Monday, October 22, 2012

Angier on Blue + Poem: Robert Frost

Bluebird (Credit: Anthony Mercieca/Getty Images)
Today when I read Natalie Angier's New York Times article, "True Blue Stands Out in an Earthy Crowd," and viewed the related slideshow on the color blue and its increasing appeal to scientists, and read her comment that "Blue is sea and sky, a pocket-size vacation," I thought immediately of Robert Frost's "Fragmentary Blue," one of my favorites of his poems, which celebrates the concentrated power of this globally beloved color. The poem, which Frost published in the volume Miscellaneous Poems to 1920, first appeared in the July 1920 issue of Harper's Magazine. It is a rhetorical gem, an almost perfect demonstration of the poet's grasp of prosody and rhyme, but also of figures ranging from polysyndeton and metonymy to antithesis and repetition, among others. As Frost points out, brief bursts of blue often beguile us more than those vast "sheets" in "solid hue" that unfold above us.

Blue, the hue, is, as Angier's article suggests, a bit more complex and powerful an entity than we might imagine. Its popularity has, as Michel Pastoreau notes in his study Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton UP, 2001), risen and fallen over the centuries, returning in recent decades to widespread favor. Yet it was not always so and who knows, perhaps blue will fall for some reason or other in years to come (though I hope it triumphs next Tuesday!) Among artists, as Victoria Finlay points out in Color: A Natural History of Palette (Random House, 2003), it has often been treasured when available,  and during the Italian Renaissance cost 5 times as much in pigment form as other colors, including various rare whites. Blue has distinctive, possibly beneficial cognitive, psychological and physiological effects.

Yet it's also associated with coldness, sadness, and death, especially when the lips or skin blues; it's linked to suffering, but also to the ability to live to tell about it--i.e., with the blues, which are often quite beautiful.  According to Angier, blueness in food can suppress the appetite; I once worked with a man who found blue-colored food (blueberries, blackberries, etc.) nauseating. A blue light in your refrigerator might be just as effective as an apple instead of a bag of chips, or a radical diet.  Blue also, Angier says, apparently attracts mosquitos, so no blue tee or polo shirts when summer comes. There's a lot more too she has to say about blue, so I recommend the article. Before you click on it, though, how about a little blue Frost?


Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)--
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

Copyright © Robert Frost, in Harpers Magazine, July 1920. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pierrot Lunaire Turns 100

It was 100 years ago yesterday that Arnold Schoenberg's almost-unclassifiable, remarkable pantonal piece Pierrot Lunaire débuted at the Berlin Choralien-Saal, with Albertine Zehme as the solo vocalist.  A century later, despite all the developments, changes and shifts in music, and the assimilation even of Schoenberg's later 12-note compositional style by musicians working in rock, jazz, and other genres and idioms, the Pierrot Lunaire has not lost its freshness, strangeness or edge. Schoenberg based his Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds 'Pierrot lunaire' ("Three Times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud's 'Pierrot lunaire'") on poems by the now-forgotten Belgian symbolist poet Albert Giraud, translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben, and the 3 x 7, or 21 poems, revolve around the lovelorn exploits of that Romantic and later fin-de-siècle icon, the Comedia del'Arte pierrot, as the his assail him/her. Moondrunk at first, the poems tell of desire, sex and sacrilege, then of violence ("Theft," "Beheading"), then of his return home to Italy, the final poem utterly nostalgic in its tone, "O Alter Duft" (Oh Ancient Air).

As in later works, like his unfinished opera Moses und Aron, Schoenberg incorporates the Sprechstimme (speak-sound) or Sprechgesang (speak-singing) technique, pitched speech, as it wee, which presses right up to the limits both of talking and of singing without fully sliding into either. The small but potent forces in the melodrama's ensemble are unusual and highly inventive; they include a flute (doubled as piccolo), a clarinet (doubled as bass clarinet), a violin (doubled as viola), a cello, and a piano. Part of what gives the piece its almost otherworldly qualities is this ever-varying combination of instruments, which play in differing pairings throughout the piece, with the entire ensemble playing together only in the 11th, 14th, and final four pieces, but what also becomes clear with careful listening is that Schoenberg incorporates older classical forms (as his student Alban Berg would do, up several levels of composition, in his opera Wozzeck), such as passacaglie and canons, across the 21 settings.

