narrow catalogue of
scattered yet connected images over and over, wondering at my own roads, my own
choices, paths, and opinions. My own empire of dirt—all those I’ve let down and made
hurt.

Somehow watching Johnny’s shaky hand pour out that glass of blood-wine over those
piles of untouched food makes it easier to be upfront about my own shortcomings and
decisions and all the hurt they’ve caused.

That’s Art, to me—like gazing into a painting of Pollack’s and seeing all your own stacks
of stuff in there.

Maybe it’s age, or the coming to terms with death, that allows a man to go so far on the
eternal record book that is film, but I’d like to think that Johnny could have made that
video any time he wanted. He just knew when it’d be best.

Johnny seemed to understand some things about that rotten bastard Time.

Losing Waylon must have been a bitch (Everyone I know goes away in the end), and the
commercialization of Country music to the point of insincerity and unrecognizability had
to have made him shake his head and long for elder days (I know it does for me) but then
again, there’s always a danger in trying to analyze and theorize about what a man means
when he decides to sing someone else’s song.

So I think I’ll leave that where it lies.

(Yeah—I think that is a pun...)

I miss Johnny Cash. He’s on a very short list of contemporary Artists that come to mind
when I press myself for other examples. Forget actors, man—there’s rarely a sincere one
in the bunch. Kristofferson is still out there, and he does the acting thing, too—but he
seems to come alive and dance closer with his dharma with a guitar in his hands. I heard
him in a phone interview the day after Johnny died and I swear I heard that Am chord in
the scratchy, weathered drawl that is Kris. He’s gonna miss the Man. No denying that. No
other musicians really come to mind—well, none you’ve ever heard of, I don’t guess—
and I would bet the same could be said of all the living writers that come to mind.

It’s easier to work in the hues and tones of Truth in a basement where no one sees your
work. That kind of Truth is easy.

It takes a Johnny Cash to bring true Art into the Light, unchanged and at full potency,
like Bacchus beneath the moon. If the world can handle it—fine. If not, maybe it’s just as
well.

Maybe the disciples always have to be the select.

I miss Johnny, though I’m glad to have his tapes. I’m glad to have a Dad who shared
Johnny’s tunes with me when I could barely walk. I’m glad I learned to play guitar so I
can pick out those great low-note intros to so many of his songs. I’m glad to have that
image of him as a young musician standing in an open boxcar traveling to who knows
where and damned near everywhere.

In the end, I guess the lyrics do say it best: If I could start again/A million miles away/I
would keep myself/I would find a way.

Cause it don’t matter what you may have done as long as you knew it was you every mile
down those tracks.

Johnny Cash taught me that.

I wish I’d thought to let him know it before now.

Her Streets are Now Ours: A review of Jacques Roubaud’s The form of a city

The Details: published July 2006 by Dalkey Archive Press (www.dalkeyarchive.com),
$13.95 paperback, 247 pages, ISBN: 1-56478-383-9

The Book: A collection of 150 poems (1991-1998) organized into 10 thematic sections,
varying by style and subject, with translation by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. It is a
grand tour of Paris, the City of Light.

The Poet: Jacques Roubaud has four novels and two books of poetry available in
English translation. He is a member of the innovative literary group Oulipo, whose work
with form, constraint and memory this collection clearly exemplifies.

The Context: An exploration of the conditions and changes of the beloved city that has
inspired so many of the world’s great artists—poets like Rimbaud, Francois Villon, and
Baudelaire; painters like Tolouse-Latrec and the Montmartre personalities in dance and
music and other entertainments that he immortalized; composers like Michel Legrand;
playwrights and theorists such as the four Jeans—Anouilh, Genet, Sartre, Cocteau; and
innovative filmmakers like Truffaut and Godard. The poems bring to mind the magnetism
that drew famous American expatriates to Paris, from Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude
Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald during the café society of the 1920s to rock
star turned poet Jim Morrison, who spent his last three and a half months within her
arms and whose grave is still one of the main attractions of Père Lachaise cemetery.

The Words: The book begins, quite appropriately, with “Paris,” a 4 line poem after
Raymond Queneau (whose influence appears throughout the book—he was also a
member of Oulipo):

“The Paris we find to traipse/Is not the one we used to find/And we’re not wild to get
to/The Paris we will leave behind”

Over the course of the 247 pages the reader encounters all of Paris’ most famous
landmarks—Avenue del’Opéra, Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Bastille, the Tuleries, Rue
de Rivoli, the best known cemeteries, the Bibliothéque Nationale, and the Eiffel Tower.
This latter monument, perhaps the City’s most famous, spurs Roubaud to write:

“It would indeed be difficult to talk of Paris without talking of the tower” and of other
poets: “they have seen it so much that they don’t see it anymore” (“Poem of the Eiffel
Tower”).

