Saturday, June 26, 2010

For Mount de Chantal

Two Saturdays ago, Michael and I went to Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, just outside Wheeling and sat in our lawn chairs under the giant tents erected on the front lawn, while police and news crews circulated among the crowd.

Approximately a year ago, Mount de Chantal graduated its final group of girls. Over the years, student enrollment had decreased, and the nuns were aging. After a great deal of debate, the school was closed. The nuns, the youngest of which is 75, moved to a Georgetown Academy in Washington, D.C., and a series of auctions began. That's what we were there for.

I was gunning for the library books, for the bust of Ceasar Augustus; Michael wanted the Barrister bookcases. We got the books and the bookcases. The shelves now hold volumes of French, essays on ethics and morals, German primers in the nearly impenetrable gothic script, and a grand little "author copy" of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield.

We were fortunate enough to be sitting next to Margaret Brennan, who heads the Wheeling Historical Society. She was very soft-spoken, took careful notes on each winning bid amount, and expressed joy at my enthusiasm for the old books we had won. We did not know who she was until much later, when we read in the Wheeling Intelligencer that she was the winning bidder on the smaller of the two Hobbs-Brockunier crystal chandeliers that will now hang in Wheeling's Independence Hall (which stands across from of West Virginia Northern, where I teach).

While they went through a seemingly endless array of china and furniture we had no interest in, Michael walked beneath a crumbling stone archway that lead to the back of the building, which has a strong presence all its own. And so, this:

For Mount de Chantal ~

Some of the nuns remain here. I still feel their presences at windows, their circulating concentration of particles that wander the halls even in daytime. Yet, I am empty, empty of the laughter, empty of sorrow, empty of the light that shone out the windows, rather than in—for the light of life shines both ways. Often there is as much within as there is without.

My furniture has been ripped out and sold off. I watched people cart away bookshelves, trophy displays, built-in cabinets never meant to be torn from my insides. My books, too, are gone: a diaspora of encapsulated knowledge, both relevant and obsolete, populates unfamiliar shelves. My chandeliers, the last things to catch the light and shower my wooden floors with tiny rainbows are gone, too. Even the secrets packed in my corners have been pulled away to reveal the bright geometry of their absence.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kandinsky and the Russian House by Michael Craig

Director Michael Craig of Copernicus Films released a wonderful documentary in 2007 about Wassily Kandinsky's time in Murnau, where the artist developed the jewel-toned color planes and abstract distillations so characteristic of Der Blaue Reiter works. In yesterday's post on his long-time companion, Gabriele Muenter, I spoke about the cottage they shared in Murnau. (While the house is much bigger than a cottage, it is built in that singular Bavarian style, which, to me, indicates a clean, bright, gingerbread substance so characteristic of cottages.) What I did not realize was that it was known to locals as "The Russian House", so designated because of the nationality of its principal male inhabitant. Take a look at a wonderful snippet of Craig's "Kandinsky and the Russian House" here:

Below is another excerpt, which explains Kandinsky's movement away from Russia's post-revolutionary Constructivism and his return to Germany. There, the artist assumes a position at the Bauhaus, where he is able to maintain and further develop his belief that art and color have emotive, even restorative power.

And now, more of what I began writing yesterday. Again, what appears in italics below is my conception of Gabriele Muenter's voice. And while I think that Muenter's relationship with Kandinsky was, in many ways, synergistic, her painting (in the post below) speaks volumes about the nature of their intellectual life together. At a dinner table, she is on a chair positioned outside, allowing her the ability to quickly get up, serve food, clear dishes, etc. Kandinsky sits, protected by the table, on a built-in, high-backed bench, which resembles (even if remotely) a throne. It is Muenter, who leans eagerly forward towards him as he speaks (his gesture is somewhat reminiscent of the teaching poses of religious statues and altarpieces). His body, meanwhile, is a straight line, even wall-like in relation to hers. By comparison, all of her, from body lines to intensity of focus, is pointed towards him. Even her feet seem to reach beyond their natural position in order to be more thoroughly pointed towards him. Her devotion is unmistakable. His is less evident. And so:

Nights, when Franz began to come around, Wassily held forth over the checked table cloth, loudly declaring, "Color is the keyboard, the artist plucks the strings!" We were only engaged then, but lived like husband and wife. I stopped painting earlier and, for them, I made dinners and dispensed drinks. I suppose I fell into the kind of housekeeping I had previously dreaded. I made way for the men and their ideas. I did it willingly because I felt what Wassily said was a certainty. I felt those string myself when I lay orange beside red. I knew this joy of visual music. I thought: here is a prophet; I am lucky to be with him. I did not think: but haven’t you already thought of this yourself, haven’t those words, that expression formed in your own mind? I offered ideas, Wassily frowned; Franz directed his gaze towards the table cloth.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Writing about Gabriele Muenter