Nuria Schoenberg Nono commenting on her father's Pierrot Lunaire

There are also, as with other Schoenberg (and Berg works), a numerological coherence to the poems. He began the work on March 12 (3/12, in the year 1912 (numerological a 3)); it constitutes his Opus 21, and contains 21 poems. There are seven performers on stage, including the conductor, and the work makes use of 7 note motifs throughout. The number 13, which Schoenberg also often avoided, is significant, in that each poem comprises 13 lines (2 quatrains followed by a quinzaine), while the first line of each poem occurs three times (being repeated as lines 7 and 13), which is the way that Hartleben reproduced Giraud's originals.

Zehme commissioned the work based on Giraud's poems, and Schoenberg spent five months perfecting the piece, which he completed on July 9, 1912.  He and Zehme then spent the next four months, with over 40 rehearsals, perfecting Pierre Lunaire, finally presenting it to the public that fall. It was not his first triumph, nor his last, but it definitely lodged Schoenberg's name in the ears and minds of his peers. Pierrot Lunaire would have a profound influence not only on Schoenberg's students, such as Berg and Anton Webern, but on musicians working in different styles and tonal idioms, such Anton von Zemlinsky and Maurice Ravel. Even today, figures as different as Björk, John Kelly and Bruce LaBruce have been entranced by the other-worldly music and performance the piece brings forth. My favorite performance is Christine Schäfer as the soprano soloist performing with the Ensemble InterContemporain, led by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon, 1997), though the Glenn Gould version below is probably one of the most beautiful and entertaining on the web.

Here are a few clips of Pierrot Lunaire from YouTube. Enjoy!

The one and only Glenn Gould, performing selections with Patricia Rideout
The first set of poems, soloist Schäfer with Boulez, and the score
The second set of poems, soloist Schäfer with Boulez, and the score
A version with jazz interludes

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Quote: Mordechai Noah

"Wall-Street is a kind of commercial barometer, and I always observe the countenances of men of business in passing through this bustling street. Very lately I was stopped by a commercial quidnunc, who informed me that Mr. A, B, C, D, E and F, had failed within three days; that times were uncommonly bad and prospects very gloomy, and the result could not be foreseen. Independent of the hazards of commerce, I could account for these failures. These houses, of some ten year's standing, had commenced with small capitals, some with no capital; and instead of uniting industry, prudence, and rigid economy, a contrary course had been pursued, and the first shock overwhelmed them. Look into the houses of some of the merchants, and see them furnished with a splendour equal to that of British nobility; look at their mode of life and actual expenses, and say whether any business can bear such extravagance. Several of these broken merchants have expended for ten years past, nearly 10,000* dollars per annum, in their houses, carriages and wines; can it, therefore, be surprising, that an accumulation of such expenses should lead to ruin?

"I have long observed with regret, the wanton extravagance of our merchants and traders.  A store is rented at 1200 or 1500 dollars per annum, and a dwelling-house at 1000 or 1200 dollars; and a system of living corresponding with such establishments is adopted, which sets economy at defiance, and leads to ruin--and, by a pernicious example, attracts others into the same dangerous vortex. Why should men waste money? why should more money be expended than what may be necessary for the decent contours of life? why will families plunge themselves into ruin, merely to live a few years in luxury? Is not such a course at war with common sense, and with the duty which a man owes to society and his family? Can any business prosper under an annual domestic expenditure of 10,000 dollars, together with losses in trade?...

"If these things are not checked, we may complain of the times without producing reform, and now is the period to commence the work of regeneration, and to use firmness where persuasion fails."

-- playwright, diplomat, journalist, and sheriff of New York Mordechai Noah (1785-1851), "May 6, 1819. [Wall Street Men and Wives]," in The Selected Writings of Mordechai Noah, Michael Schuldiner and Daniel J. Kleinfeld, editors, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.

*According to the Measuring Worth's website US currency calculator, in 2010 dollars $10,000 would be equal to between $177,000 and $202,000.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rutgers-Newark Reading at Dodge Poetry Festival

Established in 1986 and formerly taking place in suburban Morristown, New Jersey, the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival has moved to Newark, with most of the festival events occuring at the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts (NJPAC). I have not been able to attend since the late 1990s, but now that I'm back in the area I did attend one of the events yesterday, a reading by some of the graduate student poets in Rutgers-Newark's MFA program in writing. The event was held at the Aljira Gallery on Broad Street in Newark, and like the festival, I hadn't been in the space in a few years, though I have remained on its mailing list.

