Sunday, April 22, 2012

Orpheus and Eurydice.

This is one of my favorite poems of all time, by Czeslaw Milosz. I was 26. I was in love with the writing of Charles Bukowski, and platonically in love with the man who had introduced me to poetry the year before. The latter would end, as these things do; the former has stayed with me and always will. Milosz I stumbled upon, accidentally, first his prose and then his poetry. This poem is the last one in his last book, Second Space. He died around the time it was published, and the poems are a farewell to old friends, old loves, all earthly life and its travels.

It's a long poem. I think it's one of the most beautiful poems ever written.


Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades
Orpheus hunched in a gust of wind
That tore at his coat, rolled past in waves of fog,
Tossed the leaves of the trees.  The headlights of cars
Flared and dimmed in each succeeding wave.

He stopped at the glass-paneled door, uncertain
Whether he was strong enough for that ultimate trial.

He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”
He did not quite believe it.  Lyric poets
Usually have – as he knew – cold hearts.
It is like a medical condition.  Perfection in art
Is given in exchange for such an affliction.

Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

He pushed open the door and found himself walking in a labyrinth,
Corridors, elevators.  The livid light was not light but the dark
of the earth.
Electronic dogs passed him noiselessly.
He descended many floors, a hundred, three hundred, down.

He was cold, aware that he was Nowhere.
Under thousands of frozen centuries,
On an ashy trace where generations had moldered,
In a kingdom that seemed to have no bottom and no end.

Thronging shadows surrounded him.
He recognized some of the faces.
He felt the rhythm of his blood.

He felt strongly his life with its guilt
And he was afraid to meet those to whom he had done harm.
But they had lost the ability to remember
And gave him only a glance, indifferent to all that.

For his defense he had a nine-stringed lyre.
He carried in it the music of the earth, against the abyss
That buries all of sound in silence.
He submitted to the music, yielded
To the dictation of a song, listening with rapt attention,
Became, like his lyre, its instrument.

Thus he arrived at the palace of the rulers of that land.
Persephone, in her garden of withered pear and apple trees,
Black, with naked branches and verrucose twigs,
Listened from the funereal amethyst of her throne.

He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers,
He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
Of feasting on a terrace above the tumult of a fishing port,
Of tastes of wine, olive oil, almonds, mustard, salt.
Of the flight of the swallow, the falcon,
Of a dignified flock of pelicans above the bay,
Of the scent of an armful of lilacs in summer rain,
Of his having composed his words always against death
And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
Yet you have come here to rescue her.
She will be returned to you.  But there are conditions:
You are not permitted to speak to her, or on the journey back
To turn your head, even once, to assure yourself that she is
behind you.

And so Hermes brought forth Eurydice.
Her face no longer hers, utterly gray,
Her eyelids lowered beneath the shade of her lashes.
She stepped rigidly, directed by the hand
Of her guide.  Orpheus wanted so much
To call her name, to wake her from that sleep.
But he refrained, for he had accepted the conditions.

And so they set out.  He first, and then, not right away,
The slap of the god’s sandals and the light patter
Of her feet fettered by her robe, as if by a shroud.
A steep climbing path phosphorized
Out of darkness like the walls of a tunnel.
He would stop and listen.  But then
They stopped, too, and the echo faded.
And when he began to walk the double tapping commenced again.
Sometimes it seemed closer, sometimes more distant.
Under his faith a doubt sprang up
And entwined him like cold bindweed.
Unable to weep, he wept at the loss
Of the human hope for the resurrection of the dead,
Because he was, now, like every other mortal.
His lyre was silent, yet he dreamed, defenseless.
He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.
And so he would persist for a very long time,
Counting his steps in half-wakeful torpor.

Day was breaking.  Shapes of rock loomed up
Under the luminous eye of the exit from underground.
It happened as he expected.  He turned his head
And behind him on the path was no one.

Sun.  And sky.  And in the sky white clouds.
Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
How will I live without you, my consoling one!
But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

theatre notes. garage theaters.

I thought of Mike Daisey talking about garage theaters when I went to see Stuck at the Washington Ensemble Theatre a few weeks back. This is Seattle, so it's not so much a garage theater as a coffee-house theater, like the New City a couple miles away. WET is wedged into a storefront next to Fuel Coffee - a door from the cafĂ© leads directly into the hallway of the theater - and it has about forty seats squished together in front of a slightly elevated stage. I'm really hoping it wasn't in this theater that Daisey portrayed a masturbating bishop in a performance of Jean Genet's The Balcony many years ago; it's a pretty intimate space. The first three rows would've gotten an eyeful.

Seattle is full of these theaters, including WET, the aforementioned New City Theatre, and The Odd Duck, housed in a former garage. Balagan was in the basement of a trendy loft building before decamping to the Erickson, and Theater Simple used to have a black box in a now-shabby downtown mall. Theater Simple was where I saw The Master and Margarita some fifteen years ago, with a bare-bones, gender-bending, role-switching cast, and lots of equal-opportunity nudity. (Margarita, after all, spends most of her part of the story naked or barely clothed. It must make it a difficult novel to adapt to the stage).

I've been spending more and more time in all kinds of theaters in the year since seeing Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America at the Seattle Rep last spring. From big houses (ACT, Seattle Rep), to middle-sized ones (Taproot), smaller ones (Theatre Off Jackson, Strawshop, New Century Theatre Company), and tiny coffehouse theaters (WET, New City, Odd Duck). The big theaters have more money and time, and produce something altogether more polished, but they also have more expectations. They have subscribers to please and board members to keep happy and a budget that must be balanced at year's end. They need to make art, but they also need to make money.

The small theaters don't have any of that. There's a kind of freedom, instead. The freedom to try anything, even if it doesn't quite work. The freedom to take more risks, produce new work, or put on something considered too 'difficult' by the larger theaters, like Genet's The Balcony. It must be so liberating to find your footing as a writer or an actor in a space that's the size of a shoebox with a set built by the cast from a few bits of plywood and curtains from the Goodwill. This is why I go to so many plays, even if they aren't necessarily very good.

Rarely do I actually think a play isn't very good. It isn't that I have no taste (though some might disagree), but rather, there is nearly always something good to be found. If they can communicate to me, somehow, that this is a project all the people involved clearly believe in, rightly or wrongly, then it justifies itself. And theatre can be made anywhere. In a coffeehouse, in a bar, in the park, in a deconsecrated church hall. You just have to make it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

a few brief notes about photography.

I had dinner tonight with two friends and their toddler son. The husband half of the couple had just acquired a new camera, and he handed it to me to try out. It was heavy and complicated and focused itself much more quickly than my dinosaur (my beloved dinosaur camera, 5 years old in human years, 2000 in digital years). Through the viewfinder I watched the toddler concentrating on his edamame at the opposite corner of the table. I waited. As though in a dream I saw a bean pop out of its pod and perform a neat, gliding leap, and this moment was caught on film, or rather on the SD card of my friend's digital camera.

A few thoughts I have about photography.

One: Often a great photograph is about waiting for the right moment. You have to be patient.

Two: Conversely, you also have to move fast. This moment won't ever happen again, so you have to be ready for it.

Three: That said, if you miss the moment, don't dwell on it. Move on. There will be other moments and other photographs.