Over a decade ago, before I moved into my own Munich apartment (above an Italian restaurant on Moosacherstrasse, near Olympiazentrum and the BMW plant), I stayed for a month with a wonderful host family in chic Pachmayer Platz. Utz and Brigitte took me to the southern Bavarian house of painter Gabriele Muenter, a prominent figure in the German Expressionist movement and companion to Wassily Kandinsky, her instructor at the progressive Phlanax School.

Above is a painting by Muenter of the two of them at a dining table, ostensibly in the sweet Murnau house, with its bright flower garden, white stucco walls, and Delft-blue shutters. If the house was open when we went, I do not remember the inside, only how it appeared as I walked around it. Most vivid in my mind are the outbuildings, which featured displays of reverse-painted glass depicting Saint George and the Dragon, a story that has some root mythology in Bavaria I cannot currently remember. The pieces shown had been produced in the years before WWI, which I can imagine were, for Muenter, a kind of idyll.

Later, when I took the subway to Lehnbachhaus, walked around its courtyard, felt entirely absorbed by its rooms and their bright sapphire walls and brilliantly colored paintings, I felt the hopefulness of these painters, their visually recorded joy. There was excitement in the liberation they doubtlessly felt as they made things every day, buffered from the outside world.

Along with Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Muenter founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a name based on a painting by Kandinsky, who for a time based his paintings on legends and folklore and later advanced into full-blown non-objective abstractions. During World War I, Muenter and Kandinsky fled to neutral Switzerland. However, because Kandinsky was still a Russian national, he was forced back to Moscow, without Muenter, to whom he was engaged. While back in Russia, he divorced his cousin, to whom he had been married before moving to Munich and meeting Muenter. And then, almost inexplicably, he promptly remarried, never seeing Muenter again. After the war, Kandinsky again ascended to the ranks of the avant garde when he became a founding member of the Bauhaus School. But Muenter, by comparison, ceased to produce art for a time, until she forged a relationship with Johannes Eichner.

I often wonder about the relationship between Muenter and Kandinsky. Why was it so easily lost? Had it merely reached a natural conclusion? What was its original nature?

I've begun to write about Muenter's life during this period, using her voice. An excerpt appears below:

He did not speak of his wife, except once, when he told me that she was his cousin, and that their union had not been his choice. I believed him. I believed that he was coerced into marrying this faceless woman, about whom I knew nothing, just as he had been forced through expectation into a career in law and economics. He said, “I want you to know it is you that I love. It is you I have chosen, just like I chose to leave my old career to paint.” And I believed this, too. I held it tightly in the fibers of my heart muscle and squeezed it with each beat, in order to be reminded it was there.

And when I laid down yellow-green beside cobalt and I felt my spirits soar with the excitement of that color vibration, I remember laying all that happiness at his door, not congratulating myself for my own artistic evolution.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher

The UPS man has just wheeled away from the house and left a package from Amazon behind. What's inside?

Kettle Bottom (2004, Perugia Press) a book of incredibly powerful poetry by Appalachian writer Diane Gilliam Fisher.

A 'kettle bottom' has nothing to do with the base of soup pans. It is a reference to a kind of petrified wood that can come through the roof of a coal mine shaft, killing everyone beneath it with the force of its descent. The title has a metaphorical power, intended to point to the chance nature of mining work, and even, of life. One never knows if one is standing under a kettle bottom or if it is about to descend. These are situations based on chance, and perhaps luck.

Not only is this book timely, given the most recent and catastrophic disaster in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, which claimed the lives of 29 men, it is also timeless. Here, in her rich monologues, Fisher reveals the psychology of conflict and loss. Moreover, her poems, told largely in the voices of miner's wives and children, deal with the impact of mining life and the 1920-21 West Virginia mining wars on the families themselves.

I first heard Fisher's poems a week ago on West Virginia Public Radio, as Fisher has created an audio component. She is not the one to read them, however. It is the wives and children of former miners, whose voices often crack with emotions as they read. Listen to the poems here. They will make you cry.

This particular poem gave me goosebumps:

Explosion at Winco No. 9
Delsey Salyer knowed Tom Junior by his toes,
which his steel-toed boots had kept the fire off of.
Betty Rose seen a piece of Willy’s ear, the little
notched part where a hound had bit him
when he was a young’un, playing at eating its food.

