Tuesday, June 24, 2008


I got into Warsaw on Sunday afternoon and, after a rest, went out at dusk for a walk to the Old Town. I should say it’s a reproduction of the original, with only a few remnants of the original buildings, but on the whole, it looks accurate and plausible. Maybe the stonework doesn’t have the precision that you could expect in the 18th century, but the overall effect seems much better than its Disney equivalent would be. The biggest task must have been the reconstruction of the Royal Castle, a pinkish, reddish palace with central copper steeple. My sense is that the Castle and the Old City in general will look better and better the older they get, there being so substitute for time and weathering. I wandered around several of the streets, including a sort of promenade on the northern end, which offers nice views of that part of Warsaw. A little more strolling and then I made my way back to the hotel. People had said that there was no point in going to Warsaw, but I began to see they were wrong. From my hotel window, after I turned out the light, I could see several lit-up high-rise buildings farther west and south: the oldest was the Palace of Culture and Science, dating to 1913, which somehow missed being bombed. The others were newer—a Marriot, a Novotel, and then something corporate but unidentifiable; they twinkled in the distance against a blue-black sky.

Next morning I found my way to the Jewish Cemetery, which is at the edge of the neighborhood called Muranów, once the old Jewish quarter of Warsaw, that is, before the Second War. It was of course leveled (as depicted in the film The Pianist), and what is there now is a series of streets with large apartment blocks, plus green areas around them. Anyway, I first looked in at the Cemetery, which clearly goes back into the 19th century. Wandering at random I saw graves of differing ages, many dated in the 1950s, but nothing later than that. The dates earlier than the 1930s marked those who were lucky enough to live out their life span before the horror descended. And the names I read are names we know back in the States as well: Bernstein, Halpern, Judt, Broido, Balaban, Mandelbaum, Wilner, others. The graves are close together, under a thick growth of trees that, on this particular day, were swaying and sighing in the wind. There were also “symbolic graves,” memorials put up by children or grandchildren (often American) for bodies that were never found. Also, a general monument for those who died in the Holocaust; and another specifically for those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April and May in 1943. I added a little pebble to those heaped up on the memorials by earlier visitors. There was a tour group going about from place to place, and I must have looked strange to the people in it. In situations like these I can’t avoid wringing my face up into a knot, I suppose as a way of tyring to handle the feeling of tragedy.

I’ve been reading about a woman named Irena Sendler who died this past April at the age of 98. She saved the lives of some 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto, as part of her work with an organization called Zegota, the Polish Council for Aid to Jews. She was a Catholic social worker, who, along with a colleague named Irena Schultz, donned a nurse’s uniform, went into the Ghetto and did what she could for a small percentage of the 500,000 people locked up there. That involved bringing in food, clothes, medicine, and typhoid vaccine—activities that would incur the death penalty if discovered. Once the transports to Auschwitz began in earnest, the Zegota decided to rescue children, who could more easily be spirited away than grownups. Sendler set up an escape network and, to move more easily in the Ghetto, wore a Star of David armband as a disguise. She found ways to smuggle out the children—in coffins, sacks, trunks, and even through the sewer system. The children were given new names and placed in orphanages and convents or among sympathetic Gentile families, where they were kept till the end of the war. In October of 1943, Sendler was denounced by someone and taken to Pawiak Prison where she was tortured. But she never revealed the whereabouts of the children or named her accomplices. Her legs were broken so many times she never walked properly again. Receiving the death sentence, she was saved by a sudden raid that the members of Zegota staged. Whereupon she went to work again, under another identity. After the war she tried to reunite children with their parents—when the parents were still living, that is. She was one of the first “Righteous Gentiles” honored by Yad Vashem in Israel. Often mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize, she didn't receive it; but was recognized in many other ways, for example, Poland’s Order of the White Eagle, the nation’s highest honor. Less ambiguous a figure than Oskar Schindler, she would be a good subject for a film, and in fact there is, apparently, one being discussed.

Broiling under noonday sun in the first really hot day I’ve had during this trip, I walked along Anielewicz Street, named after Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1943. (Could there be a film about him as well?) Anyway, I wandered around what was once Muranów, looking for remnants of the Ghetto, but none were visible, just apartment building after apartment building. Eventually I came to Willy Brandt Square, where a temporary structure has been set up, announcing that a new “Museum of the Holocaust of Polish Jews” was being scheduled for completion in 2011. In the meantime, information about Polish Jews from that era was being gathered by an oral history specialist named Judyta Hajduk. Those whose families were part of the tragedy can contact her at: jhajduk@jewishmuseum.org.pl. Meanwhile, posted around the information center were pictures in a little exhibition produced by Polish children on the theme “Muranów and Myself.”

Nearby is a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, its value not so much artistic as historic. In black stone and bronze it represents some of the insurgents who chose to die rather than to continue in the holding pen and death chamber that the Ghetto had become. I recall the poet Grace Schulman speaking of her aunt Helen, who, when she saw that the Uprising was going to fail, climbed to the top of a tall tower and, having wrapped herself in the Polish flag, leapt to her death. Grace actually put the event in a poem published many years ago.

Also, I recently read a moving memoir by Jafa Wallach, a Polish woman now in her nineties and living in the United States. It’s about her experiences surviving the German occupation—not in Warsaw but in a small town near the German border. She and her husband and other relatives were hidden in a basement by a Polish Gentile, who managed to keep them alive until Liberation. The title is Bitter Freedom: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor.

There are many facets to Warsaw and I never expected to exhaust them in a short visit. I had a ride on the Warsaw Metro, which is clean, efficient, and, unusual for Europe, air-conditioned; and continued along several stops and got out near the Polytechnic Institute, walking from there to Lazienki Park, sometimes billed the “Royal Park,” since it was established in the late 18th c. by Poniatowski during his brief reign. Apart from the trees and casually organized plantings, there is a lake at the center of which sits a lovely 18th c. pavillon. Bridges from either side lead to it, and there are terraces in front and in back to welcome anyone who might make the journey by a pleasure boat. Corinthian columns, a central pediment with sculpture, and statues along the roofline make for an un-ponderous classical effect. Of course there always has to be a jarring note, in this case a gaggle of peacocks that wandered about in the area, making their pitiful cries as they dragged their finery in the dust. But they were easily ignored, nobody forces you to adopt any sort of deference toward their ostentatious color and the little bottle-brush crown on their heads.

I’m trying to think of some general observations to make. The thing about travel is that it takes time before all that you have seen and done register their full effect on you. Sometimes the impressions received issue in writing, either poetry or prose, and sometimes not. But nothing I know of makes history come so alive as being in the places where it occurred. Probably a third of my education I owe to the journeys I’ve made. I’ve always tried to avoid going to countries whose languages were entirely unknown to me. I broke that rule this time, and the negative effect is unmistakable. It prevents getting to know anyone who doesn’t happen to speak English. It makes getting necessary information very hard. I didn’t always find that even hotel clerks knew much English. And when the languages are very far from familiar prototypes (as with Hungarian and Polish), signs and directions are little help. I'd wanted for a long time to make the trip, postponed it, and finally moved forward. But it’s not an experience I’m eager to repeat. Next time I have to arrive with at least some of the language available to me.

Yet, perhaps the analogy to make is reading poetry in translation. You know you’re not getting the full offering of what is in the original. But if your choice is to read a translation or else never have any idea at all of what a poem by, say, Akhmatova, or Zbigniew Herbert, or Adam Zagajewski is, then of course you will read the translation. Acknowledging the drawbacks, I’m still glad I traveled in Hungary and Poland.

Let me conclude the trip by mentioning that, over the Wisla (Vistula) Tiver near my hotel, I took pleasure in seeing a beautiful suspension bridge, a modern one. If not designed by Calatrava, then an imitator of him must have done it. It’s the sort of bridge where the suspension wires look like a harp, strung from a central pier at the middle of the river to the roadbed on either side. I’ve so far been unable to find out who designed it. But I did learn the Polish word for “bridge.” It’s short and sweet: “Most.”

Monday, June 23, 2008

From Warsaw

Things are beginning to move swiftly now as I wind up my trip. So I won’t have a chance to go into much detail about my last days in Krakow. There would be something to say about the great outdoor food market just north of Florianska Gate, the one called Stary Kleparz, if I had time. But I can mention finding some delicious fresh strawberries there, not those huge, hard, sour things they sell in the U.S. And I could also mention seeing the Leonardo portrait (“The Lady Holding an Ermine,” one of only six extant Leonardo paintings in the world) at the Czartoryski Museum; or their Rembrandt (“The Good Samaritan”). On the other hand, a lot of this blog has been concerned with painting, so I’ll let that go.

