Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Edinburgh and the Highlands

I'm trying to make up for my scarce writing here this summer, now that the summer break has ended. This entry has to do with Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities, partly because of its unusual beauty and partly because my great-grandfather was born there.

Paul Attinello and I took a train from Newcastle on Saturday with the plan of attending the Meredith Monk performance in the annual Festival. On arrival, we had a few hours and strolled up to Calton Hill, which gives a view of Arthur’s Seat (highest of the crags next to Holyrood Palace), the lower city and the crag where Edinburgh Castle sits. The familiar sensations of my day trips into Edinburgh last May (see earlier blog posts) came rushing back, but of course the streets were now much more crowded with Festival goers. Once we got to the center, we decided there was time to see one of the Fringe shows before the evening’s performance and settled on the Do Theatre, a troupe of Russians who now live in Berlin, in a work titled The Anatomy of Fantasy. This was being held at the Assemby on George Street, where we continued on foot.

The title suggests the mode of the work—dreamlike evocations of an underworld of obscure events, danced to a varied collage of musical accompaniment. Thematic visual elements included lengths of red string deployed in various ways, four scythes, ashes, three movable windows with venetian blinds, and a steel-frame cube. Two principals, male and female, three female secondary dancers, and the musician made up the troupe. Recorded music was used along with additions from the musician who from time to time used his boot heels to provide percussion. Smoke billowed more than once, and the rhythms twice became very loud and insistent. Meaning? Let’s say that many interpretations could be tried, probably none of them accounting for every detail. The interpretation of dreams asks for high levels of Keatsian negative capability. The “erotics” of criticism, not the hermeneutics, as Sontag once urged.

The Monk performance began at eight, and to what looked like a full house. Title: Songs of Ascension. A bare stage with a single suspended glass lamp making wide circles while a woman in a white dress moved about and informally danced. Slowly the lamp rose in proportion as its circles shrank, finally vanishing up into the flies. Then the performers, including Meredith Monk came out. That included her co-perfomer Ching Gonzalez, who has apeared in many Monk works. Two violins, a viola, and a cello, which the cellist several times played while standing and holding it. A chorus joined in many times, concluding in the angelic location of two boxes on opposite sides of the hall. The music used mostly pandiatonic harmony, with an occasional chromatic touch. It owes something to the “Minimalist” style of Glass and Reich and perhaps a little to Virgil Thompson, but mostly it is Monk’s own language, especially for the vocal lines, which use little calls reminiscent of Native American singing. To which she adds serrated melodic motifs, little tonal peaks and valleys something like medieval hocketing. Though of course there was also some conventional vocal leading. The overall effect was ecstatic, with occasional somber or humorous asides. A rising climax at the end earned the piece’s title. Is there a word better than “inspiring” or “uplifting” that I could use to describe it?

Paul and I went to the stage door and eventually the artist of the evening emerged and smiled delightedly to see Paul (they’ve known each other for many years), who embraced and congratulated her. I was duly introduced and had a friendly greeting from both Meredith and Ching Gonzalez. She said they were going to a party and invited us to come if we liked. There was even a van to drive us there. So in we rode through the Grass Market up to Princes Street and around to the High Street, the final destination the large Victorian building of the City Chambers. Up a flight of stairs and past vitrines with historical memorabilia, including a small silver replica of the Walter Scott Monument on Princes Street. I’d assumed it would be a party given by some private person, but, no, it was a City of Edinburgh event. Artists performing several different shows that evening gathered in the Council Chamber, a large, high-ceilinged hall with coffers in its ceiling, brass chandeliers, and a series of mural paintings by William Hole based on Scottish history. “Mary Queen of Scots Enters Edinburgh,” “News of the Battle of Flodden,” “Robert the Bruce Presents a Charter to the Burgesses of the Town,” and so on. Wine was immediately available and taken. The Lord Provost and his wife were there, and soon enough he shifted into action and welcomed everyone. He wore an ornamental chain of office around his neck (in fact, so did the Lady Provost), even more elaborate than what you see depicted in the Holbein painting of Thomas More, the one now hanging in the Frick Museum. A touch of the ceremonial past. Then Jonathan Mills, Director of the Festival, spoke with an informality that matched his clothes, and after that food was served.

We had our meal, mingling with all the performers and groups that had gathered for the party, and then said goodnight.

Next morning I got up early and took a cab over to the High Street, where a bus waited for my tour of the Scottish Highlands. Although bus tours are in most ways awful, I’ve waited too long to see that part of the world, somehow never quite managing to get there using more comfortable modes of transport. Anyway, I think of it as a reconnaissance mission, during which I would learn what parts of the country I’d like to return to.