Among the students reading I'd only heard one, Maurice Decaul, perform his work, a few weeks back, as part of a superlative event with poet Mike Ladd and pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dream Project, a multimedia cantata addressing memories and dreams among recent US military veterans of color, at Harlemstage, so each reading served as an introduction to the poets and the program. Their reading and performing styles were diverse, the poetry drawing on a wide range of influences, from the high Modernists to spoken-word, and very little of it showed any of the influence of the Language or Conceptual schools of writing. One of the students in my graduate literature course on postmodernism, transhumanism and posthumanism, playwright and teacher Vincent Toro, performed, or should I say embodied, a poem about bodies directly in conversation with the themes and topics we've been discussing in class, so I may ask him to reprise it at some point for those who weren't able to attend.

The reading was not just a fine introduction to the graduate poetry students, but to the Dodge Festival and Newark, a city with far more treasures than people acknowledge. The Aljira Gallery is one of them.

Grisel (Toro)
Grisel, the poetry event's MC
Vincent Toro
Vincent Toro
Maurice Decaul
Maurice Decaul
Rutgers MFA student Ines Lopes
Ines Lopes
Dana J. Catlett
Dana J. Catlett
Aaron Michael Klein
Aaron Michael Klein
Sean Battle
Sean Battle

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Seeing Serrano

Andrés Serrano's portraits
Andres Serrano: "The Interpretation of Dreams (White Man's Burden)" (2002),
"Nomads (Mary)" (1990), and "Nomads (Lucas") (1990), all Cibachrome prints,
silicone, acrylic, wood frame, 60 x 50 inches, limited editions,
Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery
Because of the hype and the news reports about the exhibit's opening week, I was bracing for a bit of craziness at the Edward Tyler Nahem galleries, where artist Andres Serrano's exhibit, Body and Spirit: Andres Serrano 1987-2012, is showing until October 26. At midday yesterday, however, there was no such excitement. Instead, I encountered a near-empty gallery, the front part of which, facing 57th Street, mostly featured Serrano's large Cibachrome prints. The majority of these were portraits of types: either Nomads, from a series Serrano photographed in 1990, or representatives of "America," some native, some immigrants, from 2002. There were two HIV-focused images, one "The Morgue (AIDS Related Death)," from 1992, that depicted marmoreal crossed hands that could easily have been a close-up of a detail from classical statuary, and the semi-abstract "Semen & Blood III," from 1990, its title self-explanatory, its juxtaposition of artful imagery and materials often eliciting disgust a hallmark of his work. As crisp as these images' colors were, as carefully as he treated such concerns as composition and lighting, as much as each did resonate in terms of the concepts behind them, I have to admit I found them rather uninteresting.

The America series' boy scout, its Playboy Bunny, the queered subjects of the Nomad series...I felt like I was walking into an argument from decades ago, one I'd listened to, even participated in, with variations many times, and though his side (my side) was persuasive and seductive, my response was that it just felt perhaps a bit played out. Obvious. Not that Serrano's works in these modes aren't relevant today, when immigration and immigrants themselves, female, brown and black, Muslim bodies and minds are the subjects of rhetorical and physical attacks, but they did not grab me. There was one Cibachrome print portrait, of a black man in Klan robes, entitled "The Intepretation of Dreams (White Man's Burden)," from 2000, that perhaps once would have induced a bit of shock, but after Dave Chapelle's infamous skit along the same lines, just felt a bit heavy-handed. (And given that Serrano's subject was smiling while cloaked in that infamous costume, I felt like I was seeing the anxiety of influence take a particularly obvious material form.)

None of these images would be likely to spark controversy today. In fact, the piece de la résistance sat in a second room, the back gallery, along the eastern wall, behind a thick sheet of Plexiglas. I am talking, of course, about "Piss Christ" (1987), the 60 x 40 inch Cibachrome print whose beauty, and shock value endures. What I did not know was that alongside "Piss Christ," Serrano also photographed a Madonna in urine (or a substance mirroring its pictographic effects), entitled "Madonna of the Rocks" (1987), its statuary like the crucifix in "Piss Christ" cloaked in haloed light, its subject glowing beatifically orange amid an almost transcendental background gold, nearly the exact reverse of the hues in the more controversial image. The conversation between these two images, and between two others, "Moses" (1990) and "Piss Discuss" (1988), its subject a statue or figurine of a classical athlete, was intellectually and aesthetically invigorating.  But where was the outrage about the Virgin Mother in piss? Had the protesters even noticed it, or seen either work? Or was the whole brouhaha, even in its newest iteration, just ginned up for purposes having nothing to do with the artworks themselves? The quiet of the gallery readily suggested an answer.

