Friday, January 29, 2010

"And, by the fall of Scylla, Glaucus bleeds"

Strait Circe reddens with a guilty shame,
And vows revenge for her rejected flame.
Fierce liking oft a spight as fierce creates;
For love refus'd, without aversion, hates.
To hurt her hapless rival she proceeds;
And, by the fall of Scylla, Glaucus bleeds.
Some fascinating bev'rage now she brews;
Compos'd of deadly drugs, and baneful juice.
At Rhegium she arrives; the ocean braves,
And treads with unwet feet the boiling waves.
Upon the beach a winding bay there lies,
Shelter'd from seas, and shaded from the skies:
This station Scylla chose: a soft retreat
From chilling winds, and raging Cancer's heat.
The vengeful sorc'ress visits this recess;
Her charm infuses, and infects the place.
Soon as the nymph wades in, her nether parts
Turn into dogs; then at her self she starts.
A ghastly horror in her eyes appears;
But yet she knows not, who it is she fears;
In vain she offers from her self to run,
And drags about her what she strives to shun.
Oppress'd with grief the pitying God appears:
And swells the rising surges with his tears;
From the detested sorceress he flies;
Her art reviles, and her address denies:
Whilst hapless Scylla, chang'd to rocks, decrees
Destruction to those barques, that beat the seas.

From "The Transformation of Scylla," Book XIV of Metamorphoses, Garth translation.

Circe and Scylla, John Melhuish Strudwick, 1890.

In honor of the wolf moon

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languisht grace
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness?

Sonnet XXXI from Astrophel and Stella

Radha at night, Mughal painting ca. 1650.

Read about the wolf moon here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Good stuff at Chapter 16

Jid Lee's To Kill a Tiger: A Memoir of Korea is one of those books that reminds me how lucky I am to be a reviewer. I'd probably never have read To Kill a Tiger if an editor hadn't dropped it in my lap, and that would have been my loss. Lee's a fine writer, and she nestles her personal story in a compelling history of post-WWII Korea. Portions of the book are not for the squeamish. It includes, among other things, a graphic account of the the sexual enslavement of the Korean "comfort women" by the Japanese. But the core of the book is Lee's struggle to create an identity for herself within her patriarchal culture, and that story is absolutely inspiring. Read my review here.

It doesn't officially hit the market until Feb. 2, so I've yet to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, but the chatter about it in the book world is overwhelmingly positive. Michael Ray Taylor's review is no exception--"rich," "complex" and "masterful" are a few of his adjectives. Read more here.

Titus reading, Rembrandt, 1656

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Our oneness is the wrestlers'..."

Our oneness is the wrestlers’, fierce and close,
Thrusting and thrust;
One life in dual effort for one prize,—
We fight, and must;
For soul with soul does battle evermore
Till love be trust.

From "Wrestling" by Louisa S. Bevington.

Hercules and Antaeus, School of Mantegna, c.1497

Louisa Bevington was an interesting woman. Read about her here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Watson and the Shark

I happened to see this painting--John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark, 1778--right after reading this New York Times article, which a friend posted on Facebook. Said friend is a geologist, so I assume he considers the article's grim predictions of future earthquakes in the Caribbean to be well-founded. This time Haiti took the hit, next time it might be Jamaica or the Dominican Republic. A big quake could happen countless places, even here in Tennessee. (Or maybe not.) In any case, the article is a reminder that nature doesn't discriminate, whatever Pat Robertson might say. Haiti's pitiful infrastructure contributed to the death toll, but an earthquake of the same magnitude would be a catastrophe anywhere. And where earthquakes aren't a problem, there are hurricanes, blizzards, floods, tornadoes, landslides, wildfires, epidemics--and, even in our paved-over world, the occasional hungry or pissed-off critter, like Copley's shark.

I love this painting for the way it captures the destructive power of nature, before which we are all ultimately helpless. There's no injustice and no malice in that destruction, it just is. That's not to say we don't commit harmful sins, such as failing to aid Haiti long ago, or building defective levees in New Orleans, but no amount of intelligence, wealth or virtue will make us invulnerable. All we can do is help each other in the struggle against our shared condition, as the men do in Copley's painting, risking their lives for a brother they could easily leave to his fate.

You can read more about the painting here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mary of Egypt

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

From "The Hanging Man" by Sylvia Plath

St. Mary of Egypt--Death in the Desert, Emil Nolde, 1912.