I did meet with Adam Zagajewski yesterday at the little Kawarnia on the corner, which styles itself “Hamlet Café.” I got know Adam and his wife Maia eight years ago when we all stayed at a writers’ colony called the Château de Lavigny in Switzerland. When he walked in, I saw that I had aged a bit since then, though nothing drastic, really. We both had a plate of good pierogi and launched into a long summary of what we’d been doing. He is now a fellow of the Center for Social Thought at the University of Chicago, a loosely organized group of fellows in several disciplines that gather in the Second City in hopes that something useful will emerge from their association. I know that John Coetzee was there for a while, and the poet post was held by Mark Strand until a couple of years ago when he went to Columbia. Adam had taught a term at Houston for many years, but that is now past. A few months every year in the States does him good, he says, otherwise he is in Krakow, that is, when he isn’t attending conferences and poetry festivals. He’d just been in Sienna, to attend a celebration of Zbigniew Herbert, on the tenth anniversary of the great Polish poet’s death. And before that at a poetry festival in Norwich. So he isn’t idle at all when on this side of the Atlantic.

We never got around to the question about the special excellence of Polish poets. But maybe I will take it up with him in letters or e-mail posts. I suppose now I think of him as a pal as much as a great poet. There is always a little tension between those two things.

We said goodbye and I took a stroll around the neighborhood, where I stumbled on a celebration in Plac Wolnica, near the Ethnographic Museum. A stage had been set up and young men and women in a version of traditional Polish costume were dancing a version of Polish folk dances. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of either, but the effect was charming, a pleasant change from the usual watered-down American pop thing you get in Europe. I went back to the hotel for a little rest, then out again later on because there was to be a Midsummer festival along the Vistula. In the old days, young women used to make wreaths and attach candles to them and then float them on the water as part of Midsummer Night’s festivities. If a young man fished a wreath out of the water, its maker was sure to be married before the year was out. If the wreath sank, no such luck. I don’t know why I imagined anyone nowadays would bother with such a corny activity (well, maybe because of the Polish dancing that afternoon). What was planned instead was a vast outdoor rock concert on the banks of the river, with probably ten thousand people sitting on the grass for a mile of its stretch. I don’t know where the performers were. I never saw them, only a huge video screen on the opposite side of the river, with loud amplifiers to make sure we heard it all. I can say the language was English, but otherwise--. Behind us were set up street food stands and souvenir racks with glowing fluorescent wands, etc. The crowd was mostly young, but some oldsters were there as well, such is the attraction of large communal gatherings. The crowd struck me as subdued, I mean, compared to American equivalents on similar occasions. No one stood up to dance or even responded to the rhythm, just sat or stood quietly and listened. I didn’t hang around for long since really large crowds make me nervous, and the numbers were increasing every minute. It gave me food for thought, though. None of us realized back in the mid-Sixties, when we were listening to the Supremes, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin, or watching the light show at Fillmore West or East that rock music would sweep the globe as it has—after movies, the globe’s preferred art form. Both of them, for better or worse, America’s gift to the world. I guess you could add Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski to that.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Historic and Artistic Poland

This has the weakness of all generalizations about nationality, but a mood I sense among the Poles is not so much melancholy as something sharper: a disappointment, an anger, whose roots are no doubt historical. If you look at Polish history, you’re confronted with a panorama of ill-advised international alliances, devastating wars, and regime changes that come and go in dizzying succession. Throughout all this you see the Polish people constantly trying to secure an independent and functional state, an idealism defeated over and again. You also see large outside powers like Prussia, Russia, and Austria redrawing Poland's national boundaries to suit themselves, not the nation being partitioned. The Second World War begins on Polish soil and incurs fierce bombing raids from the Allies, so that Warsaw is reduced to rubble. But liberation from the Germans only delivers the country into the hands of Soviet Russia, a new Ice Age sent down from the North. The post-Communist years have seen the Poles stumble out into the light of day and try to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Full integration into the E.C. community has moved slowly, but it got another boost this last week when France agreed to allow Polish workers to take jobs in France. But will that mean a drain on the young and talented who can’t find work in Poland? Possibly. The road ahead won’t be easy. But at the least Poland is a sovereign nation, no longer a tributary to larger powers. Unless being in a position of economic dependence amounts to a loss of sovereignty.

Krakow is a Holy Land. Nowhere outside of Rome have I seen so many seminarians, clerics, and monastics thronging the streets. Furthermore, the laity pours into the city’s many churches throughout the week, at various hours in the day. But remember that loyalty to the Catholic Church, here as in Ireland, also implied loyalty to one’s nationality. Stalin quickly saw that it wasn’t going to be easy to pull the Poles away from their religion and to embrace a materialistic ideology. He failed, his successors failed, and in fact one of the forces that broke the Soviet stranglehold was the papacy of John Paul II. So no wonder that pontiff is adored in this city where he served for more than a decade as archbishop. His image is everywhere, in photographic reproduction, in stone, in bronze. An analogy might be the feeling that liberal Anglicans have for Bishop Tutu of South Africa.

Yesterday I visited Wawel Castle on a hill not far from Kazimierz. The guidebooks say people have lived on that hill since the Neolithic period 50,000 years ago. As the highest spot in the Vistula River valley hereabouts, it was the natural choice for a fortification. Walls upon walls, castles upon castles were built here over the centuries. Since Krakow predated Warsaw as the capital, kings were crowned in the Wawel Cathedral and lived in the Castle, these including Yadwiga, Sobieski, and Poniatowski, Poland’s last king. “State” rooms and private rooms in the Castle contain remnants of these various reigns, often in the form of portraits or else objects belonging to this or that vanished ruler. High walls, towers, oddly angled additions, dozens of rooms with coffered ceilings and tapestries from Brussels. I only wish you could see the paintings more clearly. Lighting is generally poor and you’re kept at a distance from many of them by a silk rope. When you really can’t see a painting, the substitute is to look out the window for a view of the rooftops and spires of Krakow. At that distance none of the tourist nonsense is perceptible. As for the Cathedral, it is of necessity grand, given the royal tombs it contains, with a lot of marble, gold, and silver. Possibly historic and dynastic sentiment outweigh the aspect of holiness here, but that's in the nature of things.

I mentioned the spires of Krakow. They are all topped with cupolas made of copper worked in a variety of shapes—some squareish like little pillows, others octagonal with rounded tops, some like cloves of garlic, and some combining more than one of these formats. Many of the spires sprout still smaller spires around their rim, these sometimes tipped with little gold balls. It’s as though the steeple were a tree-trunk with branches. Spanning centuries of construction, the church buildings come in many styles. A Gothic church built of brick was a new concept to me, but there are several here in that material, though the arches and groining in most cases will be stone. Perhaps the most beautiful brick Gothic is the Mariacki Church in Market Square, with two spires of differing shape, one of them ornamented with smaller spires and gold balls. The interior is a riot of color, beginning with the nave, painted in several colors to form a complex pattern, the colors extending up to a ceiling dyed dark blue and flecked with hundreds of gold stars; and on to the stained glass windows in the chancel, very tall, slender, and composed of hundreds of small panes intricate in red and blue and sea-green. Add to this an elaborate polychrome altarpiece, plus the marble and gold of side altars, and the carved wood of pulpits, and you get an overwhelming effect of visionary color, Ad Maiorem Gloriam Dei, I guess one could say. At the austere end of things, I took a liking to little St. Adalbert’s, also on the square, pre-Gothic, in fact, the oldest church in Krakow’s center. Try as I might I can’t recall who St. Adalbert was, and this is the first church of that name I ever recall seeing. Very plain, too, and clearly old was the handsome church of St. Andrew’s on Grodska Street, though I haven't been able to see the interior.

A question that has been turning around in my mind is this: Why has Polish poetry been so distinguished in the postwar period, even or especially under Communist rule? I don’t know the answer, but just listing names (of an older generation) is evidence enough: Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Rozewicz, and now Adam Zagajewski. I’m supposed to meet him for lunch a few minutes from now, so I will ask and see what he thinks.

Friday, June 20, 2008

From Krakow

A problem with keeping a regular blog dealing with travel is that when you try to see what there is to see, the end of the day finds you too tired to write about what you’ve seen. Nothing like complete coverage is the goal of the impressions recorded here, it's just a few out of the thousands of thoughts and feelings that a given day includes.