Despite being shadowed carefully by a gallery guard, I took advantage of the fact that a crew from a French TV show was shooting footage to snap a few images of the works, including "Piss Christ." I could not get photos of two other photographs in the same back gallery, direct in form and style as the piddled images, but more in line conceptually with the portraits out front. "White Baby Jesus" (1990), which looked like a chess queen covered in milk or chalk, floating in water, and "Black Baby Jesus" (1990), an anodyzed version of the same figurine, efferverscing as if dissolving in its watery darkness, were also, despite their overtness, both striking and memorable. I immediately thought of all those black  and brown Madonnas, of Czestochowa and São Paulo, that have turned up over the centuries, whose presence grounded and reterritorialized the elite power and discourse of the Roman Catholic church in a folk, mystical, popular form that the church later (warily) embraced.

The binarized Christ images made me think about Serrano himself, a Honduran, Afro-Cuban, Catholic-raised, conventionally trained, New York native artist perched between the racial (and racist) and cultural binaries still so dominant in this society, coming of age during the Identitarian and late Conceptual moments, the former of which is now often treated as if an aberration and the latter of which has integrated a few artists of color but mostly not dealt with the range of isms that still course through the societal lymphatic system. I thought that these two images, far more than "Piss Christ" or the quartet here of which it was integral part, suggested the true depth of his work, its power, and its meaning.  I only wish there had been more images of this sort in the exhibit; blessed with skills, he has more than a few times, as these show, been onto something worth pondering over more than once.

Andrés Serrano's "Piss Christ" and other images
Andres Serrano: "Piss Discuss" (1988) and "Piss Christ", Cibachrome prints,
silicone, acrylic, wood frame, 60 x 40 inches, limited editions,
Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery

Friday, October 12, 2012

Domesticating Columbus

Marcus Yan for the New York Times
"Only in New York City." That's how one of the guards at the base of Tatzu Nishi's Discovering Columbus public art installation summed up the remarkable creation now open for visitors until November 18, 2012 in New York's Columbus Circle. He was correct. Though Nishi has created similar conceptual pieces elsewhere, and New York is hardly starved for spectacles, there is only one statue of Genoa's favored son, and only one Columbus Circle in the city. Nishi's audacious project required him to convince the city's administration to let him to construct a carapace around the pedestal and rostral column of Gaetano Russo's 1892, 13-foot monument to Columbus's 1492 journey to and encounters in the New World, and then, at the base of and around the Columbus statue itself, a living room. Not only did Nishi persuade the city to greenlight the project, but today, on what is actually Columbus Day (or Peoples of the Americas Day, as someone renamed it years ago) I walked through the result.
At the base of the tower
Outside the tower
Rather than air, a temporary, living room, furnished with flooring, wallpaper, couches and chairs, tables and lamps, and a flat-screen TV running last week's Vice-Presidential candidate debate, filled the space around the statue, not only bringing others and I closer to it, but domesticating it, figuratively and literally. Nishi managed to resituate the monument within a human scale, and, to my mind, transformed it, at least within the context of that space, from an emblem and symbol of the terrible centuries of domination, suffering and oppression that colonialism and imperialism unleashed and that Western History has, until recently, often effaced or downplayed into, if even briefly, a different sort of figure. A postcolonial act, it seemed, the monument and the ideas inherent in it deterritorialized, rescaled and repositioned in potency, even if for the span of one's walk around it, one's gaze upon it, one's focus on the numerous other picayune details the room offered. One could, ironically enough, ignore it for an instant or two. Instead of looming over the (metro)polis, Nishi's re-presentation of Columbus now stands nearly at our eye level--or his knees, at least; for Manute Bol, eye-to-eye might be more of a likelihood. We were nevertheless forbidden to touch him, or should I say, it.