Like the sense of change with which the collection so fundamentally deals, this idea of
the spectacular becoming the familiar and ultimately the foreign is not singular to Paris—
it is universal. It is happening in large cities and in small towns no longer small
throughout the world.

It is not only the concrete, physical world of the city that is familiar to us, but the
conditions of the writers walking her streets as well. “Queneau in November” paints a
picture that could be applicable to many late-autumn artists. This exploration of the
condition of the artist also appears in “Among a lot of Poems”:

“A poem I wrote with my feet/As I compose all my poems/Silently in my head walking”

and more cryptically in the poem “Informal Intimate Ode...”:

“I’ve grown stopped growing begun to grow”

Roubaud is obviously a lover of language and an adept when it comes to wordplay, and
this collection has a little bit of something for just about everyone’s tastes, from the
rhyming couplets of “Place du General-Brocard” to the “pictopoems,” or what one could
call word art, on pgs. 176-77. Other notable examples include “Rue Jonas” and “Plesent
Streets.” An extreme example is “Impasse de Nevers,” which uses an almost Joycean
experimentation with language. Along the same lines, there is an interesting permutation
of sentences using the words black, grave and street in “Undated Night, Rue Saint-
Jacques.” Roubaud makes interesting use of nested parens and the mathematical
construction of language in the abstract as well as in the concrete in the form of such
things as street addresses, arrondissements (subdivisions of an administrative district),
and license plates.

Overall there is a nice balance of complexity/simplicity and abstract/concrete, although
the more extreme wordplay and experimentation with language ride the edge of
pretension and cleverness along the lines of T.S. Eliot. There is also the more
philosophically questionable pieces, such as “Invitation to the Voyage” (a list of cities
and other places from A-W) and the section “Hommage to Sebastien Bottin’s Telephone
Directory,” which beg the reader to ask that unfortunate and thorny question—Is this
even poetry?

But, more to the point, does such a label as “poetry” even matter? It is inevitable that
when an artist is testing boundaries over a considerable span of time and experience,
that some things will work better than others and will apply less or more to the individual
reader’s own tastes and sensibilities.

Because of the considerable scope and style of the 150 poems in the collection, it would
have been interesting to hear the translators’ thoughts on handling this aspect of their
work. (There is no translators’ foreword or other elucidations beyond the very helpful
endnotes on the poems and poets, etc. that the poems reference. I have always found
the translators of poetry—especially that which is experimental or particularly abstract or
philosophical—to have wonderful insights into the way they work. Thomas Merton’s
notes on his translation of the Way of Chuang Tzu or Edward Fitzgerald’s on Rubaiyat of
Omar Khayyam come clearly to mind. Note: I did recently receive a notice through a
Listserv that Keith Waldrop has a new translation out of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil that
is billed as groundbreaking.

The section entitled “Six Logical Pieces” bears comment. It is a series of philosophical
dialogues with an interesting format. There are two poems per subsection, that alternate
between the concrete (5 street poems and 1 about Time, the latter bringing to mind
Gertrude Stein) following a predecessor poem that is far more abstract. There was
additional translation help from Norma Cole and Michael Palmer in this section.

I found the 20 Sonnets to not be Roubaud’s strongest, most easily flowing form,
although there were some simply stated yet very profound insights offered that brought
to mind the poems of Rod McKuen. There is also an interesting use of footnotes in
Sonnet XII as compared with the unnecessary editorial footnotes in Sonnets V and XV—
I would much prefer it if such illuminations were left to the reader to discover on his or
her own.

Other Thoughts:

The Section Square des Blancs-Manteaux 1983, Meditation on Death, in Sonnets
reminds me of Gregory Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death, and was a very thought-
provoking read.

The prose poems “Square Louis-XVI” and “Our Kings” (pgs. 57-58) seem so appropriate
in the aftermath of the 2001 atmosphere of strained U.S.–French war relations.

At the risk of following too closely in the footnotes that I criticized above, I suggest a
careful read of the two dream poems on pages 78-79.for the subtle differences they
contain.

“Quiet Days at Porte d’Orleans” (both a section title and series of poems) has a little bit
of everything, from 2- to 3-line poems consisting of funny little observations to more
complex pieces. There are very subtle changes in the three poems from 1991, 1993,
and 1995 that share the name with the section. They are worth the time it takes to
compare them.

“Pont Mirabeau” is worth mentioning because it contains a footnote that generates a
second footnote—something I have never seen in my sixteen years of writing and editing
artistic and scholarly works. I say, it’s about time.

In Closing:

For its varied considerations of one of the world’s most interesting cities, its scope and
experimentation and sense of fun, Jacques Roubaud’s latest book of poetry deserves a
place on the shelf of the lover of Paris, the poet, and the enthusiastic student of the
poetic form.