*St. Mary of Egypt is my latest obsession, for literary rather than religious reasons. She's a fascinating character, and the evolution of her legend is a study in the dramatic effect a subtle shift in narrative can produce. An article on St. Mary of Egypt is here, and you can read St. Sophronius' The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt here. There is a John Tavener opera about Mary of Egypt, which alas, does not see to be available online, though you can sample it at Amazon. If that whets your appetite for more Tavener, go here for a wonderful short piece of his on YouTube.

If you know of literary, artistic or musical treatments of the legend of Mary of Egypt, please share them with me in the comments, or send me an email. Thanks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

More Lucretius

One of the best-known passages of De rerum natura is "Folly of the Fear of Death" in Book III. Lucretius makes a very persuasive case for a rational attitude to death.

Nothing to us was all fore-passed eld
Of time the eternal, ere we had a birth.
And Nature holds this like a mirror up
Of time-to-be when we are dead and gone.
And what is there so horrible appears?
Now what is there so sad about it all?
Is't not serener far than any sleep?
And, verily, those tortures said to be
In Acheron, the deep, they all are ours
Here in this life. No Tantalus, benumbed
With baseless terror, as the fables tell,
Fears the huge boulder hanging in the air:
But, rather, in life an empty dread of gods
Urges mortality, and each one fears
Such fall of fortune as may chance to him.

His words are perfectly sensible. Who can argue with him? And yet, who can actually muster this detachment? Not me. Death shocks me. Thoughts of my own death overwhelm me--not with fear, but with painful amazement. When I think of people I love who have died, even the ones who have been gone for decades, I'm astonished and sickened that they are gone, utterly lost to this earth. The sadness and grief soften over time, but the truth of death never loses its power to shock. The eloquent reasoning of Lucretius can't disarm it.

Burial of St Lucy, Caravaggio, 1608

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Love according to Lucretius

Yea, in the very moment of possessing,
Surges the heat of lovers to and fro,
Restive, uncertain; and they cannot fix
On what to first enjoy with eyes and hands.
The parts they sought for, those they squeeze so tight,
And pain the creature's body, close their teeth
Often against her lips, and smite with kiss
Mouth into mouth,- because this same delight
Is not unmixed; and underneath are stings
Which goad a man to hurt the very thing,
Whate'er it be, from whence arise for him
Those germs of madness. But with gentle touch
Venus subdues the pangs in midst of love,
And the admixture of a fondling joy
Doth curb the bites of passion.

From "The Passion of Love" in Book IV of De rerum natura (On the nature of things)

Paolo and Francesca, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, 1913

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"They cannot be destroyed..."

"In the face of such shape and weight of present misfortune, the voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass; but the arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and the societies, even the very civilizations that produced them. They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away. And even the smallest and most incomplete offering at this time can be a proud act in defense of that faith."

Katherine Anne Porter, June 21 1940

*I've posted this quote before, but its wisdom is worth returning to in any time of crisis. The American Visionary Art Museum is one of many organizations raising money specifically to aid Haitian artists. They are selling Vodou flags like the the one here. See more at their slideshow. You can see a nice selection of works by Haitian painters at the Gallery of West Indian Art.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blake, in honor of the day

Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

From America a Prophecy by William Blake, 1793

Complete text is here. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Middle-aged perspective

Earlier this month the icy weather kept me housebound for a day, and I appealed to my Facebook friends to help me decide what to read to fill the time. I eventually settled on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which I first read more than 20 years ago. Something in the chilly atmosphere made Wharton’s world of beautiful things and brittle people seem alluring, but what really sold me was a friend’s comment that she’d like to return to the book herself now that she has “a middle-aged perspective.” Whoa.

I’ve been comfortable thinking of myself as middle-aged for quite a while but I didn’t like the suggestion that my view of the world—and of literature—has started to wither along with the rest of me. That’s not really what my friend meant, of course, but that’s how I read her. “Middle-aged perspective” struck me as a polite way of saying sour, cynical, resigned, passionless, etc. So I plunged into The House of Mirth with a sort of half-conscious agenda, determined to enjoy it in the same way I had the first time around. I was going to relish Wharton’s ruthless dissection of society, and I was going to wallow in the tragedy of beautiful, useless Lily.

