Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: The Time of Year When Life Meets Death and Horrors Prowl

 It's a scary time of year. Filled with strange omens, early sunsets, sudden changes of weather, wandering beggars pounding at your door, and the abidingly glorious spectacle of the autumn foliage. We should all look this good when we fall to earth.
What we learned about this season last year was that Halloween comes very close to Election Day, and sometimes the two exchange places. Halloween is clearly the lighter-hearted of the now widely observed autumn holidays. It’s on Election Day that ghosts, monsters, and spirits of the dead walk the land.
Some of us find any excuse at all to celebrate in autumn. In our household we have favorite pieces of music or albums that evoke the season’s spirit. We associate the beauty of Fall with the music of Windham Hill piano master George Winston, especially his albums “Autumn” and “Forest.”
I also find the music of Celtic harp virtuoso and musicologist Aine Minogue particularly soulful when the sun declines, the shadows lengthen and, according to ancient belief, the barrier between the material world and the world of the spirit thins.  
The popular origin theory for Halloween is the Celtic festival Samhain. Though typically associated with Ireland today, the Celts were once the dominant culture all over western Europe. When Caesar was conquering the Gauls in France – those were Celts. As were the Britons.
            Later, when the people of these lands were converted to Christianity, the Roman church took control of their calendar. The Christian stamp was laid on top of a seasonal parade of feast days that were still rich with the old traditions. The Celtic autumn festival Samhain, one of the seasonal ‘fire festivals,’ involved lighting bonfires and – here’s the clincher – wearing costumes to ward off ghosts.
The Christian holy day celebrated at this time is All Saints Day. Many saints have their own feast days, so all the others (lest they feel neglected) are all bundled into All Saints Day, celebrated on Nov. 1. Saints are “hallowed,” that is, sacred figures. So All Hallows Eve became the name for the day before All Saints Day, a day when folks had the fun of lighting fires, costuming and otherwise japing around. They would have plenty of time to be good on the day after.
            Here’s what Aine Minogue’s album “Between the Worlds” says about the Celtic festival of Samhaim:
Samhain was the feast that marked the end of the "light half" of the year and the beginning of the "dark half." The light half was that of the people, the dark half belonged to the earth, the cycle of time being expressed in the basic duality of darkness and light. Samhain, or Halloween as it has come to be known, was actually New Year's Eve in the Celtic calendar. For the Celts, the dark always preceded the light, and day began at dusk, not dawn.”
            Samhain, this borderland of seasons, between light and dark, also bridged the dualities of life and death:
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.”

Aine’s research also extends to the origin of trick-or-treating: “The children's tradition that otherworldly creatures come to life on Halloween has its origins in the ancient feast of Samhain." However, she adds, "the Celts' main concern with the other world was to receive wisdom from their ancestors.”
Samhain, a time of borders and passages between this world and the next, between growing season and fallow season, was also “a time for solitary introspection and reflection,” she writes. “The custom of dressing up in costume began back then. It was acceptable to stretch the boundaries by assuming a different identity to welcome the supernatural.”
This year I think I will dress up as myself. 
We thought about carving a pumpkin with the features of a raving lunatic and plastering a hank of straw on top to suggest the image of the monster who slipped into our world this time of year one year ago.
In the end, however, we decided not to tempt fate a second time. We turned on the porch light and handed out treats. I wore the mask of a contented soul and munched on leftover candy to sweeten my disposition.   

Here’s a link to the song “Fyvie Castle” from Aine Minogue's album “Between the Worlds.”

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: Still Moments in the Shakers' Woods

          Late October. Some of the trees are bare. Some shedding leaves as we watch. In ones or twos, or a dozen when a breeze blows, the yellowing leaves float down, breeze sensitive.
         Any motion, any gesture cutting the air pressure column causes the descending nearly weightless entity of a falling leaf to change direction. That's why you can't catch them.  
         The first thing you notice on mild, calm October days such as those we had last weekend, even before the falling leaves, is the silence. 