A guide (in obligatory tartan kilt) kept up a running monologue about the places we were passing, beginning with Georgian Edinburgh and some of its famous figures. Before long we’d left the city behind and began to see sights. The Forth Bridge, for instance, an early engineering feat still in use today. Loch Lieven with a castle on its little island. Perth, formerly St. Johns Town, which coined its name from Roman Apertha as soon as Presbyterianism made popishness like saints unacceptable to the new sect. A mention of Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth, based on the life of Catheirne Glover whose house is still there to be visited. A quick passage through Birnam Wood, no less, although Dunsinane was too far away to be visible. And so on until the first big ridge of the Highlands appeared. Nine hundred million years old, according to our guide, but then other parts of farther north were 4000 million years old. Age seems to make for beauty because the landscape began to take on a majestic allure. Empty except for a few sheep, with whin and purple heather covering the stony, uncultivated land. (Whin being a heather-like spiky shrub that grows near whinstone or basaltic rock.) We passed several whiskey distilleries, looking not very industrial but presumably producing huge quantities of the famous local product. Then came a hallucinatory series of rainbows, complete, transport-worthy bridge arches, some of them double. They backed away as we moved toward them, constantly replacing themselves, as in a slide show. Before long Ben Nevis was in view, its top lost in cloud. Britain’s tallest mountain, but today looking like something in a Chinese painting. Tall as it is, the guide said, there is a path that allows you to reach the summit in about two hours without a lot of difficulty. I’d like to do that some day.

Pitlochry, for a, shall we say, “pit stop.” Long queues at the cafés for coffee and buns. A surrounding amphitheater of surrounding mountains. Sunlight gleaming off the pavement and rain droplets, cold winds. Back on the bus. Onward through more rainbows. Evergreens, reforestation of land that long ago was cut and burned. Higher mountains. Loch Lochie, part of the North Scotland canal. Leading to Loch Oich and a series of intermediate locks. Finally Fort Augustus, at the western end of Loch Ness, where we stopped for lunch. Some took a boat out onto the lake. I didn’t, despite the realization that one doesn’t see much of Loch Ness from its western extremity. I had my packed lunch on a bench facing the Loch, watching the tourist boat retreat and retreat towards distant waters and mountains. Canoe trippers coming from Loch Oich, not wanting to pay for the locks, had to make a portage through town. Lunch consumed, I rinsed my hands in the stingingly cold water. After which, a stroll back to the locks and up the stair at each level to the top one, for a glance westward where boats were beginning to gather for the next trip down the water stairs provided.

The return took a more westerly route so that after seeing Ben Nevis from another angle, we would see a different part of the Highlands. The most staggering was the country around Glencoe, in the west, where you get lochs that are actually fjords connecting to the Atlantic. The mountains thrust vertically up and yet are rounded by erosion, with green slopes most of the way to the summits. It is Ossian country and his cave was pointed out to us as we sped past, dazed by all the sublimity. It is the ideal place for the Romantic movement to have been born.

Next morning I checked out of the hotel and made my way over to Charlotte Square, where the Edinburgh Book Festival is being held this year. Literally in the Square: tents and wooden walkways have been set up in the middle of the central green, and that’s where events take place. I’d told Don Paterson I’d come to his reading at 11:30 and so I did. The venue was a large space with probably three hundred seats and there must have been about 250 people in the audience. (I guess they weren’t aware of the commonplace notion that “No one is interested in poetry.”) The Festival Director, Nick Barley, gave a rather odd intro, then Don came to the lectern wearing a black suit jacket and white shirt, his white beard neatly trimmed. He had a glass of wine with him to help him deal with a slight cough, he said. Sips of this throughout the reading gradually warmed him up, so that the tentative modesty of the beginning was gradually replaced by something a little bolder and more spirited. He has an appealing Dundonian voice and is able to make use of Scottish intonations you might not have guessed at if access to the poems came only through the page. There’s also a habit of placing one foot in front of the other and rocking back and forth in response to the verses, occasionally lifting the back foot. Possibly a remnant from his days as a rock music performer? He read mostly from the recent collection Rain but a few new poems as well. The in-between comments were pointed and amusing, touching on many different topics. That includes his atheism, a skeptical stance that seems to be countered by a strong awareness of mystery—the mystery of being itself, just for a start. He also read a few aphorisms, which (should I be surprised?) were well received. I sensed he held the audience’s attention throughout; loud applause at the end suggested as much.