I'm writing from Krakow now, and it won’t be easy now to look back and talk about Budapest in close detail. But let’s see. I mentioned crossing over to Buda but didn’t describe my stroll through the Castle precincts (the original castle was destroyed by the Austrians, and all that remains is a section of strongly built wall called--not sure why--“the Fishermen’s Bastion”). There is, still, the old Mathias Church, more properly, Our Lady of the Buda Castle. But it was made over in the 19th c. into something perhaps attractive but thoroughly inauthentic; and then the makeover began to erode and collapse; and now is being restored in a maze of fencing and scaffolding. For me the main attraction of Castle Hill is the residential and administrative architecture there, long streets filled with Austro-Hungarian baroque façades in muted colors, many with white trim and sometimes sculptural ornament. Covered alleyways lead to parallel streets and some of courtyards are open, allowing glimpses into leafy and flowery prettiness. From there I walked south, past the rather modest but attractive house allotted to the President of the Hungarian Republic and on to a vast domed palace (much larger than Vienna’s Belvedere) that once belonged to the House of Savoy and now is used as a state art gallery and National Library. All along the Buda prospect you get stunning views of hills to the north, of Pest, the Danube, and the bridges spanning it. And the air this past week was flooded with the scent of linden flowers, that powdery, spicy fragrance that marks the approach of the summer solstice. The scent was so powerful I began to feel as though it had narcotic properties, instilling a dreamlike, pain-free mental state, useful to block mounting protests sent up from my footsoles. Eventually, I walked down a series of steps and paths until I reached the river level, caught a trolley and went back to my hotel for a nap.

Another day I went back over and climbed Buda’s other hill, the one called Gellèrt, which rises next to the Gellèrt Hotel and thermal baths. (No, I didn’t go to any of the spa establishments this time; in hot weather a steam-bath seems redundant.) It was a steep ascent through a fairly wild park, but, taking things slow, I arrived at the summit in half an hour, without feeling too much out of breath. There you find a military monument built of travertine, with an obligatory heroic bronze sculpture, but military monuments always switch off the observer in me. I was quite content with the city views there and glad to feel cooling breezes. It was also a chance to make my farewell to Budapest, and then walk back down to catch my trolley.

I saw a ballet at the Hungarian State Opera House, which was completed in the 1870s and resembles Paris’s Palais Garnier, on a smaller scale. The interior is highly ornamented, with a ceiling fresco, vast brass chandelier, and columns sporting decorative gilding. But, as Henry James once said, “I can stand a good deal of gold.” The ballet was a version of The Taming of the Shrew, a play whose “fable” is its least appealing feature; even Shakespeare sometimes nodded. The dancing was very good, though, especially the person who danced Kate (Alesja Popova), excellent as a "shrew" and fully convincing as an elegantly restrained wifey willing to allow Petruchio to cover her hand with his boot. Anyway, it’s fair to say that at the curtain the audience went wild, concluding with rhythmic clapping that changed tempo seamlessly several times a minute as though someone were dictating the beat. A moment of communal ecstasy that left the visitor a bit at a loss, I mean, after about ten minutes of the clap-clap, clapclapclapclapclap. "I came to see dance, not to make noise," he mutters grumpily. No, the performance part was fine. So maybe there was one good legacy from the Soviet period—the dance training that was available in Moscow.

Hungary hasn’t yet recovered from the Communist years, and apparently the present-day government is a dud. You see foreign investment pouring in, evidenced by the luxury hotels along the Danube on the Pest side and a tiled mall termed “Fashion Street,” lined with the all brand names you thought you’d left back home. But, no, here they are, urging everyone to consume, consume, consume. Building, rebuilding, and restoration is everywhere, yet the fortunes being made haven’t really trickled down to the populace, not yet. You sense the poverty strongly. Lots of begging and picking through rubbish bins, not to mention drink and cigarettes used for their pain-killing punch. Also, outdoor prostitution, which always saddens me. When money is scarce, women are the first to feel the pinch. Hard times. But the Magyars are valiant people, I sense; they have the fortitude to see it through. Budapest will become as glittery and shiny as all the prosperous cities of the West.

As said above, I’m in Krakow, staying in a battered, old, not yet refurbished district called Kazimierz, ten minutes' walk to the Old City. Kazimierz was once the Jewish ghetto, I mean, when Krakow still had Jews. There are several synagogues in the area, some quite old. And a Foundation for Jewish Culture. And lots of menorahs displayed in shop windows. Yet very few Jews now actually live here. They either went to America, or Israel, or Auschwitz. If you admired Spielberg’s Schindler’s List you’ll be interested to know the events recounted in the film occurred here, just as much of the footage was shot here. I think I found the very courtyard of the enamel factory shown in the film, at No. 12 Joszefa ulica (Josepha Street). It will or will not detoxify the location for you when you hear that the courtyard now hosts two outdoor restos, one of them with umbrellas advertising Carlsberg.

In the past decade Kazimierz has become the arty-bohemian neighborhood of Krakow, but I can see that phase drawing to a close, given that posh restaurants and galleries and less than posh souvenir shops have begun to spring up. The old quarter will be made over for the tour buses—in fact, I saw a tour bus there today. There’s still a good bit of the unvarnished funkiness, especially around Plaz Nowy, which has an open-air market for fresh produce as well as flea-market type antiques, or at least trinkets. But soon enough the sooty walls, cracked and exposing interior brick, will be repaired, hosed down and spun dry, and everything will be camera ready for annual tourist invasion from Italy or Germany or the U.S.A. We saw it happen in the West and East Village in New York, and in SoHo and Chelsea. We saw it happen in the Quartier Latin and the Marais in Paris, and Notting Hill and Camden Lock in London and in the picturesque parts of Prague. Moral: when you do discover something interesting and unspoiled, keep it to yourself. Nothing fails like success.

The historic Old City is very close already to being unbearable, especially around the Rynek Glowny (Market Square) where, in addition to the proliferation of sprawling outdoor cafés with Segafreddo umbrellas that block the view, someone has taken it into his head to set up opposing ranks of viewing stands, preparing to celebrate football, no doubt, or pop music or beer; anyway, some event entirely out of synch with medieval and Renaissance Krakow. Why can’t they have these things on the outskirts of town? Who decided to allow them to add to the unavoidable noise and crowding of the centro? Nobody seems to care. Anway, the result is I haven’t so far been able to get any sense of the scale or general effect of the Square, no matter that it is Krakow's largest public space, laden with Polish history. Nobody cares. It’s circus time in the old town tonight.

A welcome change from the razzmatazz was a visit to the Collegium Maius, the oldest part of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, which dates back to 1364. Founded by Casimir the Great, it was given a boost a few years later when King (yes, King, the title wasn’t gender-specific) Jadwiga, who survived her husband Wladislaw Jagiello a number of years, decided to sell all her small valuables and jewels to increase the College’s endowment. (Jadwiga or Yadwiga becomes Hedwig in German and Edwige in French, by the way.) A local heroine then; and another local hero, John Paul II, saw to it during his papacy that she was beatified, so she is now King and Saint. As for the College itself, its most famous student was Nicolas Copernic, discoverer of heliocentrism; and one of the College treasures is the first globe in history to include a representation of the New World. All sort of astrolables, orreries, triquetra, and other instruments of early navigational science are displayed in the rooms. Plus donations made to it over the centuries by various patrons. The atmosphere of learning merits reverence. Over the architrave of the entrance to the large hall known as the Aula, I saw the Latin phrase PLUS RATIO QUAM VIS, i.e., “More Reason Than Force.” How little interest in that sentiment those who populate the present moment ever experience. If you want to clear a room, just mention the word “reason.” Watch people glaze over and turn back to their various manias, you know, fast cars, fast food, celebs, cool clothes, stag parties, fast sex, digital toys, and war. Reason can stay cloistered in its little cloisters, thank you very much. And the mad Roman holiday of global unreason goes skateboarding along on its merry way, bowling everything down in its path.

No, I won’t be going on a bus tour to Auschwitz or Birkenau, close as they are to this city. Years ago, during a trip to Munich, I frog-marched myself to see Dachau, purportedly one of the milder camps (based on the fact that it was built on German soil, which must not be dishonored). The Nazis solved the dilemma by putting the worst camps outside the Fatherland. I did go and see Dachau, but… never again. I know the death camps are there. That’s enough.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

From Pest to Buda by the Szechenyi Bridge

My hotel is in Pest, which is the business side of this tandem national capital, but I did cross over to Buda yesterday in search, could we say, of the enlightenment to be found there. And how did I cross? With the Szèchenyi Bridge, another in the series of suspension bridges this blog has mentioned over the past month. It was constructed in 1849 and uses the same method and materials as in Brunel’s design for the chain bridge in Bristol. But the massive stone piers have neither Brunel’s parabola arch in them, nor Brooklyn Bridge’s ogive, but instead a nicely proportioned Roman arch. Also, the stonework bears some traditional ornament, as neither of those bridges does. And I begin to get the feeling that for Hungarian sensibility, ornament is necessary for any object or building that wants to be regarded with interest. It’s quite clear that the Magyars are an artistic people, I mean, the majority. And the difficulty they face is that they are isolated from the rest of the world by a difficult language, neither Germanic nor Slavic nor Romance. I admit I was daunted by the prospect of trying to get along as a traveler who doesn’t know a word of the local lingo. But anyone in an official position here knows enough English (the world’s current lingua franca) to answer your questions, and willy-nilly you do begin to learn a few words of Hungarian.