          We wanted that silence. We wanted to enter and be swallowed up by the presence of trees, those speechless companions, loosing the superfluities of the growing season, those solar-gathering leaves, to better save their energies for the cold, dormant time ahead. 
           We found those quiet woods on the property of Hancock Shaker Village, a site a few miles away from the city of Pittsfield in northern Berkshire County.
            The village itself was the home of a once highly successful community established in the late 18th century by a religious movement begun earlier in England by the "charismatic" prophet Anne Lee. Today the village is a museum, after the Shakers closed it in 1960. In its early 19th century heyday the Shakers provided a refuge for women, and men, who needed a home, a means of support, and perhaps an alternative to conventional life. It also provided a home for those whose need was even more acute -- orphaned children, in an era before government care for orphans.  
             We hiked in Hancock Shakers' woods up to the summit called Shaker Mountain now, though the Shakers themselves had given it the Biblical name of Mount Sinai. 
              The Sun was out and the trees sluiced its light, yellow and orange foliage shining in its glow. Alternating strips of shadow and slight carpeting the path before us and the forest floor. Trees going about their business. Getting along with rocks. Providing some nourishment for the woodland creatures who feed on their seeds. Silently cheering on the few still-running streams that bring fresh water to wild places. 
           We followed the woodland stream the Shakers had fitted with piping to provide themselves with clean water. And dammed with flat stone buttresses to power a mill wheel to grind their grain. 
             The defining way of life in Shaker villages was celibacy. This was the fulcrum of Mother Ann Lee's founding vision: abstaining from sex was the path you took to get into heaven. Pacifism and gender equality came into play as well. Men and women lived separately, but but otherwise communally at the Shaker village and lived off the produce of their farm. The Hancock property was essentially a dairy farm. The selling of garden seeds was a big business too. And at some point, of course, the wonderful, defining legacy of Shaker furniture came into play.
            The plain style of their handsome furniture is evident in Hancock Village's architecture as well.
            The movement began to run out of steam in the 1840s, and folks left New England farming communities to move west or find industrial jobs in cities. I think also the difficulty of replenishing population without making your own next generation told on the movement as well.
             Before today's museum village, it was the Shakers themselves who looked after these woods, this hillside, this summit. On the summit of Shaker Mountain, the Hancock Shakers, following a directive from their movement's leaders, cleared a regular quadrant for a burial place. That squared-off clearing has been preserved. The weeds and brush cut back. 
             We walked a narrow path through it, preserving its silence, feeling its peace.   

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Garden of Music and History: Tosca, Puccini, Napoleon and the Short-lived Roman Republic