It is true that it is the men that goes in, but it is us
that carries the mine inside. It is us that listens
to what all they are scared of and takes
the weight of it from them, like handing off
a sack of meal. Us that learns by heart
birthmarks, scars, bends of fingers,
how the teeth set crooked or straight.
Us that picks up the pieces.

I didn’t have
nothing to patch with but my old blue dress,
and Ted didn’t want flowered goods
on his shirt. I told him, It’s just under your arm,
Ted, it ain’t going to show.

They brung out bodies,
you couldn’t tell. I seen a piece of my old blue dress
on one of them bodies, blacked with smoke,
but I could tell it was my patch, up under the arm.
When the man writing in the big black book
come around asking about identifying marks,
I said, blue dress. I told him, Maude Stanley.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Check out the June Issue of Gently Read Literature

Gently Read Literature
June 2010 Issue 27
Reviews of Contemporary Poetry and Literary Fiction

"The World is So Much in Us: Curtis Derrick on Paul Allen's Ground Forces,"

"Speaking Erasure: Mark Danowsky on Marilyn Hacker's Names,"

"The Red Heart: Martha Engber on Kathryn White's novel Emily Green and Me,"

"A Privacy All Its Own: Melinda Goodman on Elena Georgiou's Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants,"

"Sassing Back, Rewriting the Politics of Incest: Antoinette Nora Claypoole on Sharon Doubiago's My Father's Love,"

"I Have Also Been Noticing How Important Words & Meanings Are in Our Lives: David Sewell on Sabrina Orah Mark's Tsim Tsum,"

"To the Other Side and Back Again: Millicent Borges Accardi's Woman on a Shaky Bridge,"

"Great & Small at the Same Time: Sabra Embury on Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez,"

"A Pitch-Perfect Look At An Imperfect Newsroom: Jill Shtulman on The Imperfectionist by Tom Rachman,"

June’s Featured Artist: Rachel Sitkin,

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Scott McClanahan's Stories II

The excellent Scott McClanahan recently sent me his newest title Stories II, a follow up to Stories, published by Six Gallery Press in 2008. I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing Scott read from Stories II live, when he came to The New Yinzer Presents in 2009.

My husband still talks about “Kidney Stones.” It wasn’t just Scott’s delivery, which puts him, in our book, as one of the most entertaining readers we’ve yet seen, it’s the story’s bizarre religiosity; the Biblical parallels; the hard-nosed, coarse-mouthed down-state characters. Lines like the following just pitch me into an involuntary spasm of snorting laughter: "The old woman just looked at me like I was some meth-taking crazy man and pointed towards the door at the back. ‘Ya got the shit pains, dontcha, boy?”

I know this woman. Perhaps not literally, but I have seen her type. Scott's single statement paints her character as vividly as if she were standing right in front of me.

Scott’s stories, like “The Prisoners,” are filled with insights and sadness. Others incorporate the delightful flavor of Appalachian superstition. Witness Scott’s lead up to a discussion of his ESP faculties in the story, “Future Teller”: “A bird flew in the house the day before, and if you’re a country person and a bird flies in your house, you better get ready, cause some shit is gonna go down.”

I’m a West Virginian by choice rather than by birth, and Scott’s “When George Bernard Shaw Visits Rainelle,” a one-page explanation of what the author will do if the world comes to an end, is both a affectionate joke about his hometown of Rainelle and also a West Virginia truism: our state is indeed about 50 years behind the rest of the world. And this is precisely what makes the state simultaneously frustrating and appealing: we’re eternally behind the frenzied stampede of progress. And I often think, really, is this such a terrible thing? Certainly, there is a different, even antiquated attitude towards family here. There’s a sense of self-reliance, as well. Folks make do with what they have. And I admire this. Here, we are small town and slower paced, sometimes down-at-the-heels and consistently isolated. Still, people smile at me here and bid others the time in ways they don’t even do in my small, comparatively stand-offish hometown in central Pennsylvania. Scott’s story speaks to this very realization in me.

Perhaps the story that affected me most was “Hernia Dog,” the tale of a lop-earred canine that used to play with Scott and his elementary-aged friends as a puppy. In the small, revealing vignettes that make up the narrative, we learn that the dog’s abusive owner gives him very little to live for. When Scott and his circle grow up and ‘Hernia Dog’ also develops into a mangy, beaten creature with an intolerable odor, the dog is shunned by the very group who lavished him with affection so many years before. It is devestating, both to the dog and to the reader. The ending made me cry. Here, Scott offers us a fable about the value of sympathy and compassion.