Songs You Can Sing To (a Patrick Porter redux)—A review of Porter’s Die Wandaland

It’s no secret that this 28-year-old musician, poet, and novelist is a favorite at New Mystics.
Patrick Porter’s musical and literary talents have grown steadily over the years, from the time 13
years ago when he was playing drums in his father’s band to his latest works (aside from this
review, we have several of Patrick’s poems on the site this month, as well as a bio and my review
of his first poetry book, Nervous Halo).

For the past several years he’s given in to his wanderlust, splitting time between the environs of
Denver, Colorado and those of New York City, the journeys always providing a wealth of new
material about the people and places Porter sees. His three previous CDs—Lisha Kill, Skylan Mo,
and Maybe Waltz, are what he calls the “NY Trilogy.” (You can read my comprehensive review of
Lisha Kill at http://www.newmystics.com/New%20Mystics%20Music%20Lisha%20Kill.htm. It
contains a lot of background/biographical information in addition to thoughts on all the tracks).

My interest in Porter’s artistic and professional progress stems from his being a Renaissance
man; one quickly coming of age on both the published page and in the recording studio. He’s
Rush’s New World Man, going between the two worlds of the cityscape and the outlands, the
factory and farm—his successes are ours, and his failures as well.

Portland, Oregon’s Greyday Records (www.greydayrecords.com) put out Die Wandaland, which
was recorded in relative isolation outside Denver, with fancy mikes like those used on the
Budweiser frog commercials; a grand piano; his old Casios; and multilayered recording
techniques. This is not so much a sea change in Porter’s recording style as it is a huge upgrade
in technology and Possibilities. He took full advantage and pushed the envelope in many ways,
most notably perhaps in the cryptic line in his press package: “a black and white TV set plays the
drums.”

We can only guess what he means.

Die Wandaland shows a breadth of influence and subject matter unmatched by any of Porter’s
previous discs, and even extends into the realm of his outward advice to other people. It seems
as though his coming of age process is allowing him to open up and embrace life more than he
has in the past.

The liner notes sum all of this new intention up in their last word: “Repent.”

The cover design and other artwork, with their multiple photos of one blue and one pink duck in
various postures and stages of destruction, neatly convey the layers and layers of symbolism at
play in the songs.

“Lite Sleeper” begins the album with the familiar tones of one of Porter’s beat up old Casios,
slowing down to a drag—his way of continually reminding us of Time. The Casio underbeat stays
semi-consciously insistent the whole way thru. “Lite Sleeper” features multilayered harmonics and
unaborted guitar work—a big deal given Porter’s past practice of killing a solo half way thru.
There is a sense of committal to the role of virtuoso musician on this disc that has been absent in
the past...Porter seems less shy about being so damned good. He’s growing into his artistic suit
of clothes. When the hand clapping begins the song is dancing on the jagged edge of Pop but
never quite gets there—Porter’s down to earth sensibilities won’t let it. We get a little bit of Porter-
speak with an “Oh yeah” that seems to be a form of peacemaking with the vibe of his new, fuller
approach to his music.

It’s a portent of things to come.

“Sears Tower,” with its solid acoustic structure and interesting backing effects and percussion
also benefits from a nice lyric hook: “you know you’re half way home.” There is some strong
imagery at work here, with the “up the elevator, then down again” line being a subtle assertion
that such things are the sum worth of a monument like the Tower and, by extension, some
people’s lives. There is an interesting voice recording at the end about someone trying to steal his
camera before the acoustic finish, complete with a barely there police siren.

While looking over the CD, one of my musician friends noticed the track “Esso Station” and asked
me “They still have those?” It’s a nice moment in time—a comment on Porter’s extensive
Greyhound criss-crosses round the country—often the subject matter of both his songs and his
novels and poems—his East-West dance, trying to heal the dichotomy in the best traditions of the
gone angel Kerouac. [Having spoken to him about this, the geography is well extended—he was
actually in London at the time he saw the sign, and if you listen to the lyrics, all the clues are
there.] Is it that they can’t commit or is it the other way round? The song is supported by his
signature drumming, reminiscent of some of his earliest recordings. Foreboding guitar and
keyboards throw up images of Donald Pleasance in his bad toupee seducing the Bee Gees with
women, food, drink, and drugs in Sgt. Pepper’s. The tonality and exactness of his playing is
particularly crisp and clean, and harmonics and keyboard effects make this song notably
atmospheric and grim.

“Reality Row” opens with a multilingual sampling from Radio and TV containing a commentary on
God and Aliens. The song, as evoked in the opening lyric: “Prayer to 3 am gods,” starts out as a
spiritual meditation with a Toad the Wet Sprocket solemnity that works well, complete with
layered guitars. The second verse adds a tinkling, discordant piano, giving the meditation an
unsettled feel—where I think he really wants us. We get more Porter-speak—“from New York City
to Albany Arms” as the structure transitions into an extended instrumental section and a further
shift as it moves from meditation to accusation: “Cause I know what you represent.” It all ends
with Porter’s voice staggered on two tracks—“I saw this thing on the Church today. It’s better to
forgive and forget than to hate and remember,” conjuring up the familiar image of those clever
little puns in black letters on the white signboard of the local Christian churches that try to draw
the faithful (and faithless) in.