          I can sum up our recent Sunday afternoon at the opera -- the phrase doesn't quite have the ring of "night of the opera" -- in a single word: great.
          I have loved the music of Puccini's "Tosca" for years; and pretty much all of Puccini. Everything about the Boston Lyric Opera production was first rate, and clearly an opera company with the word 'Boston' in it (a rarity in recent decades) is extremely cheered by the strong reception its all-out staging of a 'big' classical opera has received from audiences, reviewers, and the city as a whole. World-class cities have opera; it's one of the requirements. Sunday's show was sold out, as was Friday night's opener at the Emerson Majestic Theater, a restored beaux arts theater that looks and performs perfectly for grand opera -- the musical genre in which the unaided human voice can fill every inch of a big hall. 
          The leads -- Elena Stikhina as Tosca, Jonathan Burton as her lover Cavaradossi and Daniel Sutin as the seriously despicable Scarpia -- were excellent both as singers and as actors. And the stage was inventively reconfigured to make space for a full orchestra (as opposed to a smaller 'pit orchestra'). Everything comes together in the quintessentially 'operatic' high point -- singing, lush orchestration, plot points, sacred setting and a thoroughly profane, confessional evil-dictator exulting by Scarpia -- of the emotion-wring "Te Deum"concluding the first act. 
          God is part of the plot line here. But as entrapped, devoutly Catholic Tosca asks in her heart-rending solo in the second act, where is he? 
           And then we come to the historical, real-world setting of "Tosca," a work based not on fable, myth, or romance, or even realistic fiction, but on a particular moment of history: Rome, in 1800, just after a great battle of Marengo, a crucial event in the Napoleonic Wars. The forces of the Roman church and state status-quo are rooting for Napoleon's defeat. The forces of liberty and modernity for his victory.
         Blogging for the Boston Lyric Opera, Laura Stanfield Prichard describes 'Tosca' this way:
"A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars."
         Some reviewers have described its plot as "a political thriller."
         Puccini based his work on an 1889 play by Victorien Sardou, whose surgeon grandfather served in Napoleon's army in Italy. Sardou wrote it for actress Sarah Bernhardt and the play proved a spectacular success at the box office.
          In fact, the history of the Napoleonic era is all over this play. In the play's first scene the escaping political prisoner, Angelotti, re-introduces himself to onetime supporter Cavaradossi as the former premier "of the short-lived Republic of Rome." This was a government set up by the Revolutionary French Republic in 1798. The Army of the French Republic justified its wide-reaching campaigns of the 1790s as the liberation of other nations from absolutism, monarchy, hereditary social classes, and the tyranny of both church and state in the kingdoms of the Old Regime. 
          No unified country of Italy existed at this time. Rome was governed by the Pope, as were a collection of provinces called The Papal States. In much of the country the dominant power was the Austrian Empire. When the Army of the Republic defeated the armies of Austria, its ancien regime allies and the various kingdoms of Italy, it set up satellite states with new pro-French regimes. (It also took a captive Pope to France.) The new Roman Republic promptly absorbed the neighboring Papal States and claimed authority over a fair-sized chunk of the middle of the Italian peninsula.
          But when the French army withdrew, most of these new regimes lacked enough local support to stay in power. In Rome an invasion from Naples overthrew the 'short-lived' republic, put the republicans like Angelotti in jail, and enlisted provincial bullies such as Scarpia to run the city as a police state. Torture, show trials, political executions, extortion, corruption. We're familiar with this apparatus from the bad times and places of the 20th and 21st century. 
          The situation remained fluid in the fragmented Italian peninsula. And Napoleon was still in the picture. When a fresh coalition of anti-republican states was formed against France, Napoleon again took command of The French Army of Italy (such a geographical name) and carried the war to the Austrians in the Alpine region.
           The decisive battle of Marengo in the Piedmont region of Italy is the "victory" reported to Scapia and his reactionary government in the first act of "Tosca." In fact 'early reports' from the battlefield would have given the edge to the Austrians. Napoleon had divided his army, based on false reports of enemy intentions from a double-agent, and faced the Austrian attack with only a part of his forces. His commanders were able to give ground slowly and avoid a rout until later in the day when the rest of the French army arrived, positioned on the enemy's flanks. Under their unexpected attacks, the Austrians broke and fled. 
          A report of Napoleon's victory at Marengo arrives in the second act of the opera, causing the imprisoned Cavaradossi to rejoice. Whatever happens to him, this news seems to promise, revolutionary justice will win in the end.  
          The Battle of Marengo actually had bigger short-term consequences for Napoleon and France than it did for Rome. The decisive victory established Napoleon's popularity at home as the superstar who could do no wrong -- a path that led him a few years later to crown himself as Emperor. 
           Rome and the Papal States would see various regimes for more than half a century until they became part of the unified Italian Republic in 1870. 
           Great art depicts both individual tragedy and the ultimate triumph of forces greater than individuals -- love, heroism, and the arc of history. The only thing missing from the BLO's "Tosca" was a curtain call for Scarpia wearing a Trump mask.   