I strolled over to the London Review of Books tent café afterward to speak to him, where he was set up at a table on a low platform for book signing. Over a hundred fans were queued up for his signature. When the last had gone, I went up and gave his hand a congratulatory shake. Even though the aftershock of giving a large-scale reading hadn’t quite dispelled, we enjoyed a few minutes of gently ironic banter. He had other appointments, and I had a train to catch, so there was no question of lunch or even a coffee. Don plans to read at the 92nd St. Y in New York in October (yes, this is an ad for it), so possibly I’ll see him there when I get back.

So, a temporary farewell to Caledonia. And two days from now I leave Newcastle for London. But the images are still with me.

Friday, 27 August 2010

North-South Shuttle

Summer is the season to slack off from work, and that’s been true for me as to this blog; and not true for poems, fiction, and critical prose. I was down to London again in July to read with several other contributors to Mimi Khalvati’s anthology of fado songs mentioned in an earlier entry. This time I stayed in a hotel in Bloomsbury, making plans the first afternoon to spend some time with Margo Berdeshevsky, who’d come over from Paris for a couple of nights. Margo and I got to know each other through mutual friends Marie Ponsot and Marilyn Hacker. She has published one book of poems with Sheep Meadow and a second is now in production. Earlier this year she published a well-received collection of short fiction with the Fiction Collective, and she also makes fascinating photographic art, superimposing images from different contexts to make a new whole. Margo is a native New Yorker who had a successful stage career for many years, which she eventually relinquished in order to go and live in Hawaii, shifting her interest then to poetry. Our first meeting was a workshop I taught in the early 90s at an Arts Center in Maui, but we only became friends during the past five years. She now lives in Paris, in what I’d call an ideal apartment in the Marais, just opposite the Hôtel Carnavalet, once the Paris residence of Mme de Sévigné.

She and I attended the first part of the launch of the Summer issue of Poetry Review, partly because I had a poem in it and partly because I wanted to hear Ruth Padel, the evening’s featured reader. I first met Ruth when we were both participants in the San Miguel Poetry festival in Mexico, in late 90s. I hadn’t known about her work at that time, but, since then, she has become of the leading poets in Britain. She gave a brilliant reading at the launch, so it was too bad I couldn’t stay to congratulate her; I had the launch of Mimi’s anthology to do the same evening.

That was held at the Free Word Centre in Clerkenwell. When Margot and I got there, the first person I saw was Mimi, looking particularly attractive, and modestly aglow about the festivities soon to begin. The Free Word Centre had been set up like a cabaret, with low lighting and three separate stages, one of them high up on a balcony overlooking the space. During the general mingling beforehand, I saw several friends, including Michael Schmidt, the poet and editor, and one of the contributors scheduled to read. We first met in the 80s, and there have been several meetings since then, to the extent that a man who runs a large publishing house, edits a magazine, teaches writing, assembles anthologies and writes poetry and poetry criticism, can spare time for meetings. Then Marilyn Hacker arrived and we had a quick conversation in the last few minutes before proceedings began. Other participants were Eric Ormsby, to whom I spoke briefly and Pascale Petit, whom I hadn’t seen for several months. I was also pleased that Sophie Mayer, fellow resident at Hawthornden, last May had come.

The readings were done in three sets, concluding with Mimi giving a beautiful rendition from the balcony. After that, actual Portuguese fado performers came to the main stage and performed several songs for us. Good as the translations in the anthology are, there is still no substitute for the original Portuguese, accompanied by music. I went up afterwards to congratulate Mimi on the evening and was introduced to Grey Gowrie, one of the contributors and in fact the originator of the idea for this anthology. Knowing that he had been a good friend of Lowell’s, I asked him what his impressions were. He spoke warmly of a poet he clearly regarded as his mentor and mentioned that it was through his intermediary that Lowell and Caroline Blackwood met for the first time, an encounter that eventually led to Lowell’s divorce from Elizabeth Hardwick and remarriage to Caroline Blackwood (aspects of this narrative are found in Lowell's The Dolphin). Acknowledging its negative aspects, Gowrie pointed out that the marriage had produced a fine son and that Elizabeth Hardwick’s work had gained fresh strength once she was on her own. Obviously these comments very much interested someone who has written a play about Lowell to be produced next year in London. (We still haven’t set a date, but I think it will probably be in March of 2011.)

Next morning I met James Byrne for coffee near his summer rental on Queen Square, a quiet enclave in Bloomsbury where the offices of Faber & Faber are located (though currently under renovation). James brought me up to date about his plans. He’ll be returning as a second year student at NYU’s writing school, as an International Fellow, editing The Wolf from over there as he did this past year. Meanwhile, he has been working on an anthology of Burmese dissident poets, scheduled for next year. We had a good hour’s stroll around the neighborhood and then said goodbye when I went off to my lunch appointment. The night before a plan had been made for Mimi, Marilyn, her friend the poet and critic Mary Bain Campbell, and myself to meet for lunch. Which we did, a pleasant couple of hours at a good Indian restaurant near Euston Station. Conversation was equal parts serious and hilarious, but I won’t attempt to summarize it. After lunch, Marilyn and I went down to the Blakean neighborhood of Lambeth, specifically, to Lambeth Palace, where there was an exhibition of medieval illuminated mss. Taken from the Lambeth Library, some of them of extraordinary quality and historical interest.