So! Scott is reading at The Gist Street Reading Series on Friday evening, June 4th. He is an excellent showman. Come out and let him tell you a story or two or three. Also, buy a book there or here. You will be amazed by his storytelling.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thoughts on Writing, on Words

A decade ago, when I wrote my master’s thesis in the University of Pittsburgh’s History of Art and Architecture Department, people often inquired about my progress. I usually answered with some version of the following: “Well, I experience my argument so much through the words I use that I‘m not quite sure what conclusion I‘ll reach yet.”

This was frequently met with an uncertain nod or, more often, a polite smile and awkward silence. Good Lord, they probably thought, this one will never graduate. But I did, thankfully, on time.

During that period I remember getting caught in the expressive details of an idea. Often, I attempted to find the exact words that would lead me out of whatever informational forest I’d found while researching. Or, more often, I‘d write myself onto a precipice just off the main path and have to turn back, whacking away unessential paragraphs as if they were briars and underbrush. Either way, language was what led me forward or held me back, and this had more to do with concept expression than essay architecture.

Ten years later, this deep-seated reliance on word choice remains a vital part of my analytical process. When I review art for Pittsburgh City Paper or Sculpture magazine, I usually leave an exhibition with a jumble of vague impressions that don’t truly coalesce until I sit down and write them out, one realization following on another. For me, writing is inextricably connected to how I think. It remains the way I put order to my perceptions. Words, their associations and attendant power, are what guide me through the intellectual process. Words are the marked trees that pilot me through an otherwise dense forest of obscure concepts or indistinct perceptions.

It was only when I began teaching freshman composition (and had to explain how to best communicate observations) that I consciously understood the steps involved in effectively expressing ideas. While searching for material that would explain writing’s significance to new students, I realized that I was not the only one with the need to understand a forest of facts by compulsively inspecting the trees that help define thatit . Writer and historian Daniel Boorstin said, “I write to discover what I think. After all, the bars aren’t open that early.” I use Boorstin’s quote on the first day of my composition classes, and it’s generally received with an appreciative giggle. Its instructive function lies as much in its humor as in its succinct explanation of how vital words are to a genuine consideration of ideas.

So how are ideas and emotions best communicated? First, by relearning how to look and feel. In students’ first descriptive assignment, I ask them to reach beyond their preconceived notions, beyond the emotional shorthand of words like “cool,” “good,” or “awful.” For example, is the sky simply one shade of blue? Or does it occasionally carry subtle hints of purple, ochre, and indigo? Or, if a student describes a movie as “awful,” what specific elements made them respond that way? I ask them to tune into the subtle mechanisms of experience, whether sensory or intellectual: here lies the vital link between words, their complex associations, and their intricate connection to ideas and emotions. Here is where focusing on the types of trees in the forest allows the reader to understand the nature of the forest.

To successfully communicate an experience or explain a concept--so that the reader may vicariously appreciate it--why select one word over another? How does choosing an active construction like “crept in” over the comparatively bland “came in” allow us to better understand a situation, its tenor, and perhaps even the attitude of other parties involved? Again, it’s here where a writer can get caught examining the bark of each tree--by looking for just the right words--while moving through the complicated forest of a larger idea. But by examining each so carefully, a singular and definite path towards clarity emerges.

The second half of Daniel Boorstin’s quote, which may actually make subtle reference to alcohol’s effect on inhibited minds, also points to something deeper about writing. It’s something students, forced to take freshman composition, are probably less willing (or maybe even less able) to see: writing offers its own kind of high. Inside that dark forest of a complex idea or complicated image, words sometimes line up so quickly and with such precision that the writer always feels a rush (a rush that, happily, is never followed by embarrassing memories of dancing on table tops). Still, when the words cease to line up with the exactitude of fence posts or when they do not lead out of the forest but only around and around it, the idea or image is consumed by darkness, and the day feels lost. Consequently, the symptoms of withdrawal and dejection begin to linger along the periphery of the writer’s consciousness. We are lost in the obscurity of the intellectual forest, without a bread crumb path, until we are able to find the right trees—er, words—to mark our path out.

Ultimately, my conception of writing boils down to word choice, which is architect of mood and engineer of emotion. Even as I write fiction, which comprises the bulk of my current work, it is the feelings associated with the words that I focus on to achieve a story’s overall atmosphere. So, ultimately, little has changed since those days of writing my thesis, when I labored over finding the best words to locate and express my direction. Just as I once focused on the bark of the trees to grasp the reality of the forest they stood in, I still seek the right words to find each narrative’s direction and reach the deeper meaning that becomes the story‘s heart.