The Discovering Columbus tower
The tower from street level
Not that history itself changes because of the exhibit, but at least symbolically, for the duration the installation and the moment of one's interaction, the exchange resets. I don't know if any of this was part of Nishi's thinking, but given that the European age of exploration also included encounters and subsequent wars with Asia, transforming that continent in the process, perhaps it subsists somewhere in his thought. I thought it quite apt that the young man checking the tickets, which were free and available only through an online website (if you were lucky enough not to be kicked out of the system repeatedly, as I experienced and as others told me they were, before I finally lucked on a date and time that had not yet oversubscribed), was, as he mentioned in passing, from the Dominican Republic, one of the two countries on the island, Hispaniola, where Columbus initially touched down (though the settlement he established there, Natividad, was on the site of what is now Cap Haïtien, in what is now Haiti).
Regarding the man behind the "encounter" in 1492
Regarding Columbus
Mostly I felt the sheer elating strangeness of walking around, standing and sitting down in a living room high above a teeming streetscape when that's usually impossible to do--and with a giant statue nearby. I did overhear one woman standing near me in the room mentioning to a man beside her that she lived just a stone's throw away in a nearby tower and the view wasn't so unusual, but added to him that even she was a bit disoriented by this new proximity to the monument. For the majority of visitors, though, even those living in New York's or other metropolises' skyscrapers, I imagine the experience of Nishi's public installation will probably still feel a bit defamiliarizing and exhilarating. Perhaps the large numbers of billionaire New Yorkers who live in aeries brimming with multimillion-dollar pieces of giant artwork might respond with indifference, but like most of the people who entered the room with, I found myself smiling and staring with marvel. And then, because of the time restrictions and my desire to free up space for the next group, I was descending the stairs and back on the street, exiting an ingenious and surprisingly powerful work of public art. Columbus Circle did not, and will not, look the same.

In the "living room," Columbus's pediment at left
In the living room
More photos:
View from the summit, outside the "living room"
Broadway, from the summit
The line, from the stairs
The crowd, from the stairwell leading to the summit
The line to see Discovering Columbus
The crowd
Before we could enter the room
The doorway leading to the living room
In the room
Inside Nishi's installation
Central Park
Central Park
Looking east, from the tower's "living room"
Looking east, up Central Park South (60th Street)

Monday, October 08, 2012

How Nobel

Haruki Murakami at MIT, in 2005 (Wikipedia)
Almost every year since I've been blogging here I present a short brief on the imminent Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the world's most important literary award. Only once have I accurately named one of the writers who ended up winning, and then only in passing: Harold Pinter, the late, highly original British playwright, screenwriter, actor, and political activist, and 2005 recipient. Among the many writers I've hoped would be recognized, none have. I did call yet again last year for a poet to be honored after 15 years of that genre being overlooked, in favor of fiction, and the Swedish Academy, to its credit and no intervention of mine, honored the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. He was a widely acclaimed choice, though he did fall within the recent trend of the Academy looking within Europe's borders (or just outside).

Beyond Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee and Orham Pamuk, every laureate since 2000 has been European (and once could make a case for including Turkey within the European matrix). I also am including Doris Lessing, who was born in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran), and spent her formative years in Zimbabwe, but writes in a European language and has lived most of her adult life in the UK, and V. S. Naipaul in that group, though he hails originally from Trinidad and Tobago, but he has long been not just a virtual but an actual Briton. There has never been a laureate from Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Algeria, Lebanon, South Korea, Kenya, Cuba, Jamaica, Indonesia, Haiti, or quite a few other countries with vibrant literary histories, traditions and cultures. And, as I need not remind anyone, the list of deceased extraordinary writers who were overlooked since the establishment of the Nobel Prize in Literature is vast, while some of those who have been honored (René Sully Prudhomme, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, etc.) have vanished into the pages of oblivion.

If one trusts Ladbrokes betting line, this year's winner will be Haruki Murakami, the Japanese fiction writer, whose magnum opus, 1Q84, appeared early this year in English translation.  For critics in Japan and across the globe the mammoth tome confirmed his status as one of the most inventive and important living contemporary authors.  I'm a huge fan of Murakami's and think he is deserving, but I also think there are many other authors, some older and with fewer hours left on their clocks, such as the great poet Adonis (Adunis), or Guyana's Wilson Harris, or Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría. Anti-poet Nicanor Parra is another. There apparently has been a kibosh on US writers since Toni Morrison's prize in 1993, and in 2008 in Horace Engdahl, then the Permanent Secretary to the Swedish Academy, spelled out the reason, describing US literature as "too isolated, too insular," and decried US writing (unfairly, of course), attributing to authors a critique of the American publishing industry: "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature.... That ignorance is restraining." As I said, I thought then and think the criticism was unfair, and unfairly mischaracterizes all US literature by looking only at a portion of the whole. I take it, though, that the US, despite having a number of deserving writers, will be overlooked again this year.