I came down to London once more in July, staying with my friend David Matthews, the vicar of Holy Innocents parish out in Hammersmith. David and I met through our mutual friend Edmund White, whose work he greatly admires. David is originally from Nova Scotia but is now pretty well at home in London, where he has many, many friends and seems to be adored by his parishioners. I’d wanted to attend an evening in honor of poets from the U.A.E. sponsored by Banipal magazine and held at the Purcell Room on the South Bank. David had other plans, but James Byrne met me there and we had a congenial reunion as we always do. There were Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon, who edit Banipal, and London poets Stephen Watts and Yiang-Lin, a Chinese dissident now living and working in the U.K. The Emirates poets were Nujoom Al-Ghanem, Khalid Albudoor, and Khulood Al-Mu’alla, none of them known to me, but all highly accomplished, to the extent that it’s possible to judge from translation.

Next day evening, David and I joined Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King for dinner, and then they went off to a see a play. The plan was to rejoin them after at the launch of the new issue of Granta, where Adam often appears. We followed through, but apparently we arrived too late, after the festivities had ended. Still, it was a chance to exchange news with them, and I can see that they both are prospering.

I mentioned in the previous blog that I was to read at the Lit and Phil Society here in Newcastle (see picture at right), and that indeed took place late in July. An extra for me was that James Byrne came up to visit for a couple of nights and so was able to attend. Also attending were Sean and Gerry, Paul Attinello, and the fiction writer Chaz Brenchley. We all went out for a meal after, a good way to cap off the evening.

As for the outdoor aspect of the summer, I made an excursion with Alistair Elliot to two stately homes within driving distance of Newcastle, the first called Belsay. It’s a Doric Greek design built about 200 years ago (see above), severely elegant, and comprising a garden that was made in the quarry from which its building stone was taken. The result is a marvelous grotto filled with ferns and tall trees, not like anything I’ve seen before. Wallington was more familiarly Palladian neoclassical, though the interior was eventually made Victorian. Frequent visitors there were Macaulay and Ruskin, and its paintings include a Turner. All of this surrounded by a huge park with impressive views. Alistair has a sense of humor similar to mine, so I joked that, in the way English names are often pronounced differently from what the spelling would lead you to assume (for example, “Featherstone” is pronounced “Fanshaw”), the names of these two great houses were most likely pronounced “Besy” and “Wanton.” The surmise, however, awaits confirmation.

The other excursion I made was to Lindisfarne (called “the Holy Island” because it was the point of dispersion for Christianity in Northern England more than a thousand years ago). Sean and Gerry and I went there on a cloudy Sunday, the trip timed so that we would be sure to arrive at low tide, otherwise the causeway out to the island is under water. (It’s a feature I recall from a visit many years ago to Mont St. Michel, off the French coast.) The same is true of Mount St. Michael in Cornwall, but not true of Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland: there you always must take a boat. Why St. Michael the Archangel should in the medieval period be associated with offshore islands I don’t know; but he doesn’t figure on Lindisfarne, instead, St. Cuthbert enjoys special reverence there, even though his remains were long after his death exhumed and removed to Durham Cathedral. It is also where the wonderfully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels were produced. (See picture above left.)

I’d visited Lindisfarne in 1986, but it has grown and developed since then, with swarms of visitors everywhere, to whose number we sheepishly added ourselves. It is wildly beautiful, with views out to a clouded North Sea and inward to pastures with grazing sheep, the ruined priory, and perhaps twenty-odd stone houses. On a small crag near the water sits Lindisfarne’s castle, a ruin that was renovated and given modern convenience by Lutyens a century ago. It is easy to summon up images of invading Vikings, vulnerable as the place is to approach from the sea. To come here is to experience that little historical shiver our modern cities insulate us from.

This past week several friends came to me in North Shields, and we read our poems. The convives gathered were Sean, Alistair, Bill Herbert, and Joan Hewitt, a poet from Tynemouth whom I’ve only recently become acquainted with. Very lively indeed, and, as the last social occasion of my stay here, a good finale. I go to Scotland for the end-of-summer weekend, and then return in time to pack up. Even though this brief recap can’t do it justice, it’s one of the best summers I remember.