Composer Giacomo Puccini based his Tosca on the 1889 play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou. He had seen a performance of it while working on Manon Lescaut (even Verdi was interested in it!), and was taken with the thriller. He began work in earnest in 1896, after asking his publisher Giulio Ricordi to wrangle the rights for Sardou’s play from Alberto Franchetti, another composer who worked with librettist Luigi Illica. A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Conductor James Levine has described it as “Puccini’s glorious musical inspiration [combined] with the melodramatic vitality of one of the great Hitchcock films.” -- Laura Stanfield Prichard, blogging for the Boston Lyric Opera

Friday, October 13, 2017

Garden of Literature: 'Petite Suites' for Readers with Big Appetites for Stories

           Robert Wexelblatt, my poetry colleague at Verse-Virtual.com, where we both play the role of contributing editor, has published a new collection of delicious, bite-sized stories under the musical title "Petite Suites."
           The author's "latest book," as the Boston University College of General Studies tellingly puts it in an article titled "Wexelblatt’s Petites Suites Stories Merge Music and Fiction," consists of "a series of charming, inventive short stories" about two or three pages long. 
           Wexelblatt is a professor humanities in the university's College of General Studies. The college newsletter article, a Q&A piece, gives Wex the opportunity to explain the origin of the collection and the reason for the musical titles. Here's his response to the question of how the inspiration from a musical structure
-- "short movements with loose thematic connections" — led to the storytelling. 
           Wex: "My object was to make a suite out of brief, brisk narratives resembling the movements of the French compositions that were my model. I gave each of the little stories in the suite fanciful but relevant musical titles, in French, and indicated the instruments that would perform them. I hoped the result would be an attractive hybrid of fiction and music. I was trying for something in fiction that would share some of the lively, tuneful, witty, and sardonic qualities of the little French suites that I see as ripostes to the serious, ponderous, solemn, sometimes bombastic and elephantine German music of the time. As Debussy’s or FaurĂ©’s little suites are to, say, Wagner’s Ring or Bruckner’s symphonies, so these suites are to the five-hundred-page novel."
          I have to acknowledge that, personally speaking, I tend toward the 500-page novel. (My novel "Suosso's Lane" is almost that long.) But I found these "suites" -- sharply, wittily written, quickly resolving -- a highly addictive reading experience. The structure plays out as compellingly as its musical inspiration. We're presented with a "hook" (or premise) -- I'm tempted here to borrow the Facebook phrase "fetching preview" -- followed in quick order by exposition, development, crisis, and resolution. 
         The structure never grows old, the stories never become predictable. In some cases the resolution -- as in the best fiction (and music? I'm not qualified to say) -- doesn't resolve. It may surprise, comment, or add a whole new level of complexity. Many of life's stories do just that. Sometimes characters behave the way we expect them to. Sometimes their choices show more wisdom than we expect of them. These are particularly satisfying because then we readers are learning something new as well. 
         Here is Wex's discussion of his use of the French, quasi-musical titles for his 'suite' stories.
             Wex: "My model for the titles is Erik Satie, a composer who excelled at fanciful titles. Here are some translations: 'Sketches and Snares of a Large Wooden Fellow,' 'Dried-out Embryos,' 'Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear,' and the charming 'Sonatine Bureaucratique,' which needs no translation. I wanted titles that were similarly unexpected, fanciful, and amusing but at the same time revealing about the stories they head..."
         You can find the article here: https://www.bu.edu/cgs/2017/09/22/wexelblatt-draws-inspiration-from-music-in-petites-suites/

         I'll close by cribbing a bit of the 'advance review' (or blurb) I wrote after reading the book in proof copy:
The author’s fertile imagination offers scenarios, sketches, and movements for the mind on every theme and subject under the sun, families, artists, presidents for life, almost lovers, fading lions and hungry cubs. While the themes are stated with a musical precision, developments come smartly and the resolutions are sure and often subtle. A banker who knows where the bucks are hidden prevents a war. A GPS becomes the voice of wisdom. Odysseus confronts a different sort of fidelity.  
         I attempted in those comments to suggest the truly impressive range of the author's imagination. While his story structures reveal a pattern, this world-inside-the-covers-of-a-book takes us just about everywhere.
         Here's a link to thing in itself:


Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Garden of Verse: A World of Gratitude in a Harvest of New Poems -- October's Verse-Virtual

         It's harvest season. Here's a harvest of offerings from the October 2017 edition of Verse-Virtual.com.

