Sunday, 29 March 2009

DLR Poetry Now Festival 2009

This year's DLR Poetry Now Festival has been extraordinarily good. I heard Belinda McKeon's opening address on Thursday, a deeply engaged and serious meditation on the role of poetry in modern life, taking a cue from Auden's poetry makes nothing happen. She began with Husserlian phenomenology, moved on to empathy, and then wove her observations into an acknowledgment of the work of all the participating poets. It was skilled, humane, and reinforced in one, yet again, just how important poetry is; how important.

On Thursday, Robert Pinsky gave an opening lecture, which I missed (I write this red-faced), and on Friday evening the first reading took place, featuring Sujata Bhatt, Paddy Bushe and Paul Batchelor, followed later by Harry Clifton and Tomas Venclova. These too, alas, I missed, but I heard they were fantastic.

Saturday had readings from Valzhyna Mort, Ellen Hinsey & Ian Duhig, all extremely enjoyable. Mort read in Belarussian and some translations. She was strong and urgent. Hinsey read some work on violence, drawn from International War Crimes testimony. It was compelling and almost impossible to listen to without breaking. Duhig's reading was super, full of anger and a searing sense of justice. Later Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin read, with her characteristic understated humour, wearing her learning lightly, followed by the remarkable Tomaž Šalamum who read in Slovenian and English. Finally, Frank Bidart read. He was gorgeous.

I speak of Bidart with a bit of affection because he lead a poetry workshop in the morning in which nine poets participated. I was lucky enough to be among them. He was gentle and humane and such a careful reader. He ran way over time in his utter fastidiousness, giving time to everyone, wanting to read and re-read poems aloud incorporating suggested changes, repunctuations. It was also a great pleasure to meet and read the work of the other poets. One in particular, Padhraig [PJ] Nolan, designed the programme and the beautiful broadside for Heaney's birthday. His blog is as measured as his poetry: read it.

On Saturday another very special event took place: a celebration of Seamus Heaney's 70th birthday. A group of poets read Heaney's work, with the great man sitting in the front row. Everyone chose something that meant a lot to them, and Venclova read a Lithuanian translation of 'Mid-Term Break'. It was an experience to hear a translation in a language I do not know of a poem I know better than my own hand. Deeply deeply moving. A very special birthday gift was presented to him: a painting entitled 'Inheritance' by the great Hughie O'Donoghue. Heady stuff when the greats are in conversation with each other.

Today had the Strong Reading and Award for Best First Collection. Ciaran Berry's The Sphere of Birds (Gallery); Patrick Cotter, Perplexed Skin (Arlen House); Áine Moynihan, Canals of Memory (Doghouse); and Simon Ó Faoláin, Anam Mhadra (Coiscéim). The very deserving winner was Ó Faoláin who gave a super reading of his work, full of humour and humility but with a great sureness of touch. He seemed so comfortable but not too comfortable. Mary O'Malley, the judge for this year's competition, cited his flexibility, and it was much in evidence.

The final reading (to a packed house I might add) had Adam Foulds read from his extraordinary The Broken Word, which I immediately bought afterwards and started to read in full. Then Colette Bryce read, from her three collections. There was something so formal but relaxed about her work. I confess that I did not know either of these poet's work but have come away with books under arm and am hungry for more. The final poet to read was Carol Ann Duffy. She was funny, reading poems from The World's Wife, and elegiac, reading poems from Rapture. She had such a presence on stage, understated but very self-assured (right down to the little bow she took at the end, the only poet I saw do such). It was a terrific reading, and a terrific way to end. Belinda graciously thanked all who participated, poets, audience, staff, the lot. I look forward to next year. It is simply not to be missed.

I went away feeling enriched and blessed.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Mieke Bal

Read anything you can get your hands on by Mieke Bal. I've just picked up a copy of her Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Indiana U.P., 1987) and am hooked on it. I've already read her Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre & Scholarship on Sisera's Death (Indiana U.P., 1992) and greatly enjoyed it. She's well known as a cultural theorist, biblical scholar, and feminist critic, but that's only the beginning. Her website gives an indication of the richness and breadth of her work. She also seems to have a good number of Irish graduate students, all working on really fascinating things.