Unfortunately, I got about 40 pages in and had to abandon the book. As it turns out, I apparently have acquired a middle-aged perspective, and it has nothing to do with being sour or cynical. On the contrary, I found that I just couldn’t bear the cruelty of Lily’s fate, because I can’t feel superior to her anymore. My younger self pitied Lily’s weakness and her captivity in a vicious social order, but I didn’t feel any real empathy for her. I never saw myself as someone who might ever be trapped by illusion and the inexorable passage of time. Now life has taught me better. We’re all trapped, in one way or another. Some of us manage to work out a better ending for ourselves than Lily does, but we all share her costly addiction to self-delusion.

Edith Wharton was 43 when she wrote The House of Mirth, and she tells us in the book’s first pages that Lily is doomed. Actually, she lets Selden tell us:

“As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails, and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilisation which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”

I think that passage is Wharton’s invitation to us to feel Lily’s plight as our own. I didn’t see that twenty years ago and now I do. That’s middle-aged perspective.

Illustration by A.B. Wenzell from a 1905 edition of The House of Mirth

"Heal the Earth, Heal the People"

I trust we're all doing what we can to help Haiti. It's essential to offer as much support as possible during this catastrophe, but we have a moral obligation to help Haitians restore their environment and protect their culture as the country is rebuilt. With her usual insight and passion, Anya speaks to the issue in a blog post here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Dream with her dreaming"

Dream with her dreaming
Until her lust
Seems to her seeming
An act of trust!

From "Ars Amoris" by J.V. Cunningham

Reclining female nude, Franz von Lenbach, 1902

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Back early...

...because I can't wait to tell you there's a new crop of reviews, interviews, poetry, etc. at Chapter 16. Also, I can't resist shamelessly encouraging you to read my article on Alan Lightman and his new book, Song of Two Worlds. If you come to this blog for the poetry, Lightman's work deserves your attention.

The Hermit, Salomon Koninck, 1643

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"These Fevered Days"

These Fevered Days -- to take them to the Forest
Where Waters cool around the mosses crawl --
And shade is all that devastates the stillness
Seems it sometimes this would be all --

Emily Dickinson

Deer in the Forest, Franz Marc, 1913

*The blogs are going on hiatus for a few days so I can take some time to work, walk and think. I'll be back this weekend with something suitably smutty for the Gallery.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"One must have a mind of winter"

Yesterday we woke up to an Arctic freeze, and today we're back to an ordinary Tennessee chill. When you live where the winters are mild it's easy to forget the special beauty that bitter cold creates...(more)

Sunday, January 10, 2010


It's brutally cold here today--10 degrees Fahrenheit on my front porch this morning. I'd expect to be craving some hot and spicy scent, but instead I went looking for flowers and settled on Le Dix. This classic Balenciaga gets a lot of respect, and it should. I think it's the most beautifully composed of the Balenciaga fragrances. (Cialenga is a close second.) Of course, if you happen to despise violets and aldehydes, this pretty thing is not for you, especially in its present incarnation.

My little vintage bottle doesn't give much of a clue about its age, but I'd guess it to be about 30 years old. The juice is in reasonably good shape, good enough that the top notes survive more or less intact. Sampling it side by side with the current formula, I'm struck by how sharp and potent the violet note is in the new stuff. The vintage violet is very sweet, soft and rounded. It fades quickly into the heart of rose and ylang ylang, whereas its younger counterpart hangs on forever. (I assume these violet notes are all synthetic, so that must have been somebody's idea of a concession to modern tastes. Or were they using real violets 30 years ago?) The aldehydes are gentler in the vintage, though that may just be age. The vintage has a layer of powder over the flowers, which the newbie lacks. The base notes show the most similarity, but the vintage has a great luxurious-yet-light musk, while the new juice has that faint air of dryer sheet

Overall, the new formulation has a harsher, brighter character than the vintage. The rich floral personality of the original has been jettisoned in favor of more punch--so what else is new? This seems to be the story with all the tweaked versions of classic floral aldehydes. I'll risk making you doubt my taste by admitting that I think the new stuff, whatever its weaknesses, still deserves some love. Considered on its own merits it's a pretty, sparkling floral, certainly as nice as anything in its price range.

And while I'm talking about scents that deserve some love, I want to come clean about a guilty pleasure. Olfacta's post about Teatro alla Scala has inspired me to come out of the closet and declare my love for Krazy Krizia. (I know, I know--that name is awful.) Krazy Krizia is always dismissed as an Obsession clone, and I can't deny a certain resemblance. The notes are extremely similar. (See here and here.) But where Obsession has a cloying candied orange note in the top, KK's mandarin is smooth and subtle. The spices in the heart of Obsession are harsh and ruin the flowers. KK just has a touch of clove/carnation to sweeten and warm things up. The really crucial difference is in the base. Obsession is too heavy on the vanilla to suit my taste, and if there's any civet in there you couldn't prove it by me. KK is wonderfully woody and animalic, and does not in any way remind me of baked goods. Now if they would just do something about that name...

