Friday, March 27, 2015

Tomas Tranströmer, R.I.P.



Sad news: The great Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer has died.  Here, in memoriam, are some of his poems in translations I made with poet and critic Lars-Håkan Svensson when I lived in Sweden in the late 1990s.  They originally appeared in a special Scandinavian issue of Samizdat.


Haiku by Tomas Tranströmer


A lamasery
with hanging gardens. 
Battle pictures.

Thoughts stand unmoving
like the mosaic tiles
in the palace yard.

Up along the slopes
under the sun – the goats
were grazing on fire.

On the balcony
standing in a cage of sunbeams –
like a rainbow.

Humming in the mist.
There, a fishing-boat out far –
trophy on the waters.

II 

Cool shagginess of pines
on the selfsame tragic fen.
Always and always.

Carried by darkness.
I met an immense shadow
in a pair of eyes.

These milestones
have set out on a journey.
Hear the wood-dove’s voice.

III 

Resting on a shelf
in the library of fools
the sermon-book, untouched.

My happiness swelled
and the frogs sang in the bogs
of Pomerania.

He’s writing, writing…
The canals brimmed with glue.
The barge across the Styx.

Go quiet as rain,
meet the whispering leaves.
Hear the Kremlin bell.

IV 

The ceiling rent open
and the dead one sees me.
This face.

Something has happened.
The moon lit up the room.
God knew about it.

Hear the sighing rain.
I whisper a secret, to reach
all the way in there.

A scene on the platform.
What a strange calm –
the inner voice.


The sea is a wall.
I hear the gulls crying –
they’re waving to us.

God’s wind at my back.
The shot which comes without sound –
a dream all-too-long.

Ash-colored silence.
The blue giant passes.
Cool breeze from the sea.

I have been there –
and on a whitewashed wall
the flies are gathering.

Birdmen.
The apple trees in blossom.
The great enigma.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Face of Glamour



I’ve seen a lot of them, lately: the bland, glamorous faces of models in advertisements for fashion and various luxurious commodities. They’re ubiquitous anyway, but my exposure has been amped up considerably by recent prolonged stays in airports and hotels, and a brief stint in hospital (I’m fine), where I’ve found myself leafing through glossy magazines.

The empty, blandly aloof gaze is everywhere in these magazines, in photo spreads as well as advertisements—a gaze we know from models on catwalks, too, a gaze so universally available that young people can mimic it effortlessly for the selfies they post on social media. But what lies behind that gaze? Why has it become the universal form of expression for glamorous images of human faces?

One possibility is that it exists to invite the viewer—that is, the potential consumer—in. As cool and off-putting as the expressionless face of the model may seem, it is, after all, an expression placed on the face of the consumer’s aspirational self. Whether the images appeal to the sexually objectifying male gaze is of secondary importance in most of the images, which exist to sell fragrances and clothing and accessories not to men but to women. The female viewer is, of course, expected to feel inferior to the woman in the image, but only because she has not yet acquired the product that (it is hollowly promised) will transform her, Cinderella-like, into the glamorous woman in the image. So a lack of expression could be a kind of invitation, a blankness or abstraction into which one is invited to project oneself.

The appeal of relative abstraction as a method of inviting the spectator to project his- or herself into an image is a well-established principle of graphic art. Scott McCloud, in his seminal study Understanding Comics, tells us “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another,” however, “when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself…. The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled.” This has everything to do with the abstraction, the relative blankness, of the way characters are represented. We identify with the more abstracted features of the character, write McCloud, but
…on the other hand, no one expects audiences to identify with brick walls or landscapes, and indeed, backgrounds tend to be slightly more realistic. In some comics, this split is far more pronounced. The Belgian ‘clear-line’ style of Hergé’s Tintin combines very iconic [that is, abstracted] characters with unusually realistic backgrounds. This combination allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world. One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be.
Certainly there is something to this, but it is equally true that, along with the pulling-in effect of the glamorous face, there is a pushing-away, a remoteness or aloofness. Roland Barthes, in his famous essay “The Face of Garbo,” gets something of the effect when he describes the blankness of Greta Garbo’s face in the film Queen Christina:
 …the make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the color, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive.
The abstraction of the face and the inexpressivity of the eyes elevated Garbo above the realm of ordinary mimesis: in Queen Christina she represented not a particular woman, in particular existential circumstances, but “offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature,” a creature “descended form a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light.” Her remoteness is the remoteness of an ideal, and the blankness of the gaze is an important part of this removal from the sublunary world of particularity.