Back to Ladbrokes, after Murakami, the Irish fiction writer William Trevor is high on the list, as are Mo Yan, a Chinese writer; Canadian writer Alice Munro; the Hungarian Peter Nadas; Cees Nooteboom, a Dutch fiction writer; and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the great Kenyan innovator.  Unaccountably Bob Dylan is also high on the list. I must be the only person I know not to have leapt, at some point, on the Bob Dylan train, but I'm willing to own that. (He has written some amazing songs, but I also think people just go overboard with their praise of him.) Ultimately it will come down to the academy members and their aesthetics and politics. Any of those leading the Ladbrokes list, save Dylan, or many of the others on its rolls, would be a great choice. Or perhaps the Swedish scholars and writers will surprise us, with another amazing writer still under the radar. It's unlike, but not impossible. Just no Dylan, please. Please. We'll know in any case Thursday morning.


Why Albert Einstein never received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his theory of relativity.

Juan Rodríguez, NY's First Immigrant

Charles Lilly Painting, courtesy of the Schomburg Center
for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library 
Thanks to Monaga's blog, where I first saw it late last week, I was able to start my undergraduate literature class this afternoon with a recent news snippet that was directly relevant to our readings and discussions. It turns out that the first non-indigenous immigrant to what is now New York City--and thus New York State--was, fittingly enough, a black or mix-raced polyglot named Juan Rodriguez (or João Rodrigues, or Jan ____) from Santo Domingo, then San Domingo and the capital of Hispaniola. Early last week New York Times reporter Sam Roberts drafted a short note about it in the paper's "City Room" blog section, and the piece exemplifies the difficulties of applying contemporary categories on historical facts, and the slipperiness even of documented historical discourse, though as my class averred, the deeper truth of the story is clear.  Roberts writes:

In 1613, Juan (or Jan or Joao) Rodriguez (or Rodrigues) appears to have accompanied Thijs Mossel, a Dutch sea captain, on the vessel Jonge Tobias from San Domingo, now known as Santo Domingo. Mossel returned to the Netherlands, while Rodriguez was marooned in what became New York (on either Governors Island or Manhattan) or more likely decided on his own to remain. 
Something of a linguist, he is believed to have mastered the local Indian language and manned a tiny trading post (the Dutch apparently gave him 80 hatchets and other tools and weapons as payment for his services). 
Much of what is known about him comes from affidavits by another captain, Adriaen Block, who complained that Mossel, presumably through Rodriguez, was overpaying for beaver pelts and was ruining Block’s business. Mossel insisted that Rodriguez was not his agent, but rather that Rodriguez had abandoned ship and remained on the island voluntarily (at least into 1614, when Mossel returned) and might have eventually married an Indian woman. 
Crew members said in affidavits that the “mulatto” or “Spaniard” had “run away from the ship and gone ashore against their intent” and that Block’s crew “ought to have killed him” when he refused to go with them to Holland.

Juan or João may have become marooned or was a maroon (he fled the ship), to New York, beginning a centuries-long trend. He was an agent for the Dutch, except that he wasn't. He was a "mulatto," and a "Spaniard," which need not be contradictory, except when, in Spanish royal administrative texts, they were. He married an Indian woman, or he didn't. What we know of him comes second, or even third-hand. His crewmates, cheery fellows, thought he should have been "killed" for not packing off to the Netherlands with them. Then there were the squabbles over money. Some things never change.

According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, Dr. Ramona Hernández and her team at the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of the City University of New York followed up on leads drawn from historian Simon Hart's 1959 study of a "free black man from Santo Domingo," and established the fuller contours of Juan Rodríguez's study. As they aptly say, piecing all the swatches together, since there's no documentation that he ever left, he was "the first immigrant, the first black person, the first merchant, the first Latino and, to us, the first Dominican to have ever lived in New York City," and, as with Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, also allegedly from Santo Domingo (or Saint-Domingue) and Chicago, his presence antedates the official founding of the city of New York--in Rodríguez's case, by some 12 years.