There are two songs on Die Wandaland that deal specifically with death, an interest of Porter’s
that reminds me of the Beat poet Gregory Corso. “Bond Funeral Home” has an opening riff like
U2’s “In God’s Country,” although it quickly progresses into something more complex, including
the falling bomb/rocket effect from Lisha Kill. The song examines the ramifications of the
wanderlust that seems to govern his life. “Afraid to Die” opens with a sampling of what sounds
like a flight simulator game for the computer—we hear warning bells and a voice: “Don’t think!
Wind shear! Wind shear! Wind shear!” It is the requisite Porter death reflection, and when he says
“I know you’ve heard this before,” although he is talking about Romance, he seems to be
acknowledging his preoccupation with sickness and death as well.

The next two tracks on the CD are also the most different. “Dealin’ Doug” is just an acoustic
guitar, slow, insistent strumming, with multilayered vocals whereas “Hey Lindsey” provides the
opposite end of the spectrum—I thought it was the most complex and interesting song on the
disc, with its off-rhythm guitar intro, bongos, a cappella “Hallelujah!” and haunting piano lines. The
guitar interlude offers brisk arpeggios and a variety of styles, including a pseudo-flamenco. The
song is also interesting in terms of its lyrics, which are a series of flat out statements
uncharacteristic of Porter’s more self-reflective approach. The following are the most
demonstrative:

“I don’t know what to tell you...I can’t change the way things are about to go.”

“I don’t know what the hell you expect.”

“You should never try to change the things you should just accept.” (This reads to me like a less
sappy version of the Serenity Prayer.)

While I am talking lyrics, I think this might be the first time that the word lachrymose has ever
been used in a pop-rock song...

“Hayseed Highway” gives us our first taste of Porter blues, with deep bass hooks, slide guitar—
the whole nine. It’s no surprise that some of his best lyric work shines forth in this framework, with
such phrases as “Will they grind my bones into nutmeg?” and “Woe is me and woe is they” really
jumping out. He also makes good use of the repetitive Blues element in lines like “It’ll never
change, it’ll never change” and “It’s hard to escape, it’s hard to escape.” The song transitions
toward the end into the repetition of the lines “There’s always Maybe/There’s always Bailey”,
which is ominous given that Porter’s home base is Bailey, Colorado, and the evocation of its
name seems anything but pleasant. You may have heard of Bailey recently—it was the site of an
attack on several young girls by a guy who had been living in his car—he sexually assaulted 4 of
the girls before killing one of them and then himself. The song continues to grow more insistent
and musically complicated and layered until it collapses on itself like an old tarpaper shack.

The last song, “Made of Stone,” feels like an autobiographical confession of a depth notable even
for Porter, who has never shied away from turning the mirror on himself. Lyric lines like “flocked
together, all landlocked birds” bring to mind the literary plight of James Joyce, and his classical
models—Icarus and Dedalus. There is a need to escape from not only place and time but
circumstance. The song features lyrically strong word play and content—it’s true poetry (“there’s
a father and a daughter/which one’s closer, which ones farther?”) and when he sings “It’s not my
fault,” you want to believe him, even if you can’t. The cymbal and snare are haunting and
atmospheric, and in the end, it just ends, abruptly, reminding us that the changes in Porter’s
writing for this disc are far from permanent, the growth not locked in; that he can, on a whim,
leave us hanging, waiting for more.

And so we wait, while he writes and wanders, and writes some more.

Older and Wiser: A Review of the Music of Craig Sonnenfeld

There is knowledge that comes with experience and there is the more refined knowledge,
that which we call Wisdom, that comes with experience over time. It has been my great
privilege to be able to write this review of two CDs’ worth of music by Craig Sonnenfeld,
a Boston-area singer/songwriter whose accomplished musicianship and lyrical wisdom
are equally worthy of note.

This is my first time reviewing two CDs from the same artist in a single music essay and
it has been an experience with a great deal of merit. Perhaps the greatest barometer for
measuring an artist is not a single work, but the arc and growth of his or her work over
time. With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts on Craig’s two CDs, Reverie,
recorded in 2004 and produced by Steve Rapson, and Storm Clouds Rising from 2005
(New Roots Records, www.newrootsrecords.com), produced by Craig and Steve
Friedman.