Read Mieke Bal.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

In Search of Art: Marina Carr, Marble, The Abbey Theatre

Last night had the penultimate performance of Marble, Marina Carr's new play at the Abbey Theatre. Carr has never shirked from writing the elemental forces that truly terrify and Marble is no different. The play opens with two old friend, Art (Stuart McQuarrie) and Ben (Peter Hanly), in a swanky hotel drinking brandy and smoking cigars. Art tells Ben that he'd had a dream about Ben's wife the night before, that he'd made love to her in a beautiful marble room on a marble bed. This image of marble becomes the a motif throughout the play, almost a refrain from the four characters. It turns out that Catherine (Aisling O'Sullivan), Ben's wife, had the same dream about Art, even though they hardly know each other. Instead of considering this as just one of those coincidences (sure!), the lives of these two couples begin to unravel. Art's wife, Anne (Derbhle Crotty) is determined to control the reality around her, planning everything and deciding when to go to bed before she gets up. When confronted with Catherine's increasingly erratic behaviour, she only grips more fiercely onto what she has.

Carr shifts the setting from rugged landscapes to the urban. The action takes place in hotels and fancy restaurants, and luxurious homes in the suburbs where the most taxing thing a housewife will have to do is go to the shops to buy washing up liquid. The women are desperate. They have found themselves in these desolate lives, in landscapes as desolate and lonely as a bog in the midlands. The dream generates a reality that is as unreal as anything they've encountered and their attempts to embrace that is desperate to watch.

The set design was very good, sensitive to the surreal, the tricks of the eye and the mind. And the subtext of Giorgio de Chirico was very interesting. De Chirico is famous for melancholic scenes in monumental space, often with marble figures lying in the open, beside arches, waiting for something to happen.

For all of the power of the play, there is something not quite right about it. I don't know whether the acting was a little tired, or whether the writing was a little uncontrolled. I have a sense that the forces at work between the words were not quite fully ready; there is an unfinished quality about the writing and a slight sense of a paralysis of awe about it that did not satisfy.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Slow Reading and Slow Writing: A Return to the Art of the Essay

Have a read of Lindsay Waters, 'Slow Writing; or, Getting Off the Book Standard: What Can Journal Editors Do?', Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 40 (2009), 129-143, where he talks about the tyranny of the monograph in the academy and calls for a return to the art of the essay. He takes a fairly savage swipe at Žižek and his lack of clarity, and the tone of the article sometimes makes me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps this is not so much to do with me disagreeing, but more because I ask myself whether I am guilty of writing hermetically, for three other people who have written on the subject, or whether I do manage to express myself to an interested reader.

The article is deliberately provocative, and the critique of jargon is interesting, and likely won't be much appreciated by many, shall we say, theoretical scholars.
We need to slow down and remember that the essay has been the main form for humanistic discourse. The book is an outlier. Many of the writings that changed the direction a scholarly community was marching toward were essays. Think of Edward Said’s ‘Abecedarium Culturae’ or Paul de Man’s ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality,’ to stay in recent history and not begin, as I easily could, an epic catalogue from Montaigne’s ‘De l’amitié’ onward. Some of the most important books are collections of essays not unlike journals, sometimes assembled with no pretence at forging a unity of them, such as John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. (pp. 132-133)
In an article that looks at what the role of editors can be in this new world of the essay, he might have mentioned that Freccero's book might not have seen the light of day nor taken the form it did had it not been for the editorial work of Rachel Jacoff. And it might also be said that for publication purposes, edited volumes are not actually counted (they aren't for the RAE). This too surely needs to change.

Whatever one's views of Waters' article, surely one can never be reminded often enough of the importance of good writing, of craft, of making oneself understood and of being clear. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Bonæ Litteræ

You'll have noticed a new link on my blogroll which is Bonæ litteræ, by the rather excellent Dr David Rundle, a scholar of English renaissance humanism. These are various and occasional musings on Renaissance humanism, manuscripts, scribes, and a great many other learned things. Well worth reading.