I tried out a phrase or two yesterday when I called my friend Eleanor Perènyi, who at the ripe age of ninety years lives in Stonington Connecticut. I met her there in the early seventies and count myself lucky to have known her and learned from her over the years. She has a fierce intelligence and knows more history and literature than is at all plausible for someone without a university degree—anyway, more than I do, even though having one. Her deep education comes from travel, reading, attending performances and getting to know the thinkers and artists she encountered over her long life. In the late thirties she traveled to Budapest with her mother and met a young Hungarian baron at a dinner party, a man whom she not long after married. She settled down in a part of Hungary then known as Ruthenia, where there seems to have been something like a baronial castle. My geography is a little shaky but I believe Ruthenia was parceled away after war and no longer belongs to Hungary. Eleanor had come back to the States with her young son during the fighting, and she was never reunited with her husband, who lived a couple of decades into the Communist period. She has written a fascinating memoir about her experiences titled More Was Lost. She also wrote a brilliant biography of Liszt and his circle. And to top it off, a best-selling garden book titled Green Thoughts. How many pleasant evenings I remember sitting on her back porch over drinks and looking out at the charming garden she had made. “Pleasant” in this case doesn’t mean placid, because discussions were always sharp and energized by liberal politics. Part of Eleanor’s identity comes as a heritage from her ancestor Robert Owen, the Welsh social theorist who came to America and founded a utopian community called New Harmony in what’s now the state of Indiana. So it was heartwarming to put in a telephone call from a city that was once a capital for her.

And quite a city it is, mega-scale in so many ways. The Parliament Building is larger than London’s, also neo-Gothic, but with a huge baroque dome added for good measure. All of the palaces and public buildings seem crushingly monumental, and even the city’s stretch of the Danube is very broad. I began to understand why Liszt’s music is as grand as it is. And some of the churches are very large, too. (Brought up as a Protestant, I was surprised to see not one but two old Lutheran churches in this very Catholic country. But apparently there has always been a German-speaking community here, and not all of it drawn from Catholic Austria.) I’m told also that the Budapest synagogue is the largest in Europe, and it certainly seems to be—a huge brick structure with paired towers and an interior cemetery shaded by plane trees.

Which brings me to another connection to Hungary. In the early seventies, I lived with the architect Walter Brown in New York and, during our five years together, got to know a lot about his Hungarian ancestry. His mother was born in Hungary but had died before I first met Walter. I did meet his grandmother Pepi, who, unlike her husband, survived transport and imprisonment at Auschwitz. After the war she came to America and made her living as a cook in Catskill hotels that needed kosher meals; she also taught Walter some traditional Hungarian recipes. Her family had been prosperous farmers somewhere in the country, I don’t know where exactly. Their being well-liked and respected by their neighbors didn’t prevent them from being transported, however. I recall listening as she told stories about that unsummarizable era. Walter has only ever been to Hungary once, and his mother and grandmother refused ever to come back.

A strange thing: when I went to the Hungarian National Gallery, I saw a painting by the 17th c. artist Gerrit Dou, purportedly of Rembrandt’s mother. I’ve always had a soft spot for Dou, and paid close attention this time as wel. Then it struck me that the sitter looked exactly like grandmother Pepi. She died many years ago, but it was as though I’d rediscovered her here.

The core of the gallery was the Esterhazy collection, donated to the state more than a hundred years ago. There are quite a few surprises in it, including yet another large Pieter Brueghel, titled John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness. Even without a proper cleaning I can see that it is a brilliant painting, filled with characteristic touches. Equally moving were the El Greco canvases, including a very atypical portrait of the Magdalene. So atypical as not to seem by El Greco at all; but the label says it is, so I bow to superior scholarship.

And some powerful Courbets, including a large-scale picture of two wrestlers I’ve never seen even in reproduction. It was not included in the Courbet show in New York I mentioned back in March. Another surprise was a Gauguin snowscape, not at all a characteristic subject for the great painter of the South Seas. And the brushstrokes looked wispy and feathery like Renoir’s. But then real artists always have a surprise or two up their sleeves, and the signature was the GAUGUIN we’d all recognize.

There was also a temporary show of photography involving human subjects, a huge grab-bag of well known and less well known photographers. Among familiar names like Stieglitz and Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange were others I’d never heard of, several of them Hungarian. The show also gave Brassaï’s real Hungarian name (Gyula Halasz), before now unknown to me, just as I hadn’t known he was Hungarian. Kertesz of course I already knew about, but it was tonic to see so many of his works again. A huge gathering of images, as I said, and all to do with human subjects. Which inevitably involved social tragedy and politics in some of the works. Not that I automatically approve of atrocities being photographed. It is a kind of exploitation, and the only justification for it is the possibility that it might contribute to the will to change the way things are. It can also degenerate into a detached, voyeuristic form of thrill seeking. You certainly don’t want to fall into thoughts like, “Oh, I’m such an ethical person since I execrate events like those represented here.” Viewing depictions of the disasters of war is not intended to make us feel good about ourselves. But there’s no getting around the impact of the photographic record as compared to a journalistic account, and some people have speculated that the photograph taken during the Vietnam war that showed a naked little girl fleeing an attack shortened the war by a year.

This blog is jumping from thing to thing, but then my visit here has been sort of improvised and ad hoc, and the results are what they are. I have more to say, more things to report, but they can wait. Just glad I have this means of telling about the trip to my dozens of friends, whom it's impossible to write as often as I'd like,

Monday, June 16, 2008

From Vienna to Budapest

Happy Bloomsday. I thought I might conclude with Vienna before going on to Budapest, where I am writing this. Another connection of Vienna to English-language poetry is the fact that, when expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, it was assumed that Joseph Brodsky would go, like other exiled Russian Jews, to Israel. But the U.S.S.R. had no direct flights to Israel, so the usual method was to transport Jews first to Vienna, where they could change plans and go on to Tel Aviv. But Brodsky lingered in Vienna and met the Slavicist professor Carl Proffer, who proposed that he come to teach at the University of Michigan. Brodsky accepted the offer, and that’s how he ended up living in the U.S.A. At some point that year he also met Auden, who was a sort of paragon for him. I’m not sure whether it was in Austria or not. But Auden tried to be as helpful as possible, and one result is that Brodsky always revered him both as a man and as a poet.

I met Brodsky briefly when he taught in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia. (It was the glory period of that program, when writers of the stature of Brodsky, Walcott, and Elizabeth Hardwick taught there, invited by Daniel Halpern, who was the director.) Then, on the tenth anniversary of Auden’s death, Brodsky worked with the Academy of American Poets to stage an Auden celebration, the invitees including Stephen Spender, Anthony Hecht, Marilyn Hacker and someone too immodest to mention his own name. Several years passed, and by chance a friend took me along with him to Brodsky’s fiftieth birthday party, at his place on Morton Street. Joseph and I had a stimulating talk and arranged to meet shortly after at an espresso house on MacDougal, either the Reggio or the Caffé Dante, I’ve forgotten. That’s the last time I spoke to him; and at a shockingly early age, he died, always refusing to give up drinking and tobacco, even after two bypass operations.

The story has a coda: in August of 2006, I went to St. Petersburg, a trip I’d wanted for decades to make. It was only my second venture out of Western Europe (the first being a brilliant trip to Prague in 1995, one result of which was the long poetic sequence “A Musical Sacrifice”). Russian literature had been one of my touchstones, and the prospect of visiting the city of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Biely, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Nabokov, and of course Joseph, charged me up. I’d been in London that summer and had got to know Valentina Polukhina, who has been married to the English poet and translator Daniel Weissbort for many years now. Valentina is a Brodsky scholar and, when I mentioned my acquaintance with Joseph, insisted I meet with his daughter-in-law Rimma Basmanova, and his grandchildren. Rimma was divorced from Joseph’s son Andrei Basmanov, whose mother Marina Basmanova never took Joseph’s name or gave it to their son Andrei after Joseph was exiled. I met them at my hotel near the end of the stay, and one of Joseph’s granddaughters (she was named Pasha) served as translator since Rimma’s English was unsteady. A touching moment, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I should back up a bit and explain, since I’m now in Eastern Europe, how the fascination began. In the early 1970s, Edmund White introduced me to the distinguished Slavicist Simon Karlinsky, who wrote the first critical book in English about Marina Tsvetaeva. I used a phrase from Tsvetaeva’s poem “Molitva” as the title for my first book All Roads at Once. Then, in the late 70s, Simon introduced me to Nina Berberova, who at that time taught in the Slavic Department at Princeton. There was a picture of Nina in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, accompanying a commentary of a book about a group of artists and intellectuals who were expelled by Lenin not long after the Bolshevik regime was established. She, like many other Russians, left the country once she realized the danger. She first lived in Paris (and practically starved) and then came to the United States in the late 40s.