As Joan Mazza's poem "Before the first bite" reminds us, when the harvest brings us to table,

Pause to see the colors
in front of you. Reflect
on those who grew
this wheat and ground
its heart, turned semolina
into pasta. Who tends
olive groves, presses
the fruit into oil, bottles it.


The poem's fine dining vocabulary, its active verbs (tends, presses, bottles) and compressed lines work together to focus our attention on the ides of gratitude. It's a good season for it.

            On a similar theme, gratitude to the "ordinary saints" who serve us, both mind and body, is always in season. Joan Colby's fresh supply of praise poems for oft-overlooked occupations introduces us to facts about these jobs and those who do them are either ignored (meaning I ignore them) or simply unknown (a similar declaration of ignorance here). Such as the farm worker: 

"attaching the vacuum tubes
To the teats so the milk will flow"

A second poem reminds me, painfully, how we call on the "Saint Geek" to address "the blue screen of perdition" -- god, naming the devil! I have to cross myself after naming that one.

As for the manicurist, see these brilliantly apt lines:

 "How you nail us
With a styled creation
To indemnify against an
Onus of manual labor."
            The onus is on us.


            The cleverness of "You, Singular" by Edward Conti relies on its brief declaratives and witty rhymes. Its lyrics evoke not only singularity, but childhood, as in the unexpected final line of this stanza:

"You can make fun of me
I hope you do.
There’s only one of me.
How many are you?"

Only one, perhaps, but one can be more than enough. I also enjoyed the poem's reach into the "Thin Man" comedies to find an unexpected canine rhyme for "master." That line "I’ll be your Asta" may dog me for some time to come. And I'm grateful for it.

            We're likely to find more than a measure of gratitude in Joe Cottonwood's "Autopsy of a Douglas Fir" as well. In the beautifully composed first stanza alone, the poem evokes not only the act of harvesting a tree, but the land, ecology and peoples of "three centuries of wooden wisdom."

"In your bleeding cross-section I count
three centuries of wooden wisdom
since that mother cone dropped
on soil no one owned.
Black bears scratched backs
against your young bark. Ohlone
passed peacefully on their path
to the waters of La Honda Creek."

            I'm thankful also for the poem's introduction to me of the name "Ohlone," used for the surviving lineages of the indigenous peoples of the San Francisco Bay.

            Gratitude for a certain kind of immortality is the theme of Marilyn Taylor's "The Day After I Die," expressed with a fine satirical eye.

"they will find the cure
for whatever got me,
and a unified theory
of physics will be announced
by a consortium
from M.I.T."

            Those aren't the only wonders that will follow the demise of the speaker of this poem. Also predicted are answers to the age-old questions. Are we alone in the universe? What address do I plug into the GPS for the fountain of youth? The energy crisis? -- all resolved. Check out the final stanza for the greatest discovery of them all.

            Alan Walowitz's moving poem "Anthony Peter Tumbarello" may remind us to be grateful for those who cross our paths in life, and keep re-crossing them. The poem tells the story of the poet's relationship with his childhood friend, and the cross "Tony" bore all his life, in a few perfectly chosen lines that pack a whole story into a sentence.  

"When we walked
other kids would stare
and sometimes strangers’d
cross the street to inquire,
Son, what’s wrong with your friend?
as if Tony couldn’t hear
for being so bent.

            There's a world of tragedy in the stranger's thoughtlessly expressed inquiry, even if it was not ill-intended, and even if it was actually well meant. And a world of stubborn courage in Tony's response, delivered smartly at the end of this poem.

            The title of Robert Wexelblatt's poem "Going to Bed with Jane Austen" has a ring of inevitability. We all go to bed from time to time with a favorite author. Where the poet takes this notion however is wholly original, satirical, revealing, and wise. A sort of compact novel in a concise lyric.

            Something else that bedtime is good for, storytelling and its many uses, also comes in for an apposite nod (and wink?)  -- "like that famous sultan, I finally fall asleep." A beautifully crafted poem.
            My thanks, since we're handing out gratitude, also go Verse-Virtual's indefatigable editor Firestone Feinberg, who continues to put together such finely seasoned bounties of verse every month. 
            Find all these poems and others at http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html