Sunday, April 12, 2009

Boston and Hudson

I haven’t written here this past month, and instead used Facebook to keep friends posted. But there’s more going on these days, so here we are, back on Blogspot.

This past Wednesday I took Amtrak to Boston’s South Station where Robert Pinsky met me in his black BMW to drive us to lunch. I hadn’t seen Robert for a couple of years, depending instead on email to keep in touch; but we always instantly pick up the thread where we left off. It’s a friendship that began in 1976, when we were both tapped for the “Introduction” program New York's 92nd Street YMHA used to host. The idea was that four first-book poets were chosen each year to read in a program at Kaufman Hall. (The other two that year were Tess Gallagher and Maura Stanton.) Robert is among the contemporaries I most admire, a poet of wide sympathies and solid poetic achievement, which has won him an ardent following. His most recent book Gulf Music is world-class poetry, which leaves me wondering why it didn’t win all the major prizes when it came out. But then prizes are anybody’s guess, aren’t they?

We drove to a restaurant near Boston U., where Robert teaches, and had a light lunch, exchanging news, opinions about recent books, and thoughts about mutual friends. Seeing Robert is always an upbeat occasion, because he is a mensh; we agree on nearly everything. Old friends are best, to wax proverbial. After lunch, Robert let me off at the Gardner Museum, with no sense that we’d exhausted topics of mutual interest. I’m determined not to let a long interval pass before our next meeting.

My afternoon plan was to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the legacy of a 19th century heiress who exemplified many of the ideals of America's Brown Decades. That period’s widespread preoccupation with European art was expanded in her case by an enthusiasm for Asia and Asian art. I’ve visited the collection several times during the past three decades, but only under rushed conditions. This time, several free hours were available. I strolled and lingered and, sure enough, focused on things that had escaped notice before. People who haven’t visited may even so know about the notorious theft of several art works (including a Vermeer) from the Gardner several decades ago. The crime was never solved and the works haven’t been returned. As it happens, I mention this incident in a long poem from ten years ago titled “Seeing All the Vermeers” (found in Contradictions). Curators at the Gardner have left the empty frames on the walls where the paintings used to be, a sharp reminder of the loss.

Mrs. Gardner commissioned this building on Boston’s Fenway in order to house an art collection too large for normal domestic spaces. Rooms are arranged around a central courtyard incorporating architectural elements brought from Venice, notably, four corner balconies down from which stream lianas maybe twenty feet long, a cascade of orange nasturtiums that were a special favorite of the patroness. It’s an effect that requires careful training of the annual plants by staff gardeners. The courtyard garden these days is very done up, exhibiting pots of orchids and a quartet of tree ferns and large palms in the corners. Plus other tropical plantings among the statuary. Colonettes integrated into the brick arcade at ground level are medieval, but, really, everywhere you look bits of European stone carving drawn from many different periods are incorporated into walls and corners, so that the whole becomes a sort of historical anthology of architectural ornament.

Though Gardner collected some statuary from classical antiquity, she seems to have had an aversion to the neoclassical 18th century; possibly she felt Boston proper already provided enough from that period. Instead, the emphasis is on Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 19th century, and Asian art. One corner is dedicated to the memory of Okakura Kakuso, Japanese author of The Book of Tea. He came to Boston shortly after 1900 and became a friend and advisor of I.S.B.'s, part of whose fortune was based on the China trade. He became her primary channel for insight into Buddhism and Japanese culture—ink painting, ceramics, ikebana, and the tea ceremony. Considering it all, you begin to understand the cultural matrix that produced Amy Lowell’s Orientalism and the related esthetic of Imagism she espoused once Pound had announced the movement. Several local fortunes were built on the China trade, and of course the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has one of the greatest collections of Asian art outside of Asia. Gardner had a descendant of the same name (known to her friends as “Belle”) who wrote poetry (not at all in the Orientalist or Imagist vein); she was Allen Tate’s last wife. It has occurred to me her work is due for a revival, so maybe we’ll see that in the coming years.

As for paintings, I had forgotten that the Piero della Francesca Hercules is there, though its provenance I don’t know. It’s an eroticized treatment of the mythological hero and certainly not a typical subject for quattrocento art; so it would be interesting to read an art-historical account of it if readers can direct me to one. The Gardner’s Botticelli Madonna (the first major artwork that I.S.B. bought) is a fine example, not as saccharine as other works of his. And there is the famous El Jaleo of Sargent, a chiaroscuro rendering of flamenco musicians and their silk-skirted dancer. Also, a youthful Rembrandt self-portrait that I’d say doesn’t figure as a great example of his self-portrait series. And the Titian Rape of Europa, which, though dynamic, has a certain gracelessness atypical for this painter. Meanwhile, the subject provides a neat analogy for American rubber barons’ raids on the art treasures of an impoverished Europe during the late 19th century. Many of the works are secondary, if not merely copies of notable paintings, and quite a few could use some cleaning. Paintings are hung among pieces of furniture, tapestries, and decorative pieces of varying quality. The jumble aspect, which has to be maintained in accordance with Gardner’s will, is disconcerting. But certainly the whole provides access to the ambiance of the Jamesian era in American cultural history.