In introducing new artists to our readers here at New Mystics, I am often inclined to
reference mainstream artists to create a common language of art. In Craig’s case, the
comparisons are somewhat heady, as you will see, and deservedly so. Decades of life
have gone into these two CDs, both with guitar in hand and not. Because he is writing
about a long life well lived, I sense the same depth of perspective shown in the latest
albums by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and, albeit without the pain, of the last works of
Johnny Cash (you can read my tribute to Johnny on my Literature Page).

So, to the business and biography, and then on to the music.

Both CDs are available through Craig’s website, www.craigsonnenfeld.com, where you
can also read some other reviews and find out some cool things about Craig not contained
in this review. There was also a short article on Craig at
www.insiteboston.com/Jan06/music.html. The article refers to Storm Clouds Rising as a
“somber romp,” which seems to me to be a contradiction in terms, “with little comic
relief” and a “low mood.” Not to take umbrage with a fellow reviewer (our work is, by
nature, highly subjective) but I hope this review does a better job of representing just how
varied and nuanced Craig’s second CD actually is.

Craig, who originally hails from Atlantic City (Jersey in the house!), had left his music
behind for more than twenty years and Reverie, his first release, marks his return to
playing, writing, and performing, inspired in part by a trip to see the Rolling Stones in
concert and mostly by the encouragement of long-time friends. In his youth his guitar
teacher was Philadelphia Jerry Ricks who was playing at the time with Mississippi John
Hurt, Son House, and Skip James, and Craig aptly demonstrates all he learned. He thanks
several Boston area Open Mic hosts on the liner notes for Reverie, and he also played in
Jersey in 2005 at the New Jersey Folk Festival at Rutgers University and at the festival in
Ocean City, NJ where Tom Rush headlined. His music is played regularly on Jim
Albertson’s “Down Jersey Jim” show on WSNJ in south Jersey. Craig has also played
twice at The Bitter End in NYC, where he was part of the singer-songwriters showcase.
His CDs have also been broadcast internationally in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel,
and the Netherlands.

Reverie is just Craig and his guitar, easing back in as it were, and he wrote all 12 songs
except for “Wayfaring Stranger,” which is a traditional tune. In the folk tradition, no song
(on either CD) is less than 4 and a half minutes and one runs 7 and a half. The cover art
on Reverie was done by his daughter Amanda.

“Junebug” is a ballad about his father’s death that establishes him firmly in the singing
storyteller tradition, a role he plays out with passion, insight, and success throughout both
CDs. “The Joke’s on Me” evokes the bittersweet songs of Jim Croce. “Talkin’ Cubicle
Blues” is an autobiographical piece with no small amount of humor in the tradition of
such Talkin’ Blues folksingers as Bob Dylan. “Bantry Bay” brings to mind the strolling
minstrel vocal quality of Glenn Yarbrough, a quality that is equally strong on the wryly
humorous and insightful “Now that I’m a Geezer.” “Two AM Blues” has a deep
southern-style Blues feel that’s hard to ignore, while Craig’s arrangement of “Wayfaring
Stranger” has all the haunting qualities of some of my favorite songs on Storm Clouds
Rising. “Hills of Wicklow” borrows from the Irish ballad tradition (there are songs on
Storm Clouds Rising that also have a feel that brings to mind the emotionally loaded
songs of Andy M. Stewart and Tommy Sands). Craig seems to have thought a lot about
the comings and goings, the joys and sorrows of Love, as any poetic folksinger must, and
there is much for the listener to think about in turn on “The Only Promise” and the last
three tracks on Reverie, “Too Young, Too Poor, Too Bad,” “The Song that Never Came,”
and “You’ll Always Be There.”

In general, Storm Clouds Rising is a richer and more complex disk (which is not meant to
take anything away from the overall atmosphere of Reverie), featuring several guest
musicians (Steve Rapson on electric guitar, Steve Sadler on dobro, Valerie Thompson on
cello, Lee Adler on keyboards, and Deb Blackadar on percussion), no more than two
playing on any given song. This sparse arrangement really helps to draw focus to the
depth of Craig’s lyrics and his talent with the guitar. Storm Clouds Rising has been
garnering high praise from no less than Bob Franke, and it’s easy to see why.

“Rope of Sand,” the lead-off tune, is a Western ballad in the style of “Ghost Riders in the
Sky,” Garth Brooks’ “Lonesome Dove,” and Dylan’s “Romance in Durango,” and, of
course, the songs of Johnny Cash. Craig’s songwriting universe appears to have expanded
out from the solely autobiographical to the more general Human Experience between the
two CDs, and this change is couched in a larger historical context that manifests
throughout the CD. For instance, “Rope of Sand” is thematically echoed on the last song
of this 9 song set, “Ten Steps to Climb,” which tells the story of a Civil War era ex-
soldier awaiting his hanging in a prison for the crime of killing his wife’s lover.