Roberts reports that last Tuesday Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation, sponsored by city councilperson Ydanis Rodríguez, to re-co-name Broadway, that ancient city thoroughfare, in after this Afrolatin-Dominican pioneer from 159th St. in Washington Heights to 218th St. in Inwood, which is to say, along the aorta of two of the city's most heavily Dominican and Dominican-American neighborhoods.  At some point down the road, perhaps there'll be a bigger celebration on his behalf. Let's see if he makes it into the general US history books any more swiftly than the TV shows and films set in and around New York have grasped that the city is still over 50% black and latino.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Debate Debacle in Denver

Governor Mitt Romney & President Barack Obama (
What was he thinking? President Barack Obama, I mean. What was he thinking last night, and what was he doing beyond showing up, in Denver, at the University of Denver, to stand just a few feet away from Republican presidential nominee and his chief opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and mouth a highly abstracted, jargon-thick passionless account of his policies and tenure?

As I was watching the president's performance in the debate was I thought it was just flat, but once he began delivering his rambling, stammering closing statement, I thought it was only a breath short of disastrous. Throughout the evening, except on a few issues, the president repeatedly refused to confront Romney—whom I tagged as #Romnocchio on Twitter--on his lies and misstatements (such as the alleged "$716 billion cut" to Medicare), nor did he once broach Romney's "47% " slur, which had begun to seriously wound the Republican nominee in the public consciousness and the Swing State matchups.

Instead, President Obama appeared alternately exhausted and peeved, when he wasn't both. He kept his head down, pursed his lips, and then when he cracked them, he went on extended disquisitions that were devoid of humor, muted in their enthusiasm, and overly wonky, as if he was speaking to a group of Washington and New York insiders, instead of uncommitted voters and his base. And Republicans who might be willing not to vote for Romney if his performance were lackluster enough.  Simplify, President Obama, and don't be afraid of showing a bit more emotion, or citing people, not just facts and statistics. 

Moreover, even if you have to do it in the nicest way you can, call your opponent out on his lies, and point out when he's flipflopping. Again and again, President Obama did not strike when he could have, not even when Romney gave him huge openings. There was no mention of Romney's missing tax files. No mention of Romney's Bain tenure or the thousands of jobs destroyed and pensions blown up by the private equity firm? Instead, Obama kept reverting to neoliberal bromides and conservative frames, only occasionally sounding like a liberal.

Then there were the contradictions. Does the President want to return to the Clinton-era federal marginal tax rates, as he suggested, which would radically trim the deficit (as occurred under Bill Clinton, along with the creation of 23 million jobs), or does he want that "balanced," "Grand Bargain," dreadful "Simpson-Bowles" plan--whose committee, which included Republican Vice Presidential nominee Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, couldn't even reach final agreement, leaving the two eponymous committee chairs to issue their own document--hat if enacted might spell the end of the Democratic Party?  Does the President really see eye-to-eye with Mitt Romney on Social Security, or not? And does he or no one else in Washington grasp that Medicaid not only provides services for poor children, but millions of seniors?

It did not help that Jim Lehrer, a longtime debate moderator with a history of haplessness, appeared incapable not only of asking cogent questions or moving beyond the narrow focus of Washington elites, but of keeping either man, particularly Romney, in check. Obama appeared to be expecting Lehrer to rein Romney in, but as soon as he realized that wasn't going to happen—and it wasn't—why couldn't he switch gears and at least challenge Romney directly himself, even in a polite fashion? The doe-eyed, sputtering Lehrer was so woefully inept he ought just to have stood up, set his papers down, and left the room altogether. 

Nor did it help that Romney came out ready to attack, but also made sure he kept repeating his tales and half-truths such that they appeared real, and he dropped in right-wing talismans, from defunding PBS (only a tiny sliver of the federal budget)—killing Big Bird—to citing the 10th Amendment.  Again, the President appeared ill-prepared to leap on any of these statements either. He even came at Obama from the left 1-2 times, hammering the President on the "too-big-to-fail banks" in "Dodd-Frank," as if he and the GOP cared one whit about the gargantuan size or excessive power and repeated unethical, sometimes criminal behavior of these global behemoths. Romney was determined not to mention Congressman Ryan or President Obama's predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush, knowing how unpopular both of them are, but why did the President choose radio silence on both?

On top of this, although this was supposedly a debate on domestic issues, countless important ones, ranging from employment, public and private infrastructure, the housing crisis, women's rights and reproductive autonomy, LGBTQ rights, the immigration debacle, gun violence and control, poverty and homelessness, the prison-industrial complex and racial profiling, the effects of climate change and global warming, and many others, never made it past Lehrer's lips, let alone Obama's or Romney's.