World Book Day 2009

Today is World Book Day.
Happy World Book Day.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (Courtauld Gallery, London, 12 Feb-17 May 2009)

Now showing at the Courtauld Gallery in London is an exhibition dedicated to cassoni, or painted marriage chests. This is an area that has been the subject of much study in the last twenty or thirty years and cassoni have emerged as an extremely important aspect of domestic art in the Italian renaissance. A recent exhibition, curated by Cristelle Baskins, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, centred on painted marriage chests and the catalogue is another important contribution to the field (Cristelle L. Baskins, Adrian W.B. Randolph, Jacqueline Marie Musachio and Alan Chong, The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance (Pittsburgh: Periscope Publishing, 2008; ISBN: 9781943772867). This Courtauld exhibition, curated by Caroline Campbell, is an intimate affair, and that is very intentional. There are just ten items on display, all fitting (fairly) comfortably in a single room. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the famous Morelli chest, painted by Biagio di Antoinio (1446-1516), Jacopo del Sellaio (1441-93), and Zanobi di Domenico (active ca. 1464-74). These two imposing chests depict 'Camillus and the Gauls' and 'The Schoolmaster of Falerii', with two spalliere depicting Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola and Lars Porsenna, respectively. These are the only cassoni to survive with their spalliere intact, so they are very important in thinking about how the cassone worked with its related items. While they are now almost attached to the cassoni Campbell asserts, I think quite correctly, that they would have been placed much higher up on the wall and she points to their rather low view-point as evidence. She also speculates that they may have formed a continuous panel. The viewer (Renaissance, modern) had their eye drawn both vertically and horizontally; the whole room was part of the effect, not just a framed item bracketed away from the rest of the room.

Another fascinating pair of panels are by Giovanni Toscani (around 1370/90-1430), depicting scenes from Boccaccio's Dec II 9, the story of Ginevra, Bernabò and Ambrogiuolo, dating to about 1425. This is an interesting one because only one of the panels (the first), now in the National Gallery of Scotland, was known in any detail. The other, in a Private Collection, has been brought together for this exhibition and it is great to see them together. The panels attest to the popularity of Boccaccio in the early fifteenth century, but what is even more interesting is the way that much of the story hinges on a trick involving a chest, and so the chest itself figures prominently in the first panel. Campbell makes some very interesting remarks about this panel, the way that Ginevra assumes a masculine role and how the artist chooses to depict her dressed as a man in the final scene even though the text explicitly states that she had changed into her feminine clothes. Ginevra is only shown twice as a woman, 'probably to mask the unusualness of her behaviour' (p. 86). There would be much to say about such a dynamic. In fact, Campbell wonders about the choice of Boccaccio as a source for the iconography and links the move away from Boccaccio, and love stories, about mid-century, to more martial themes to the change in commissioning patterns of painted marriage chests, when it became the responsibility of the groom's family rather than that of the bride.

One of the most stimulating aspects of this material was the attention that Campbell paid to the literary texts in the possession of Morelli, in particular a compendium associated with Morelli now in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (Pal. 359). 'The unassuming appearance, contents and lack of illustrations of this chapbook, purchased form "Zanobi Deleicha", make it very typical of surviving manuscripts of this type. Its contents mirror the core genres of stories depicted on cassone frontals: Roman poetry, contemporary Tuscan verse, ancient Greek, Roman, biblical and modern history. As such it provides a good framework for exploring the subjects depicted on cassoni and spalliere panels, and decoding their meanings.' (p. 34). This is good stuff and I intend to learn more.

Another pair of panels, by Lo Scheggia (1406-86) are exhibited, depicting 'The Journey of the Queen of Sheba' and 'The Meeting of Solomon and Sheba', both dating to around 1450. These are both in private collections and so it is a treat to see them exhibited. Another panel by a Florentine follower of Lo Scheggia, dating to around 1460, depicts 'The Siege of Carthage and the Continence of Scipio' (Courtauld P.1966.GP.129). There is another chest depicting the Battle of Pharsalus, in which Caesar defeats Pompey, by an unidentified artist, dating to around 1470-5 (Courtauld F. 1947.LF.3). The final pair of panels are in the collection of the Earl of Harewood at Harwood House, depicting 'The Rabe of the Sabine Women', and 'The Reconciliation of the Romans and the Sabines', dating to around 1480.

Go to the exhibition. And buy the catalogue: Caroline Campbell, with contributions by Grame Barraclough and Tilly Schmidt, Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests (London: The Courtauld Gallery in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2009), ISBN: 9781903470916.

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