I never met a more charming and—is there a word besides “noble” that conveys what I mean? Nina served us tea and when asked spoke of the literary scene in St. Petersburg in the teens of the last century. She had married the poet Khodasevich, from who she was later estranged, and she knew all the major figures of that day. She presented me with a copy of the English translation of her memoir The Italics Are Mine, a detailed portrait of the pre-Revolutionary era, the early days of the new regime, and then her later exile. About a decade after we met, some of her stories were translated into French and then English, and she became famous worldwide, in a way that she had never been earlier in her life. By then she was pretty much housebound, inevitable at her age, but I gather she was alert enough to be pleased at what had happened. Some stories have happy endings.

As said, I’m in Budapest, some fifty-two years after the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union was brutally put down. Again, I feel the charm that seems to be the rule in the eastern part of the European Community. The Hungarian version is de-accelerated, no fuss, no bother, gently humorous. More to follow.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Auden's last night. Vienna Museums

The earlier blog mentioned Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," and it suddenly struck me that Auden died in Vienna, thirty-five years ago come September. I asked (by e-mail)the Auden scholar Edward Mendelson if he knew the name of the hotel, and he told me it was the Altenburger. I did some checking on the Web and found the address: No. 5, Walfischgasse. It's a location easily reached, so there was no reason not to go and have a look. You don't nowadays find a hotel at this address, but there is actually a plaque mentioning Auden's death, if not the circumstances. He and Chester Kallman had a house in the Austrian village of Kirchstetten. He had stopped for a night in Vienna on his return from the annual summer vacation there. I've forgotten his destination. The reason he chose this modest place to stop was, I'm guessing, that it is just arond the corner from the Staatsoper. Interesting that Auden died in the same city as Mozart.

As long as I'm speaking of memorials, there's on my hotel mentioning the fact that Max Steiner lived at this address. Another exile, but we have the scores of Gone with the Wind and Casablanca as a result. I also saw a monument to Franz Werfel in the Schillerplatz, and I believe that he too died in Los Angeles. My hotel is not far from the Prater, a large park that also has amusements like a ferris wheel and roller-coaster, etc. Not sure many people read the novel now, but one of my favorite Isherwoods is Prater Violet, a fictionalized account of his dealings with a Viennese film director named... I can't recall. But recommend the novel. Isherwood, too, ended up in L.A., along with many distinguished expatriates. Auden (and others) opeted for New York, and the rest is cultural history.

I've been seeing paintings in various museums, for example, the Belvedere, with its Klimts; the Leopold Museum, which has wonderful Schieles and other less celebrated Austrian artists; and, also, the Academy of Fine Arts, which has a fine small collection that includes a Hieronymus Bosch Last Judgement. My reaction to this array of torments alternated between horror and suppressed laughter. Bosch managed to cram in about two hundred varieties of torments for the damned he painted. His demons are composite, with human, reptilian, avian, and mammalian bits, a stupefying work of bricolage. And all these creatures as industrious as can be as they mete out punishments for the Seven Deadlies. One squat woman in a wimple was sauteeing a poor wretch in a frying pan, and I suppose the only reason he didn't climb out of it was that he'd still be in hell fire. Macabre imagination. But, again, there is that element in non-Mediterranean Europe, something dark and nightmarish, which often comes into the art it produces. Vienna seemed actually to revel in that in the years 1890 to 1914. Torment was for Viennese artists what strapping youths were for Whitman--the source of a lot of enthusiasm and artistic production. But if the results include Schiele's painting, who's complaining?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Kunsthistorisches Museum

In yesterday’s blog I brought up the topic of ecphrastic poems, and today’s visit to the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) offered a chance to think about the topic again. Suppose I begin with the Brueghels. (That is, the paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. His father Jan was a good painter, on a smaller scale, and his son Pieter the Younger at least made decent copies of his father’s work.) One Brueghel not among the KM’s holdings is The Fall of Icarus, which led Auden to write “Musée des Beaux Arts,” about the work that is found in the Brussels museum whose name is Auden’s title. The poem begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters…” and goes on to explain why. Auden focuses on the “incidental” character of a painting’s central drama as portrayed in the context of onrushing, indifferent human activity. Auden observes that, while a martyrdom is underway, the torturer’s horse “scratches its innocent behind on a tree,” and, meanwhile, it’s business as usual for bystanders in the picture. When some pivotal event in sacred story occurs, there are always children around “who didn’t especially want it to happen.” Brueghel takes the same approach in some of the KM pictures, for example, The Conversion of St. Paul, where the viewer is hard put to locate the missionary saint in his tumble from the horse he was riding on the road to Damascus. Hundreds of people are trekking through a mountain pass (somewhere entirely un-Syrian, with figures dressed in 16th century, as opposed to biblical, fashion)—some are riding, some are soldiers in armor, but others are just trudging along. Near the center of the picture we eventually do find a small figure of a man who looks as though he has just had a sunstroke, next to his horse, which is lying down. A couple of fellow travelers pause to offer assistance, but most don’t. It’s not so much an instance of La Rochefoucauld’s “We all have strength enough to bear the sufferings of other people,” so much as a sort of cruel imperviousness: people just don’t notice.

No doubt it was the impact of Auden’s poem that led William Carlos Williams to write his sequence Pictures from Brueghel, a sequence based on those paintings where the artist depicted village life in northern Europe. Williams’s poems have a down-to-earth, galumphing charm but they are not in the same league with Brueghel’s portrayal of peasant life in the Low Countries. This fact should remind us of the risk involved when we choose artworks of great magnitude as the subject of our poems: the disparity between the original and our version can be crushing. In Brueghel’s picture of a peasant wedding feast, there are many good reasons to be overwhelmed. First, the exacting realism of the piece, where nearly every square inch of the picture attests to dedicated observation and precise rendering—the matte finish on a terracotta wine jug, a child sucking its finger, the bagpipe player’s cheeks belled out as he puffs at his instrument. Yet Brueghel’s draughtmanship is not photographic. Human characters are rendered in his own inimitable stylized manner, with a strong feeling for volumetric form, almost as though his people were clothed statues that he has painted. (You get the same feeling from Piero della Francesca’s figures, but Piero allows them to remain static and statuesque, while Brueghel humanizes his characters through bustling action and vocal interaction we can almost hear.) The faces sometimes have a caricatural aspect, to a degree tapping into Northern Renaissance painting’s tradition of the grotesque, as found in painters like Bosch, Altdorfer, Mabuse, and even sometimes in Dürer. But Brueghel is laughing with, not at his peasants. These are celebratory pictures, carnivalesque, down home, reassuring.

The next ecphrastic painting in the Brueghel series is Berryman’s “Hunters in the Snow,” after the painting of the same name (it hangs in the KM). This is one of the artist’s most powerful pieces, pushing toward the monochromatic as he works to give us the sense of a snowbound winter evening under verdigris skies. The silhouettes of the three hunters and their dozen hounds (some with with curled tails) are nearly black, sharply contrasting with the bone-white snow. And figures further in the background skating on a pond are simple silhouettes, with nearly all color and detail suppressed. Only one hunter has only one dead fox hooked to his pike; the day’s sortie hasn’t resulted in much, and who can eat fox anyway? You feel that it is cold, cold, a day “when icicles hang by the wall,” as the Shakespeare lyric puts it. Berryman’s poem comes closer to matching the power of the original. He is aware of the implied hardship and his spare language amounts to a verbal equivalent thereof. He enters the painting and senses what its figures feel.

No one yet (so far as I know) has written a poem about Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, and it is probably wiser not to. His rendering of the subject belongs to the tradition of imaginary and unbuildable architecture; though I suppose skeptics said the same about Cheops’s pyramid when ground was broken for it. An unforgettable image, this circular tower of brick and limestone, with the truncated high-rise shouldering aside a cloud or two. The destructive proliferation of languages is imminent, and humankind will never be the same again.