Perhaps, as former Vice President and debate veteran Al Gore pointed out to the Current TV post-debate panel last night, the president might have suffering from altitude sickness, having only arrived there at 2 pm, thus giving himself no time to acclimate. (I know I felt it when I was in Colorado.) Perhaps the President was thinking about his wedding anniversary, and couldn't focus. Perhaps he was so unused to being challenged, by anybody, especially someone spewing half and non-truths, that he was taken aback. Perhaps he could not rise above his past poor debate performances. Perhaps he just needed to be startled into action. Perhaps he was trying not to commit a gaffe and to speak to the DC/NY media, not the American people, many of whom are low-info folks who might just be tuning in to the race. Perhaps—though I seriously doubt it—this was a rope-a-dope/secret ninja/120th degree chess move, as a friend suggested, and he purposely tanked to give Romney false confidence. I don't know.

But I do know he better bring for the next debate. Too much, from the future of the Affordable Care Act to the Supreme Court to the wholesale destruction of the social safety net, is riding on the president's reelection. PBS isn't the only thing in Romney's and Ryan's—and the GOP's—crosshairs. President Obama must right himself right away, and be ready, truly ready, to thrown down at the town hall debate on October 16 in Hempstead, New York.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Translations: Poetry: Francisco Alvim

Francisco Alvim (Photo: Bel Pedroso)
Recently I was reading poet Francisco Alvim's (b. Araxá, Brazil, 1938-) Poemas (1968-2000) (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2004), a volume that showcases this deceptively straightforward, playful, gifted writer at his best, and thought that I would post a few of his poems, both in the original Portuguese and in English, to give J's Theater readers a sense of his work.

Also known as Chico Alvim, he began publishing in the late 1960s, and in the early 70s published the work of several fellow poets (Cacaso, Roberto Schwarz, Geraldo Carneiro, João Carlos Padua), some whom would, with other poets such as Ana Cristina César, come to be known as the Poetas marginais (Marginal Poets). Alvim, like a number of Brazil's important writers, has worked as a diplomat, and continues to write and publish his work.

You can find some of it, in translation by Sérgio Bessa, in Bomb's Brazil issue (Volume 102, Winter 2008), which also featured Bessa's interview with Alvim. From that conversation:

Alvim: What I found in Eliot and Pound was a voice coming from a new, crushed subjectivity, which had already emerged, splendidly and movingly, in Baudelaire. My feeling is that, in our time, this subjectivity became manifest in poetry in two ways: via material things, of the thing-thing and the word-thing, and via man. “Via” here is meant as channel, as in voice, or speech, and of course writing. Via man, it became pluralistic and fragmented, because today man is a being without individuality, and the world, a reality imploded into a thousand fragments. Thus the shrapnel of voice, voice which is also, above all, a desperate attempt—inexorably failed—to hear itself and the other’s voice.

And now, several poems, one of which, "En la calle," is originally in Spanish:


Nocturnal body
with your vicious moons
you wake unholy desire
you murder time
you hover
over my destiny
your dark circles beneath the eyes
your veins
you my body
my poor pathetic body
that you use to blot out the sun
you bring dark cravings
that lead you to the corrupt
to death—
mirror in which I see myself:
dereliction's obscure vessel


Corpo noturno
com tuas luas viciosas
acordas o desejo impuro
apunhalas o tiempo
o entendimento
sobre meu destino
tuas olheiras e veias
Tu meu corpo
meu pobre corpo soturno
que apagas o sol
trazes o escuro desejo
que te conduz ao corrupto
e à morte –
espelho em que me vejo:
jarro obscuro do abandono




This water is a desert

The world, a fantasy

The sea, its eyes wide open
devouring blue

Which is the real poetry



Esta água é um deserto

O mundo, uma fantasia

O mar, de olhos abertos
engolindo-se azul

Qual o real da poesia



Marching bands
perform the national symphony
at the foot of the strident banner
The Ministers drill down
In the blue boutonnière
the spirit of the public flickers


Bandas marciais
executam a sinfonia da pátria
ao pé do lábaro estridente
Os Ministérios verrumam
Na boutonnière do azul
cintila o espírito público



the ass
the finger


el culo
el dedo



Where the law creates no obstacles
I lay down labyrinths


Onde a lei não cria obstáculos
coloco labirintos

Copyright © Francisco Alvim, from Poemas (1968-2000), São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2004.