After leaving the Gardner Museum, I took a T train to the Boylston stop and walked on Boston Common for a while, trying to speculate where exactly Emerson might have had his “transparent eyeball” vision, the one recounted in his magisterial “Nature” essay. Possibly near the band shell at the center, a gray stone structure with a small dome. It wasn’t built when he wrote that essay; but if the band shell's stone hemisphere wasn’t the source of the eyeball image, there was still the gold dome of the Massachusetts State House directly in view. I recall that on quite a different occasion Emerson took a stroll across the Common with Whitman and sagely warned his younger disciple against writing poems with explicit sexual content—advice just as sagely ignored.

I walked up toward the State House and, once I got to Beacon Street, paused to look at the Colonel Shaw memorial, a bronze relief sculpture commemorating the slaughter of Colonel Shaw’s 54th Regiment at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July 1863. The 54th was the first African-American regiment in our history. The story is, by the way, told in a stirring film that came out more than a decade ago (Glory, with Matthew Broderick providing an appealing Col. Shaw). Is it an accident that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued the same year when the Fort Wagner massacre occurred? The sculpture is, unmistakably, St. Gaudens’s masterpiece; and it served as the point of departure for Robert Lowell’s powerful poem “For the Union Dead,” an excellent example of the public poem bearing political content. Beneath the bronze relief you see verses by an unidentified author inscribed on the granite base:

Right in the van on the red rampart’s slippery swell
With heart that beat a charge he fell
Forward as fits a man
But the high soul burns on to light men’s feet
Where death for noble ends makes dying sweet.


The Shaw monument is directly across from the State House, a handsome structure in Georgian-style brick with white trim. It is the design of Charles Bulfinch, built in the 1790s on ground that used to be John Hancock’s cow pasture. Since it was directly in front of me, I decided to have a look inside. Easy enough, though you have to pass through security check. On the second level I found the Flag Room, ornamented with the flags of historical importance, under a dome of many-colored glass. This addition to Bulfinch’s original design dates from around 1900. Up another level, you can find Massachusetts’s lower and upper legislative chambers, connected by a hall where portraits of former governors hang, including a 17th c. Governor Bradstreet, who must have been related to Anne B., this continent’s first English-language poet. The Senators convene in a blue and white neoclassical hall designed by Bulfinch, its dome directly underneath the exterior gold counterpart.

That seen, it was time to leave and recross the Common. After some browsing in the venerable Commonwealth Bookstore, I went into one of the buildings that house Emerson College, directly overlooking the Common, to find the office of my friend Jason Roush, who teaches there. Jason has just published his third book of poems, titled Crosstown. I met him six years ago in Provincetown, when we were both participants in a gay literature conference. We became friends, and I’ve followed his work since then with a lot of enthusiasm. He had invited me to attend a reading scheduled for that evening at Emerson, and, after catching up a little, we walked to the building next door to find the hall where he would perform. Excellent poems, presented with heartfelt skill, warmth, and good humor. The new book has several poems about London, which he visits every year. It’s one of our affinities, but not the only one. Many of the poems involve rock music, which he knows a lot about; in fact, he’s become my main source of knowledge about the music scene. As happened earlier with prose fiction, film, and jazz, we are seeing rock escape designation as mere popular entertainment and enter the realm of the fine arts, with sophisticated critical discussion and college courses devoted to the subject. So it’s inevitable that contemporary poetry has begun to deal with the music that has the largest share of the global audience.

It was one of the topics we touched on next day during a drive from Boston to Hudson, NY. Jason had volunteered to drive me there since there’s no direct public transportation to take. The trip lasts something over two hours, and we had good weather. Once in Hudson, Jason left me off at Bill Sullivan’s house on Prospect Street, where we were invited in cordially. But Jason had to get back to Boston, so we made our goodbyes fairly soon. I’ve known Bill for a couple of decades, meeting him through Jaime Manrique, another close friend who lived with Bill in New York City for many years. Bill is a painter who has been showing since the 1960s, one of the few contemporary artists who have been able to make use of 19th century American painting, in particular, the Hudson River School. Where better for him to live than Hudson, across the river from Thomas Cole’s house in Catskill, and in the same town where Sanford Gifford once lived? Actually, Bill is working on a new show that will open in Hudson this May at the Carrie Haddad Gallery. The theme this time is portraits of young men who have tattoos. He's finishing up the works in the show now, but with luck he'll find (before the show is complete) someone who has a tattoo of the Hudson River; painting that, he could unite the two themes.

It was a stay of only one night, a stopover on my way to Ledig House in Ghent, NY. Ledig House is a working residence for writers from many countries. I am there now, but will postpone for a while giving an account of it. At some point during the coming week, I imagine.

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