Let’s make a switch and go to Francesco Mazzola, better known as Il Parmigianino. I missed his works here when I visited forty years ago for the simple reason that the KM is so huge, with so many side galleries, it takes ingenious perseverance to see everything hanging there. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t know about Mazzola at that time. But I’ve come to admire him a lot, and recommend paintings in the Naples Museum and the National Gallery, London, for anyone who is curious. But the KM has a work I particularly wanted to see: that was his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the stimulus for one of John Ashbery’s most celebrated poems. And there it was, considerably smaller than I imagined. Which didn’t mean it didn’t have presence or wasn’t moving. Mazzola was so young. I think he died in his thirties, and in this portrait he seems little more than an adolescent, with tender features and a gentle expression. Not only the image, but the physical painting itself is convex, which separates it from flat representations of convexity, as in the background mirror found in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage. Looking at it, you have the eerie feeling that you are seeing your own reflection, only, it’s not your face. And in the foreground there are the much enlarged four fingers of his right hand, the thumb hidden; presumably he is at work drawing the portrait we are seeing.

To turn anecdotal, I recall when I first read the poem, I believe in the summer of 1974. John sent it to David Kalstone, an English professor and critic of poetry (see his Five Temperaments and Becoming a Poet), who had sort of volunteered to serve as a mentor for me in those years. David and John happened to live opposite each other on 22nd Street in New York and became friendly. Anyway, David was spending the summer in James Merrill’s house in Stonington, Connecticut that summer and invited Edmund White and myself up for a weekend. During the visit, we sat down together and David read out the poem. Our jaws dropped; we were stupefied. And when “Self-Portrait” came out a year later in the book with the same title, it sort of swept the board, raking in three major prizes for that year. John had been pretty thoroughly marginalized before then, but that book changed everything. Not that the work is typical, on the contrary. It’s the most discursive poem he ever wrote, and among the longest. It makes arguments, includes autobiographical details, and even quotes art history scholars. It also develops some of his lushest imagery—not without a certain disquieting undertow of implication, however. For example, in the passage about there being one bullet in the chamber, a trope that transforms the painter’s room into the magazine of a revolver. I don’t automatically assume he was aware of all that the poem contained back then. No more than I assume the poem is a product of “automatic writing.”

And, yes, of course I spent some time with the KM’s staggeringly beautiful Vermeer, The Artist in His Studio. Though I’ve seen it several times since 1968 and spent hours going over every detail, there is always more to notice. One sensation I experienced today was the feeling that the scene was actually filled with some indefinable, pellucid gel, as clear but not as liquid as water. And if it can contain a liquid, then the picture space must exist in three dimensions, not two. Its spatial terms are like ours—a brilliant acquarium, filled with hallucinatorily believable creatures, no matter that the painter’s back is rudely turned to us. What other painting shows the principal figure with its back turned? No actor ever allows that to happen onstage, but Vermeer took the discourteous risk, one that is supposed to alienate audience attention. Why? Because he and his avatar are absolutely wrapped up in the second world that painting is. He doesn’t care that we are there behind him watching. We don't exist for him. The model turns her head in our direction, granted, but looks down and can't see us. She is an allegorical representation of Clio, the Muse of History. But also a young woman, demure, pleased at being painted, and ineffably lovely.

Around five o'clock I stumbled out of the museum in bright sunlight. Football (soccer) fans thronging the streets, yelling and creating fan-type ruckus. With my genius for timing, I scheduled a trip to Vienna for the week when the city is hosting the Europe games for 2008. I realize I don't live in the same world as the one most people believe they are inhabiting. But Somebody loves us all," as Elizabeth Bishop said in "Filling Station."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I was only once ever in Vienna before, just over forty years ago, when Ann and I made a trip from Paris to Greece and stopped in the old capital of the Austro-Hunagarian Empire on the way. Not a long visit, the main object to see the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which among many masterpieces has the best Brueghels to be found anywhere. Not to mention one of Vermeer’s greatest works, The Allegory of Painting. (That visit is mentioned in the poem “Seeing All the Vermeers,” in my most recent book Contradictions. The poem combines ecphrasis with autobiography, and works as a kind of résumé of my life from 1965 to the mid-1990s. Anyone interested in the topic of ecphrastic poems might check out some notes on the subject I wrote for the Academy of American Poets website: www.poets.org.)

I was out of the hotel this morning by 9:30 and took the U2 to the Karlsplatz stop. A short walk from there to the Staatsoper, but there doesn’t seem to be a ticket office open. I think Strauss's Capriccio is being done this week, a thoroughly Viennese work it would be a treat to see here. I’ll check at the hotel desk and see what they know. From there I walked to the Albertina Gallery, which I didn’t visit 40 years ago. No less than three large exhibitions were on offer. First, there was a collection of works by Oskar Kokoschka after 1934, when he exiled himself from Vienna (for the usual reason: first to Prague, then to London and Cornwall, and finally to Switzerland.) Only after the Second World War did the artist return for visits to Austria. I knew nothing about the late works, so different from the haunted dark brown, black and gray portraits of his early phase. These were generally highly colored, reminiscent of the Fauves, Bonnard, Nolde, Dufy. Kokoschka in exile doesn’t disdain from “postcards,” either; there were views of Florence from just above the Ponte Vecchio, of the Matterhorn, and of Salzburg—the sort of subjects modernists after Cubism abjured as banal or sentimental. We’re meant to read them as celebrations, clearly, and it seems cold-hearted to refuse to join in the artist’s pleasure in what he sees, especially when rendered with so much élan. Portraits were downplayed in this exhibition, but whenever one did appear, as the sole subject or else as part of a larger tableau, they never failed to leaven the picture. He had the ability to make the human face move and breathe, partly through carefully calibrated renderings of the eyes and other studied details. I never though of Kokoschka as a watercolorist, but numbers of the works were precisely that, engaging pictures of animals, landscapes, or flower pieces done with a wonderful lightness and economy, and lots of white space left around them to breathe in. The London oil paintings included a view (coincidence!) of the Tower Bridge, with the drawbridge aloft. After the Kokoschkas went to live in Cornwall, he produced some spirited pictures there. These are all sited in the coastal village of Pol Perro, which I remember with pleasure from a visit there in 1978. (Actually, after that visit I wrote a poem titled “Cornwall,” found in my selected poems, if you want to look it up. I've begun to feel a kind of kinship with Kokoschka.) His Cornish paintings are lovely evocations, sometimes including the fish, crab, and lobsters hauled in by the locals.

There are also many allegorical works, sometimes leaving the viewer with the mixed feelings stirred up in us when we look at Vermeer’s Allegory of Faith. So much skill, and so few precautions taken against laughter. Also, the artist was quite ready to produce artistic responses to political events like the bombing of Guernica, the Anschluss, the annexation of Czechoslovakia, or Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Kokoschka wasn’t as squeamish as his ars gratia artis colleagues; instead, was rather careless as to how his work would be received. There’s something great-hearted about that. I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, but it always provoked a smile in me whenever I focused on his initialized signature “OK” down in the corner of a painting.

Next was a show of works by Paul Klee, recently donated to the Albertina by Carl Djerassi, who did the world the great service of discovering, in 1952, the birth control pill (a newspaper here designates it as the “Anti-Baby-Pille.”) I met Carl in the late 1980s when I was a resident at the Djerassi Foundation, an artists’ colony in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Palo Alto, California, where he lived with his wife the critic Diane Middlebrook, one of the most charming scholars I’ve ever been friends with. This past winter I got the sad news that Diane had died. I first met her in the early 1970s when she did a teaching stint at Rutgers and lived in New York; a former student of Harold Bloom at Yale, her specialty was poetry. I recall that her dissertation (later published) concerned Coleridge’s theory of the imagination and how it could be applied to Whitman’s poetry. Some of you may have read her critical biographies of Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath. During my stay at the colony Diane and Carl came over and had dinner with the residents, and I got to like him too. I was aware that Carl collected Klees, though I never saw them. I think I did hear a while back that he contributed some of the collection the San Francisco Museum of Moern Art. And now another part is gong to the Albertina, in the capital of Carl’s native land, with which he now seems to have made peace. (It begins to sound like a broken record, but of course he had to flee Vienna at a young age when the Nazis came to power.) What I must ask Carl the next time we meet is why he developed a special enthusiasm for Klee, I mean, as opposed to, say, Chagall, Soutine or Steinberg. Well, the work speaks for itself.