The blank gaze of the glamour model shows how she inhabits a purer, more ideal world than ours, a world beyond contingency and circumstance, a world where everything is sufficient unto itself. It repels us and our messy, flawed world—even as it provides a blank space into which we can project ourselves, as the consumers of the advertised products (and therefore as the inhabitants of the idealized world). John Berger, in the passages on envy in Ways of Seeing, describes exactly the self-sufficiency portrayed in the glamour model’s bland gaze:
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely on not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest—if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and others) of their power…. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.
There’s a reason the blank gaze has become the ubiquitous expression in advertisements for aspirational products: the combination of exclusion and potential inclusion, of aloofness and space for us to project ourselves, is a powerful vortex. And unless we enter some future mode of social organization in which social ratification is satisfied in more substantial ways than the promise that one will be envied if one buys what a particular glossy ad is selling, it’s a gaze to which we will continue to be subjected.




Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Rhymes with Wallace?: Wallace Stevens and Rhyme



One of the unexpected pleasures of the recent Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, for me, was running across Anthony Madrid in the corridors between sessions.  I hadn’t seen him for months, not since he pressed a collection of Edward Lear’s verse into my hands in a tiny used bookstore under the Metra tracks in Evanston, and was glad to let him pull me into a nearby room where he was about to join other members of the Wallace Stevens Society in a panel on Stevens and rhyme.

Madrid spoke first, beginning with a general précis of his argument about the trajectory of rhyme in English verse.  I’d heard this before, when Madrid joined Don Share and Lea Graham on a panel on the poetry of Michael Robbins I chaired at the Midwest MLA a year ago, but it’s such an intriguing argument I was happy to hear it rehearsed again.  The gist of it is that after the Elizabethan period, whole categories of rhyme are, essentially, decommissioned from English verse, or become far less common (critics of Madrid’s theory love to find exceptions, but a full reading of his doctoral work in The Warrant for Rhyme reveals a strong case for a general trend of the kind he describes).  Rhymes that involve strong semantic links—semantic similarities, or opposites, or rhymes from the same semantic category—greatly diminish over the course of the seventeenth century.  So me/thee, mine/thine, he/she, berry/cherry, and the like become far less common.  Madrid makes much of this: the link between rhymes becomes less rational, he says, and more a matter of mystery, as if the poet wills the rhyming words to belong together for reasons unknowable to the intellect.

The anti-semantic nature of rhyme becomes a norm in the eighteenth century, and it is only with Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, an antiquarian’s selection of old ballads and other poems, that the older style of rhyme begins to return for the Romantic era.  A Romantic like Byron, when he is serious, as in Childe Harold, rhymes like an eighteenth century poet, but when he’s comic, as in Don Juan or Beppo, he makes rhymes that go out of their way to draw attention to themselves, and appear as stunts (as Butler’s comic rhymes in Hubridas did).  The rhyme becomes something deliberately original, frame-breaking and winking.  And this sounds the death-knell for rhyme, since over the nineteenth century rhyme becomes less a holistic part of poems and more of an attention-grabbing device, until in the modern era it is all-but abandoned.

This brings us to Wallace Stevens, whose poetry only rarely rhymes—11 early poems are consistently rhymed, and after that rhyme occurs as an occasional grace, like alliteration.  When it does rhyme, it almost always uses the classical rhyme of the eighteenth century, which does not seek to draw attention to its cleverness (an exception being “übermenschlichkeit/ word soon come right”).  There is rarely a semantic quality to the rhyme, and Madrid argues that this is aligned with Stevens’ belief in the mysterious powers of the imagination—the rhymes are convened only by the power of imagination, not on some rationally apprehensible basis.  Stevens rhymes less and less over time, too, as the poetry becomes less overtly musically-driven and more liturgical.

After Madrid, Eugene Vydrin of NYU took the stage to speak about rhyme and the adherence of the poem to reality in Stevens, and was followed by Joon Soo-Bong of Seoul National University, who spoke about schematic rhyme as essentially antithetical to Stevens’ aesthetic of flow.  All very interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by Roi Tartakovsky, who turned to empirical linguistic research to explain rhymes and other sonic effects in Stevens’ poetry. 

Tartakovsky noted that one of the most important recurring patterns in Stevens’ poetry is that of the recurrent pair of sonically similar words—as in the “sea” and “she” that come up at the start of the first and second stanzas of “The Idea of Order at Key West.”  Linguists have told us that acoustically similar words are actually less well reproduced in the memory than other words, and tend to become confused—but that rhyme words are, in fact, remembered well.  So Stevens works with a combination of words that aid in the recollection of argument or thesis, and words that actually blur rational or argumentative distinctions.  I’d be very interested in seeing a fully-worked out analysis of Stevens drawing on this insight.


Of course there was much more to see and hear (and eat and drink and argue over) at the conference, but I’m glad I was pulled into the little demimonde of the Stevensians, and I’m glad to see rhyme returning as a category of serious critical analysis.