“Sweet Liza Jane” has a bluegrass feel with nice dobro work. Craig further explores the
bluegrass style in a more vigorous way on “Devil on the Run,” which immediately
brought to mind the awesome guitar work and rich vocals of Dan Tyminski, of Alison
Krauss and Union Station. This is definitely one you’ll want to turn up loud!

There are several haunting compositions on Storm Clouds Rising. “Anne Frank’s Eyes” is
beautifully played and heartfully wrought, and according to some correspondence from
Craig, has been getting the most attention. The lyrics were posted in English and
translated into German by a multicultural youth website from Oberhausen and included in
an article they did on Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne Frank died
(http://www.multi-online.org/downloads/dailynews/daily_news_7.pdf). It has also been
played on the Midnight Special radio show (in a set list that included Tom Chapin, Joni
Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, and Janis Ian). The song was also
syndicated nationally on XM satellite radio and 70 other stations. “Masquerade” has
especially atmospheric cello playing. My favorite track on both CDs, and, to me, the most
haunting (for those who know me, you can see the correlation) is “The Lighthouse,”
which tells the story of a young New England husband lost at sea and the widow he
leaves behind. I’d like to quote the chorus:

“She begged me not to sail so soon
But I was young and heard the tune
Of southern winds and ancient ruins
Of whaling ships and gold doubloons”

I think these four lines will give you a very good idea of just how talented a writer Craig
Sonnenfeld really is. “The Lighthouse” has been getting regular airplay on both WOMR
FM on Cape Cod and Troubadour AM in Shirley, Mass. WOMR had Craig into the
studio for an interview as well.

“Catch Some Z’s” echoes the more humorous numbers on Reverie, with a wonderful tick-
tock rhythm added by Deb Blackadar’s percussion.

“The Very Last Time that We Kissed” features some interesting keyboard atmosphere
from Lee Adler and a subtle effect on the vocals that works very well.

I want to mention in closing that Craig is holding the same Ibanez acoustic with cutaway
body that I have been playing for the past two years...I’m still searching for all those
great licks that he’s managed to find in there...

Craig, if you’re listening, I’m ready to learn them!

Craig let me know that he’s got a full CD’s worth of songs already written and should be
back in the studio in 2007.

I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

“Simple Pleasures and Grand Designs: A Review of Marble Tea’s Fantastic Day”

The Marble Tea is Knight Berman, Jr., Jersey shore musician and songwriter. You can
read all about Knight—his background, former bands, etc., in my first piece on his music,
“No Boy Wonder,” where I reviewed his I’m Batman EP in 2005.

Knight constructs ear catching and damned near perfect “3-minute pop songs” (the title
and subject of one of his songs, available on the Hoga-rama disc you can get free by
purchasing I’m Batman), creating 15-minute EPs that take the listener on a whirlwind
journey through a number of styles, moods, and philosophical concerns. As he says on
his website, www.marbletea.com (a very groovy site where you can get downloads,
purchase cool stuff, and read Knight’s prosic ruminations), he “continues to examine the
underlying connection between life's smallest things and the grander design behind it all
through an unpretentious brand of indie pop.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The first song on Fantastic Day, the title track, picks up where I’m Batman left off,
offering up a feel-good commentary on life’s simple pleasures—a positive trip that made
I’m Batman such a hit with listeners and reviewers alike (he sings to the kids on the
corner: “I don’t need Sega-vision or Time Warner.” Amen.). Featuring Jeff Booth on
bass, “Fantastic Day” hints at the musical layering to come on the rest of the EP, with fun
piano and harmonics filling out a solid rhythm guitar foundation and a sun-shiny beat.

Simple pleasures for the moment addressed, Knight offers up a little of his take on the
grand design in a mysterious tune called “Mercury.” Beginning with a hi-hat and a
“Theme from Peter Gunn”-esque guitar riff, the song questions the nature of reality and
the shared and individual perceptions of the people weaving in and out of his life as he
stands “outside the Mercury Lounge having a smoke with [his] good friend Mau.” The
song evokes a series of dark and vivid images, including a phone ringing in the
background during a quiet moment—is it intentional? A happy accident? Not knowing is
the point and more than half the fun. The song features some cool guitar effects that show
off Knight’s musicianship while reinforcing the mystery of the Mercury.

Moving from the surreal to the very real, Knight takes us to the crossroads, where his
“digital lo-fi” indie pop meets cautionary tale. Knight, a wordsmith extraordinaire in all
of his songs, comes on especially strong lyrically in “How Does It Feel?” giving us the
stereotypical love-em-and-leave-em type reconstituted as a “cunning Conquistador” who
puts “nicks on his shield” and a “starving Henry VIII” who uses “sex as a meal.” To the
target of the fox’s affections, he says: “Of course you think you’re something more, but
you’re not. You’re not.” Sure, it all seems like fun, but “What does he tell his friends
when he’s slipped from your bedroom, baby?” Knight’s musicianship is now hitting full
tilt, with a fun guitar solo that takes the song into a transitional acoustic guitar segment
with an unsettling little twist. Over and over we hear the lyric: “You’re Natalie Wood and
you died tonight,” evoking images of the tragic end of a Hollywood starlet caught in a
world of unreality and false affection she ultimately couldn’t control.