Finally, an exhibition of a group of paintings recently placed on permanent loan with the Albertina by the Batliners, a husband and wife who have been collecting modern painting for many years. About one hundred works, beginning with the Impressionists and moving forward, with stops for Monet, Vlaminck, “Der Blaue Reiter,” “Die Brücke,” Matisse, Bonnard, Vuillard, Magritte, Mirò, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, and Rothko. One of the less known artists, placed in a room with other avant-garde Russian artists of the 1920s, was Natalia Goncharova, a Russian émigrée whose work I don’t ever recall seeing before. I mention her because, among other things, she was the teacher of Sara and Gerald Murphy when they came to live in Paris in the early Twenties. I won’t go into that story now, but interested parties should see an article I wrote about the Murphys for the 60th anniversary issue of The Hudson Review, published earlier this spring. Artistic themselves, the Murphys were also great patrons of the arts. And so long as we have societies where massive disparities in personal wealth exist, the rich can take steps to compensate for their larger share of economic power (sometimes acquired, after all, because of unusual talent and hard work) by philanthropy. A beneficiary of the Djerassi Foundation myself, I’m glad to see it make a generous contribution to the cultural life of Vienna and to the world at large.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

To Eastern Europe

Luton Airport: I’m on my way to Vienna and am going to continue the practice of using the hour before boarding time to log in what’s been going on.

Since last writing, I’ve had a couple of unrushed days in London that included a visit to the National Gallery, probably (guesswork) my two hundredth over the past forty years. But every time I go, things seem to have moved a bit, at least since the new Sainsbury Wing was added. I’m not complaining, because the changes seem to involve showing things that weren’t displayed before. Or I never saw them. For example, this time, two mysterious canvases by Justus of Ghent, a painter I’d never heard of—portraits (as women) of two of the classic disciplines, Rhetoric and Music, both placed in ornate niches, presumably marble. The rendering of their features in a sort of sauternes-colored half light was sensitive, grainy, and evocative. What I couldn’t find this visit was the Titian Bacchus and Ariadne, which I’ve come to think of as somehow quintessential for the museum’s holdings, though I can’t say why. It may not be as great a painting as the Van Eyck Arnolfini Marriage or the Piero della Francesca Baptism of Christ, but its light and vigorous splendor is like no other work I know of, and oh the lapis blue of those skies! Whatever else might be said about it, B&A is the Titian that most satisfies me. I also noticed that many more Italian bas relief sculptures were displayed. Though maybe I'm just super-sensitized to it because of a long essay I published in The Hudson Review last October about the Lorenzo Ghiberti "Gates of Paradise" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. They were showing restored panels from the masterwork of the cinquecento artist Ghiberti, that is, the bronze and gold leaf doors to the Florence Baptistery. Anyway, I'm fascinated by the visual vocabulary of low-relief sculpture, as the essay tried to show. On the personal side, the doors were mentioned in my long poem Notes from a Child of Paradise, which I've talked about here before. It's good to recall that Paradise isn't a patent, no one has a monopoly on it, not even Dante. Otherwise why would Kerouac's fictional stand-in be called "Sal Paradise"?

From Trafalgar Square I took the tube down to Waterloo and then the Jubilee Line (the London Underground’s newest and sleekest) to Canary Wharf, a part of London I’ve had in mind to see ever since it was built; but, because it’s out of the way (for those of us not in business), I never got round to going. This visit, I found time for it. From my point of view, the site didn’t require a lot of exploration, just an unhurried stroll around the plaza outside the tube station to take in the glass and steel boxes that stand all around. There’s also a resident canal connected to the Thames, which in this stretch of its length does a lot of oxbowing. And a shopping mall, apparently very posh, but I avoid those places whenever I can. Anyway, if the London of the 21st century interests you, here it is, bigger than life, at Canary Wharf. Not surprisingly I noticed a fashion photo-shoot underway, with the highrises as its background: a young model in black and gray spiderweb-patterned dress, twisting this way and that while assistants held reflecting panels. Last picture taken, she and the photographer exchanged a kiss.

I had dinner with an old friend on Sunday. This is Jean MacRae, an American who has lived in London since the mid-1960s. A childhood friend of my former wife Ann Jones, she was my introduction to the city during my first visit here in 1967. By the same token, she came for a visit to Paris during the year that Ann and lived there in 1967-68. (See the earlier blog that recounts the Paris upheavals in May of that year.) And we’ve been in touch intermittently ever since. I suppose in an effort to prolong the afterglow of Spain, we had dinner at a tapas place, no rival for what’s available on the Costa Blanca, but even so reminiscent. My oldest London friend.

Yesterday I followed up on the earlier introduction to Sudeep Sen (first encountered in the blog for May 11) and met him for lunch. We settled on the Giraffe Café at the Brunswick Mall (near Russell Square Station) and spent an hour together both amusing and serious. Sudeep has just returned to London from Delhi, where he spends most of the year. He has a house here out at the end of the Picadilly Line, convenient for the part of the year he spends in London. It turns out that one of his earliest books is titled New York Times and consists of poems about the city written while he was a student at Columbia. Another link between us. We decided we should do a poetry anthology called World Cities. Think of it: Saõ Paulo, Tokyo, Delhi, Johannesburg, London, Berlin, Mexico, and of course New York.

I had some extra time before the reading in Earl’s Court Monday evening, so I made a special detour to Tower Hill. Emerging from the tube, I walked behind the Tower, last seen on that 1967 visit. But my goal was not Guillaume le Conquérant’s stronghold, but instead the Tower Bridge. I’d conceived a hankering to walk on it, just possibly because of the suspension bridge theme that has been running through this blog. The untutored often call this the London Bridge, but of course that’s a bit farther west on the Thames, and in any case not the original structure whose downfall the children’s song laments. I vaguely recall hearing that years ago an American bought the remnants of the previous London Bridge, thinking he was going to get the Tower Bridge. Disappointed, he nevertheless he set it up somewhere in the deserts of the Southwest. But maybe this story is apocryphal, anybody know? As long as I’m asking questions, do you suppose the builders of the Tower Bridge realized in advance it would dwarf the Tower itself? It incontrovertibly does. The effect of massiveness is overpowering, given the four stone piers, in elaborate Neo-Gothic style, that hold up what might be described as a semi-suspension bridge, composed of cast iron as well as masonry elements. I walked to the central part, looked east and west and surveyed the Tower from this vantage point. Bright hot sun on the Thames made a sharp a contrast to the chilly damp weather of the past week. Too hot to stand in for long, but then it was time to board the District Line and go down to Earl’s Court for the reading.

Anne-Marie Fyfe’s Coffee Poetry series is held at the venerable Troubadour Café on Old Brompton Road. I arrived early and was first greeted by Cahal Dallat, for many years married to Anne-Marie, an excellent poet and a learned critic as well. A few minutes later Anne-Marie came down to the wine cellar level below, and we took up where we left off the week before. Eventually, the other readers filtered in, beginning with Janice Moore Fuller (who has done a Ph.D. thesis on James Merrill and was the reader of his poetry for the evening). Then, Martha Kapos, who was scheduled to read Stevens. Then Beverley Bie Brahic, a poet who lives in Paris; she led off by reading Roethke’s poems very well—and after all, it’s his centenary year. I read second, featuring some of Elizabeth Bishop’s best known poems (like “The Prodigal” and “Questions of Travel.”) After that, Martha K. and then Janice Fuller. And a full evening it was: American poetry doesn’t have to hang its head, however fallen the democratic national ideal of freedom and justice these days. Some mingling with the audience afterward, but it was getting late, so I hurried back to the hotel to do some of the packing for today’s trip. Which is about to begin. Over the next two weeks I’ll visit Vienna, Budapest, Krakow, and Warsaw before returning to London for a night and then the U.S.A.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Hasta la vista

I’m in Alicante Aiport as I write this, and have an hour before check-in time. This will have been the only chance to say anything here during the last week, which was taken up with classes, hikes around town, and meals enjoyed at a leisurely pace. We didn’t have ideal weather in Relleu, in fact, more consecutive days of rain than anyone ever expected so far into the spring. It certainly made everything green, and the last two days gave us warm temperatures and pellucid skies. I think the classes went well; we got some good writing done. Even I stole a few hours to draft a new poem, stimulated, I suppose by the productive atmosphere.

In class we read poems by Elizabeth Bishop and by Mimi Khalvati, in particular, “The Mediterranean of the Mind” (mentioned in an earlier blog), which Mimi wrote a few years back during her stay at Almàssera Vella. It describes the village of Relleu, but it also speaks of Michael Donaghy, who taught a course here just a week before Mimi arrived for hers. They were good friends, colleagues who respected each other’s work. The sad thing is that Donaghy died of a brain hemorrhage the week following his course, and the poem brings in his death as it develops. In fact, it is an “in memoriam” poem dedicated to him.