Violets, Henry Meynell Rheam, 1904

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mother and child

One last sad child. Actually, the child doesn't look so sad--all the sorrow belongs to the mother. The child has a lovely expression of innocence and comfort. The painting is Mutter und Kind by Robert Noir (1864-1931), also known as Ernest Noir. I haven't seen many of his works, but most of them are supposed to be like this one: dark and grim, but very compelling. There's a lot of tenderness in it. It's an image that could only be created by someone who feels the suffering of the world very deeply. According to this bio, Noir committed suicide by hanging himself in the Bois de Boulogne. Somehow that is not surprising.

Machine of the family: dark fur, forests of the mother’s body.
Machine of the mother: white city inside her.

And before that: earth and water.
Moss between rocks, pieces of leaves and grass.

And before, cells in a great darkness.
And before that, the veiled world.

From "Mother and Child" by Louise Glück

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chapter 16 is back

The site took a break over the holidays, but has returned with a little something for everyone. Paul Griffith has a review of Baby, Let's Play House, Alanna Nash's book on the psychosexual peculiarities of Elvis. If contemplating the King's pajama games is a little too, uh, lowbrow for you, you might try Clay Risen's interview with Helen Tate, the widow of Fugitive poet Allen Tate. Faye Jones talks to Sara Evans about her new novel, and I review An Angle of Vision, a collection of essays by women writers on their working class roots. Click over to the front page for all manner of literary news, and do be sure to check out the poetry section if you haven't already done so.

La liseuse, Jean-Jacques Henner, c.1880

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Romani child

Maybe I should have tagged this series Beautiful Sad Children, since my choices so far all seem to be pretty grim. Oh well--I like what I like, and this painting, Half-portrait of a Gypsy Boy by Franz von Defregger (1873), is one that I like very much. I'm not even sure it's especially good from a technical standpoint. There's something a little off about the line of the boy's jaw--but the eyes, the full lips, and the tousled hair are beautiful. His mournful expression is heartbreaking, as sad as this poem by Romani poet Bronislawa Wajs.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Luscious Jesus

This is a Caravaggio--as if you couldn't guess. It's called the Madonna of the Palafrenieri or Madonna with the Serpent, but the real subject of the painting is the naked Jesus. If you click on the image to enlarge it, I think you'll get a better idea of the sensuality of Caravaggio's Christ child. The boy's skin is as luscious as life, and you can just feel the snake squirming under the bare feet of mother and son. This painting was commissioned for St. Peter's but hung there only briefly. Supposedly the depiction of such a fleshly Jesus was considered disrespectful, though it has also been suggested that the problem was that Caravaggio made St. Anne (on the left) too ugly. I love this painting. It's sad to think that if it appeared today as a new work, the artist would probably be treated like Nan Goldin.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Beautiful children

That Bellini I posted for New Year’s Day has me thinking about paintings of children, so I’ve decided to do a little series of posts on the subject. This painting, A Fisher-Girl by Ilya Repin (1874), is one of my favorites. It captures the particular expression of innocent melancholy that you only see in children. Note her hands—you can almost feel how rough they must be, in contrast to her soft little face. It’s a very sad image to contemplate, this beautiful child already worn down by work and poverty. It’s also a troubling painting, in that her ragged clothes and her suffering are part of her beauty. I find myself a little suspicious of my own response to it. Do you think it fetishizes the poor?

Their guild is giving money to the poor.
The worthy poor. The very very worthy
And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy?
perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim
Nor—passionate. In truth, what they could wish
Is—something less than derelict or dull.
Not staunch enough to stab, though, gaze for gaze!
God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!
The noxious needy ones whose battle’s bald
Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down.

From "The Lovers of the Poor" by Gwendolyn Brooks. The complete poem is here.

Friday, January 1, 2010

"Read, sweet..."

Read, sweet, how others strove,
Till we are stouter;
What they renounced,
Till we are less afraid;
How many times they bore
The faithful witness,
Till we are helped,
As if a kingdom cared!

From The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson at

Image from Historia del Arte Erotico