“There’s a Girl I Know” is something completely new from Knight—a keyboard-based
song. Clocking in at 2 and a half minutes, the song features Brian Eno–influenced sounds
and a subtle echo on the vocals that gives the song a haunting feel that extends out nicely
from the tragic tone at the end of “How Does It Feel?” I hope that Knight continues to
experiment with the keyboard on future discs.

Fantastic Day ends with a wonderful 3-chord tune called “Say Goodbye” about how a
move from the South to the North might affect his cat. There are some beautiful and
thought-provoking vocal lines in this song (including our first clue that it’s a cat, to which
he sings “smooth down your hair”). He talks about the “tree neighborhood,” and saying
goodbye to “Danish cookie breakfast” and the “red bordello hallway.” We hear the sound
of a door opening and a few lines later Knight sings: “your little room-world disappears.”
To demonstrate the disconnect and disarray that comes with such a move, Knight puts in
a discordant interlude that would make George Martin and the Beatles proud. “Say
Goodbye” for all its poetry and elegance also offers one of the most enigmatic lines to
come from the EP. Speaking of the closet, Knight sings: “It’s dark and the clothes smell
like inside your head.” We talked a little bit about it at Knight’s home and at the class-A
used book store in Pt. Pleasant Beach, NJ, the Book Bin, which he helps to run and I can
only say that the line is what you make of it, which is of course the best answer of all.

Before letting you run off to purchase Fantastic Day, I have to mention the free EP that
you get with your purchase—Slave to the Tuna. I don’t want to give anything away by
talking about each song individually (although there is plenty to be said). Instead, I’ll just
let you know that these 5 songs are just about my favorites that I’ve heard from Knight.
In a bit under 15 minutes he covers: dreams (including one involving SNL’s Amy
Pohler), memories, the bittersweet and beautiful mix of love and snow, a hip little thrift
store, and the value of life, both small and great, bringing us back to Knight’s musical
and overall life thesis: life is a mix of both the simple and complex, the sub-atomic and
universal, the child-like and mature, the angels and the imps.

Lucky for us, we get to hear terrific music while Knight’s sorting it all out.

Be sure to check out Knight’s My Space page at: http://www.myspace.com/marbletea

March 2007.

