Wednesday, 13 January 2010

New York to Buenos Aires

I spent the last week of 2009 in New York, mainly seeing friends--Paula Deitz, to begin with, who suggested meeting at the Met Museum on a late Saturday afternoon. I got to know Paula in the late 1970s, not long after she and Fred Morgan married and began sharing editorial tasks for The Hudson Review, which Fred founded with Joseph Bennett in the 1940s. In the summer of 1980, during a month spent in the town of Brooklin, Maine, I remember coming to dinner with Paula and Fred at their handsomely sited house outside Blue Hill. Over the decades since, there have been many occasions to meet, often at HR events, including a day at Princeton a couple of years ago, when the Princeton Library acquired the Hudson Review archive. Fred has since died, and for some time now Paula has edited the magazine alone, which she does very well. I admire Paula, among other reasons, for her quick intelligence and readiness to engage in the demanding work of editorship, while managing to do her own writing at the same time. There's the fact, too, that she and I both did graduate work at Columbia in French literature, one of our shared passions. In fact, my current assignment for the magazine is to write a review essay about a new book surveying the history of Paris in painting.
     Obviously our meeting-place was no accident, and it seemed natural, after our tea and cakes, to have a look at the special exhibition of Japanese works from the Packard collection. Paula told me she at one point made a study of the significance of the plum blossom in Japanese culture, which differs in several respects from the cherry blossom theme. For one thing, plum blossoms last longer, so the aspect of transience isn’t foregrounded as in so many Japanese poems about the “loveliest of trees” (Housman’s description of it). For me any hour with Japanese art is well spent, a chance to discern visual expressions of Buddhist philosophy/religion. I won’t attempt to catalogue all the tranquil and profound works we saw; but let me mention at least one large screen, depicting a bent and gnarled plum tree starred with perhaps two dozen of the emblematic blossoms, all this against a soft gold background. (Is there something to be made of the fact that early Italian Renaissance painting used a similar fondo d’oro for its religious icons and even the occasional cityscape?) Anyway, my view of the plum is from now on forever altered.
       I saw two films that week, one, Up in the Air (based on my friend Walter Kirn's tragicomic novel), the other, Tom Ford’s cinematic debut as director of A Single Man. I’ve always liked Isherwood in general and this novel in particular, despite its reliance on a standard feature for gay fiction, i.e., that the main character dies at the end or at least comes to no good. Still, the characters are credible, and we don’t get the expected panoply of bar flies, transvestites, sadists, serial killers, convicted felons, furtive married men, or bitchily affected snobs that the popular imagination seems to regard as typical of contemporary gay experience. True, there is a student seduction of his teacher (the “single man” of the title), which doesn’t appeal to the ethicist in us, no matter how warmly depicted. But the flashback scenes in which the protagonist recalls his life with his late partner were unmelodramatic and touching. (Novelists and film-makers, take note.) It’s a problem that every “minority” faces, and I well understand African-Americans’ dislike of unvarying depictions of their experience in the guise of maids, stepinfetchits, thugs, prostitutes, addicts, convicted felons, hammed-up clowns, homewreckers and what not.
      A blog post here back in October mentioned an evening spent with a group of young New York poets called “the Wilde Boys.” Since then I’ve begun to know several of the participants, including Alex Dimitrov and Zach Pace, both now completing their MFA’s at Sarah Lawrence, and Adam Fitzgerald doing the same at Columbia. Alex came by for coffee one afternoon during the week, I had lunch with Zach in the East Village, and then there was an invitation from Adam to attend his birthday party at the Café Loup. The party turned out to do double duty as a celebration of a new magazine Adam and two friends have launched. Maggy, it's called, and Adam had the inaugural issue in hand at the long table where he and friends were making birthday toasts. I met his co-editors, the poets Alison Power and Alina Gregorian, and several other friends. The history of poetry since the late 19th century is closely associated with little magazines;  this one seems to be well on its way to becoming a bright light on the scene.

     The change in title and URL of my blog makes for a real or only apparent coincidence with the arrival of the new year and my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere. I’m writing this in Buenos Aires, in high summer. I’ll be here for seven weeks, staying in the old neighborhood called Palermo, where Jorge Luis Borges spent part of his childhood and youth. Apart from the fact that I revere Borges, the idea of making the trip probably originated when Sam Hamill told me a while back that he’d begun coming down every year. He says that what he saves on heating costs for his house in Port Townsend, Washington, subsidizes the annual trip to relatively inexpensive Argentina. And, needless to say, avoiding cold weather is a health boost for anyone over sixty-five. He and Gray were waiting for me when I arrived, both looking well and content, Gray’s hair cut shorter now than the way she used to wear it, and attractive in her summer cottons. There have been several leisurely meals together, and it’s a stroke of luck that these friendly guides can make suggestions and issue words of caution about a city entirely new to me. In the coming days I’ll begin to talk about the sights and sounds I encounter, and thoughts about Argentine literature and art, or about “la vida de los porteños” [the life of the people of Buenos Aires].

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