My encounters with Michael Donaghy were minimal. In the late 80s, he had the galleys of his first book sent to me, requesting a jacket comment. I wasn’t aware of him them, didn’t know that he had served as editor of The Chicago Review before expatriating to London and making his living there as a performer of Irish music. Eventually he became integrated into the London poetry scene, forming close ties with other young poets like Mimi Khalvati, Don Paterson, and Matthew Sweeney. Everyone I’ve spoken to about him says that he was enormously well liked. We only met face to face one time, but I can’t quite recall the circumstances. I believe it was in 1986 at a pub in, I think, Camden Town, where I was then living; or maybe 1987. I don’t remember who introduced us, but I do recall that he said he’d come to live in London and was performing on what he called “the penny whistle” as a way of supporting himself. Then, probably ten years later, after he became well known on the British poetry scene, a friend gave me his telephone number and suggested I call; this was during one of my stays in London in the late 90s. But our schedules didn’t match up, so we didn’t see each other. A few years passed, and suddenly he died. Those are the facts, and it’s hard to feel resolved about them. I keep thinking that with a normal life span, we’d have seen him do even better work. But the books we have stand on their own merits, original and intelligent as they are. However tangential the contact, I feel as though I know him and wish things had turned out otherwise.

I’ll be in London this weekend and then participate in the celebration of American poetry that Anne-Marie Fyfe has scheduled for the Coffee Poetry series on Monday. We’re not reading our poems, but instead poems of an earlier generation—Stevens, Roethke, Bishop, and Merrill. (I’m the Bishop reader.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

From London to Spain

The last couple of days in London were devoted mostly to seeing friends: the American poet Kathryn Maris; James Byrne, young poet who in addition edits an innovative poetry magazine called The Wolf; the poet Yvonne Green, one of my closest London friends; and Anne-Marie Fyfe, already introduced a few days ago in these pages. It’s not solely poetry that interests me, so let me bring up here Adam Mars-Jones, the novelist and critic, and his partner Keith King, who does ceramic sculpture. We had dinner on Wednesday at a popular place in Soho called Mildred’s, and my friends were telling me how they recently got hitched (as English law now permits people of the same sex to do). So, yes, instead of Adam and Eve, it’s Adam and Keith. My hat’s off to them and to the progressive direction the British legal and social system is taking. (U.S.A. take note, and let Massachusetts and California set the tone rather than Kansas and Alabama.) Adam is still riding high on the reception of his third work of fiction, published under the strange title Pilcrow. (Look the word up. I’d seen the thing, I just never knew what its name was.) Anyway, a fascinating book, written in the voice of a boy who suffers a major disability; and may remind readers of Denton Welsh or A.J. Ackerley because of the fine-grained observation, the lapidary style, the irony, and the bizarre sense of humor. Close to five hundred pages, surprisingly, the book is only the first of four or maybe even five installments. We’re not done with Cromer (the narrator} yet.

The focus of my time in London was seeing friends, but I did see a special selection of 20th c. American prints at the British Museum, the artists including Sloane, Hopper, Marin, George Bellows, Walter Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, and Pollock; plus many that were unknown to me like Martin Lewis (Hopper’s Australian-born teacher), Peggy Bacon, and various minor talents that worked at the celebrated Hayter studio in the postwar period. The Marin etching was (if I’m allowed to pick up this blog’s bridge theme) an expressionistic rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge, predating the Joseph Stella painting by several years. On the whole, a satisfying gathering of graphic work, much of it conceived according to 1930s left-wing positioning, to be expected, given that many of the prints were done under the auspices of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. A brief repatriation for the blogger. Meanwhile, an upcoming exhibition scheduled for July will interest me just as much, to judge by advance publicity; too bad for me, because I’ll have left London by then. It’s about Hadrian, his visit to Albion in AD 122, and the northern wall whose construction he decreed. Nearly two years ago I published a poem titled “Hadrian” in Michael Schmidt’s PN Review, a poem dealing with precisely this same subject matter, so I’m eager to see how British Museum presents it. An excuse (not needed, really) to come back to London before the show closes.

On Wednesday I met James Byrne at the British Library, before walking over to the recently renovated St. Pancras rail station to get some lunch. Up on the second level were umbrellas and tables put out by an Italian restaurant, and that’s where we had our meal. I gather tourists are coming to see the new St. Pancras for itself alone. In the middle of all the modernist steel and glass has been erected a huge bronze sculpture on a four foot high pedestal, representing a young couple in vaguely Fifties-style dress, indulging in a torrid snogging session. I guess it’s the sculptural equivalent to la poésie des départs, a bit of Casablanca for London’s new Eurostar terminal. Not too far from that there’s also an oversize statue of John Betjeman, doing his imitation of a wine barrel. The obvious explanation for his effigy is that, except for his conservationist efforts, the old St. Pancras would have gone under the wrecking ball. But I happen to know that there is another less public reason. Though married, he for decades conducted a semi-public love-affair—with his wife’s knowledge if not her complete approval. In order to meet his ladylove in her own setting, he would hop a train from St. Pancras Station to Chesterfield in Derbyshire. Details about the affair are found in the Bevis Hillier biography. (By the way, are we all too serious and modern, are our jaws so set that we can’t unlimber and enjoy light verse? For what it is, I mean? Something that makes a point—and us laugh—simultaneously? A while back Hugo Williams wrote a good, unpompous defense of Betjeman for The Guardian; he made a convincing case.)

After lunch I went to the Poetry Library, whose rooms are in the Royal Festival Hall building were closed when I was living in London two years ago. So I was curious to have a look. But there wasn’t much time to take its measure because less than five minutes after I go there, Anne-Marie Fyfe appeared, just a little behind schedule. Exclamations appropriate for happy reunions, and then we went down to the terrace outside RFH, pretending not to notice the cool, overcast weather. We had our coffee while talking about people we know in common, and various poetry-related topics. Anne-Marie is dear and funny, one of the nicest people on the poetry scene. She has agreed to let me tag on to an evening of American poetry she’d planned for the Coffee Poetry series at the Troubadour Café on the 9th of June, after I return from Spain.

Spain is where I am now, preparing to lead a course at the Almàssera Vella arts center, here in the village of Relleu in Alicante province. This part of Spain is called the Costa Blanca, a favorite for British expatriates, in fact, nearly a million U.K. citizens live hereabouts. Last night I gave a reading at Alicante University in the pretty town of Benissa. All of this was arranged by Christopher North, who invited me to teach here several months ago. He was waiting for me at the Alicante airport when I got in on Thursday, and the drive to Relleu gave us a chance to begin to get acquainted. Chris is as kind and thoughtful as friends in common had said, and I am one lucky diablo to be able to come here to teach. Course members arrive later today, and our first class is on Sunday.

I’ve already met a couple of other English expatriates, friends of Chris’s who live in the nearby village of Sella—Terry Gifford, the poet and critic, and his partner Jill Round, who has written a book about the best walking trails in the area, based, obviously, on their extensive experience here over the years. Terry happens to do rock climbing, the subject, actually, of the poems in one of his collections. It’s obviously one way to be fit in your sixties, if Terry is an indicator, though not a method I’d risk, sold on yoga as I am. Jill and Terry joined us for dinner on Thursday and then again after the reading I gave last night. As could be expected, we found a bar in Benissa that provides good tapas and sat there sampling the tasty varieties for a couple of hours. Terry has just completed a book on Hughes and told me many facts not generally known about the poet who has now outdistanced Larkin as the most admired English poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He doesn’t rate the Birthday Letters book as highly as I do, but then so much of what I write is autobiographical, it’s inevitable that BL would interest me. Still, we might ask ourselves if it really is odd to be gripped by personal narratives, considering that people (like the show tune says) are always going to be more interested in people than in any other phenomenon. For the sake of argument, let’s leave the deity out of it.

This blog is getting to be too long, but let me say that Alicante province and Relleu are stunningly beautiful, with all the components we expect in countries flanking the Mediterranean—olives, palm trees, oranges, lemons, almonds, pomegranates, lavender, bougainvillea, stone ruins, red pantile rooftops. More specific details about Almàssera Vella can be found in Mimi Khalvati’s long poem “The Mediterranean of the Mind” (The Meanest Flower). She has taught here a couple of times and made good use of the surround. Her poem is dedicated to Michael Donaghy, who died a few years ago, and who was one of the earliest poets to teach here. I want to speak about him as well, but will postpone that, considering it’s hard to read long texts online.