"Passion from Philly and France":Claudia Beechman's The Grand Legrand

Claudia Beechman has a way with words. She is a versatile and deeply moving poet as well as being an accomplished vocalist, and in listening to her latest CD, The Grand Legrand, a collection of 11 songs (most of which you will instantly recognize by melody if not by title) composed by the amazing Michel Legrand, one cannot help but realize that it truly is the singer as much as the song. Claudia’s deft use of phrasing and her unique interpretations of the songs’ varied meanings and moods put her in the realm of entertainer (well beyond mere technical proficiency) where the greats like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Michael Crawford reside. Making a song your own is like crafting a poem—awareness and manipulation of sibilance, consonance, and rhythm allow the vocalist to stir the listener’s emotions the way an able writer does. This is where true artistry lies and Claudia Beechman possesses it in no short supply.
None of this proficiency and artistry has happened by accident. Music and theatre are in Claudia’s family and in her blood. (What follows is a very brief synopsis—please visit Claudia’s bio on her New Mystics poetry page and her website, http://www.theatrefest.com/claudiabeechman/ to read more about her fascinating and very successful life in the Arts, and for performance dates and information about her other CDs and projects). She started at 14 as a folksinger, where she was influenced by Judy Collins and Joan Baez. She progressed to studying opera, earned a BA in French, and spent a summer in Montreal where she took a course in Moliere and “le francais vivant par l’action dramatique”—living French thru acting. She moved to Paris and undertook serious study of the actor’s craft. While she was home on a visit, her father gave her a deluxe edition of Edith Piaf and she learned the guitar accompaniment and began to perform the songs at several venues. While playing in clubs she was asked by a Canadian actor to do the lead female role in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Her career has developed from there, as she has continually expanded her repertoire of French songs with piano accompaniment and learned to sing songs in Hebrew, Turkish, and Greek.
Before I talk about the songs, I want to share a little information about the man who wrote them. Michel Legrand composed over 200 film and television scores (e.g., Wuthering Heights, Ice Station Zebra, Lady Sings the Blues) working along the way with directors like Clint Eastwood, Jean-Luc Godard, and Orson Welles. He has won 3 Oscars out of 13 nominations, 5 Grammys, and an Emmy nomination. At 22 his album I Love Paris became one of the best-selling instrumental albums ever released. He collaborated with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on some of his most well-known songs (which appear on this disc) as well as the Oscar-winning Yentl score.
Michel’s reputation as a composer gave him the opportunity to work with many accomplished writers and performers, including Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Johnny Mathis, Quincy Jones, Neil Diamond, Stan Getz, James Galway, Ray Charles, Arturo Sandoval, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney. After he saw a performance by Dizzy Gillespie in 1947 he got hooked on jazz. After going to New York in 1956 he made his first jazz album Legrand Jazz with no less than Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Ben Webster, among others. He was only 24. Miles used to call him The Frog. Ironically, Michel played on Davis’s last jazz album. Michel went to Hollywood in 1967 and won ASCAP’s Henry Mancini award in 1998.
I found it interesting that Legrand writes at a table, pulling the music from the silence. He says that the instrument would only get in the way and limit the imagination as it creates the music. He also never listens to the album once the engineering is finished because he doesn’t want to have any regrets about his decisions or risk imitating what he’s already done.
And now we come to the songs on The Grand Legrand, and the masterful job Claudia has done with them. The CD, which has been popular in Europe as well as in the United States, features arrangements and piano by Tom Baust (an accomplished accompanist and music director for Claudia and other concert and cabaret performers and a professional singer as well) and cello by Nancy Stokking, who has performed at several top venues, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Both Tom and Nancy have performed with no less than Sarah Brightman of Phantom of the Opera fame, and their expertise and passion are obvious throughout the 11 songs.
The songs on the CD can be categorized by the amount of arrangement and instrumentation used. For example, “One at a Time” and “Summer Me Winter Me”
have very simple cabaret style arrangements, which really showcase Claudia’s memorable mezzo-soprano, including a powerful flash of the top end on the latter and “Happy,” which is a difficult song with varied rhythms, challenging phrasing, and some interesting incidentals, is also quiet enough musically to let Claudia’s talent shine through. This particular arrangement incorporates the theme from “Brian’s Song” to wonderful effect. “You Must Believe in Spring,” another song simply arranged, features a haunting cello that demonstrates how the musical instrument can be as much a conveyor of pure emotion as the voice when placed in hands as capable as Stokking’s. You can hear parts of “The Summer of ‘42” in this song, which is another excellent touch.
“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” has a wonderful arrangement with opening and closing phrasing reminiscent of Stephen Schwartz. Claudia really shows off the top of her range in this one.
In contrast to the subtle arrangements on the aforementioned songs, “After the Rain” has an instrumental fullness that overpowers the singer (a danger on some of the other songs as well) and instrumentation, especially the piano, truly goes too far here. The arpeggios and other rain effects are based on a good idea but are just too much. It makes the song too busy and Claudia’s voice is nearly lost.
“Once Upon a Summertime” and “The Years of My Youth” both shine a light on Claudia’s facility with French lyrics, and the result is both fluid and beautiful. It is in both of these songs that Claudia best demonstrates her ability to sell a song, including a well- executed spoken section in the former. Several piano variations on classical themes create a compelling atmosphere in the interludes. Again, the cello is particularly powerful and bursting with emotion. “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” has a wonderful musical interlude as well.
“Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the only recorded medley of the music and sung dialogue from the 1964 film of the same title (there is actually only one song—“I Will Wait for You”). It has the further distinction of being the most popular download on the disc at cdbaby.com, and a few listens will clearly demonstrate why. The film, which won the coveted 'Palme d'or' award was groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first film musical entirely sung, taking as its subject matter a love story set at the time of the French-Algerian war (a subject explored by Jean Genet in his play The Screens just a few years earlier). It featured Catherine Deneuve, then just 19 years old. (My readers will probably know her best from the David Bowie vampire film The Hunger). The medley is done in mostly French with the original lyrics as well as an English translation on the inside of the CD’s cover. Baust demonstrates his further ability as a vocalist, singing the part of Guy with sensitivity and theatrical skill and complementing Claudia’s engaging singing of the words of Genevieve.
“The Windmills of Your Mind” is my favorite track on the CD and my favorite Michel Legrand composition. It is very well done here (and there are several terribly poor versions—including the one from the film by Rex Harrison’s son Noel!) The song comes from Norman Jewison's 1968 film "The Thomas Crown Affair," which starred Steve McQueen. The song featured French lyrics by Eddy Marnay and English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and won the Oscar for Best Film Song in 1969. Claudia’s deft transition from chest to head voice and back while she works her way thru the spiraling lyrics is well supported by Baust’s best piano work on the CD, with Nancy Stokking’s cello complementing at every turn.
The Grand Legrand is the perfect CD for a quiet, romantic evenings with that special someone and a good bottle of wine. It has become a unique and appreciated part of my collection.