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.

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