Monday 27 April 2009

McKeon on Toibin

Read Belinda McKeon's Irish Times article on the Irish writer Colm Tóibín here.
His new novel, Brooklyn has just been published by Penguin Viking.

Monday 6 April 2009

Roberto Benigni, Tuttodante (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London)

Over the past number of years the Italian actor Roberto Benigni has been performing the work of Dante Alighieri to delighted and enthusiastic audiences around Italy and now, around the world. He is known for his exuberance and energy, and these were much in evidence last evening at Tuttodante in his single London date on his world tour. Every Italian in London seems to have turned out for the show and were in festive mood when he appeared on stage. He decided to do the show in English, and this became a recurring gag throughout the performance, an assurance that he was, in fact, speaking in English. His English was, in fact, a lot better than he let on, as he often used idioms and slang words that would not be characteristic of a beginner. The audience were clearly delighted when he did turn to Italian and would sometimes shout out ‘in italiano!’ I imagine that the decision to do the show in Italian was one of consideration for the audience in London, but I do rather wonder if it was entirely successful. But there was something moving about him trying to find the right word, using a language that was a mixture of Italian and English, a plurilinguismo worthy of its subject-matter.

I remember when Benigni devised this show and came to Bologna with it: tickets were impossible to get hold of and I did not get to see it. When this opportunity arose, I was more than ready to seize it, with both hands. (I was invited to the show by my generous benefactor at Pembroke.)

Benigni is a man of extraordinary energy and passion and his love of Dante is clear, sincere, and profound. But most of the show was taken up with what might be called a preamble, a funny and at times excoriating set of observations on the absurdity of contemporary Italy. A key figure in this comedy is Silvio Berlusconi, and Benigni often referred to Berlusconi as a highly sexual man, a man who likes to be photographed with pretty girls, in various states of undress, etc. Andreotti, too, made an appearance, characterised as a man who has been granted eternal life in Italian politics. Benigni then proceeded to a long introduction to Inferno 5, the canto of the lustful in the first circle of Hell, interspersed with explications and close readings. Particularly powerful was the way in which he deployed a profoundly affective reading of the New Testament, especially the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment, in his reading of Francesca’s Amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona (Inf 5. 103). It was much appreciated by the audience who burst into applause, and it was, for me, an indication of a brilliance that I was not quite expecting. The performance culminated in a recitation of the full canto, beginning to end. It was a fitting way to end the evening.

What I enjoyed about this was the strong sense that it was explaining itself; the poetry took centre-stage and was given room to breathe. What was clear too was Benigni’s sense of the poem’s searing relevance to contemporary society, that it is as much an indictment of our time as it is of Dante’s own time. This is the performance of a committed, engaged, and public intellectual, a man trying to make sense of his world, with a certain knowledge of the injustice that marks it, and deep sense of indignation at the continuance of those wrongs. What is striking is that I could be talking as much about Dante there as I am about Benigni.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Michael Symmons Roberts, The Half Healed (Cape, 2008)

This is Michael Symmons Roberts's fifth collection of poetry and I'm really enjoying making my way through it. He returns to the theme of the body, but this time in the context of violence and destruction. Much of the collection is set in war torn cities, with the image of the hotel, abandoned, gutted, destroyed, as a recurring motif. These hotel rooms can be the site of a couple making love in 'Armistice', or there's the beautiful deserted room in 'Room 260', with its pristine abandoned perfection that is touched only once a year, in mid-July: by 'a perfect | coin of gold light prints onto the wall: | a gift of imperfection, | blemish in the blackout seal.' It is a kind of Newgrange soltice scene. The imagery is complex and enjoyably so. The name 'Intercontinental' recurs, which is meant to resonate the way it does. Symmons Roberts has a great sense of how some of these words and names can be completely transformed by some action, by events. There is a series of poems call 'Last Words', commissioned by the BBC to commemorate 9/11 and which takes as its theme the text messages sent by those in the planes that flew into the Twin Towers. There is anger in these poems, but it is controlled, never allowed to take over. The poems have, too, a great melancholy, a great sense of loss, of what we have lost. There's a lot at stake. The religious language, used by the poet so often and so effectively, and the way that language is transformed or carried out of meaningfulness is another powerful theme that resonates throughout the collection (and his work more generally).

I print in full a poem entitled 'Hooded'.

Six men, hooded, face a wall on knees,
hands bound behind their backs.
How did it come to this?

Ancentral, printed deep, a lineage
through hangman, ku klux klan,
back through the polar pioneers

to foxglove, bluebell, capuchin,
robin and red riding back
to killers, cobras, kings in hiding,

anoraks and duffels, pac-a-macs,
a lizard's ruff on burning sand,
a harebell, snail shell, cadillacs

with soft tops, trout tucked in weed,
shelter, uniform, ashes and sack,
a fashion choice, a rule, a creed,

back to blind, wink, skin-shade
to protect the blue, brown, green,
so yes, the first hood was an eyelid.

And now we hood our enemies
to blind them. Keep an eye on that irony.

This work is strong, important and beautiful.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

April: National Poetry Month

April is the cruellest month, but it is also National Poetry Month in the United States.
The wonderful poster was designed by Paul Sahre.


Yesterday I saw Bodies: The Exhibition at the Ambassador in Dublin. So bodies have been on my mind lately. The specimens on display are real, and the way the exhibition is marketed it is considered to be a teaching aid. In the words of the organizers: "This method of preservation creates a specimen that will not decay. This offers thousands of unique teaching possibilities for educators at all levels, including medical professionals, archeologists and other scientists."

With current technology, I do rather wonder whether they needed real bodies, other than for the sensational aspect. And they way that they have prepared some of the specimens, such as the arteries, is with a process called 'corrosive casting', which means that they fill the vessels with a liquid that sets and they then corrode the arteries around them, leaving the polymer in the shape of the vessels. So what you're seeing is a polymer specimen in the shape of an original, rather like what they did to reveal the bodies under the ash at Pompei. Other specimens are actual bodies treated in a special preservation process.

Very few of the bodies were female, all of the others were male; it is interesting that the male bodies were represented in active poses, playing tennis, volleyball, conducting an orchestra. The female specimens were used to illustrate adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and the female reproductive system (and another raising her arms in praise of the heavens). In other words, I found an interesting gender discourse at work in the exhibition.

I did find the message of the exhibition a bit uncertain. For example, they displayed specimens of a smoker's lungs and then placed a perspex box beside it for the cigarette boxes of visitors who have decided to give up. Then other points urged visitors to appreciate the complexity of the body and to begin to treat their own body better. But I'm not sure at all that this is how and why the individual items were displayed. As an account of the body, each component individually works, but I feel that holistically a convenient message was imposed that feels a tad preachy.

What I really wanted to know was who they were; who were they playing tennis and volleyball with? And most important of all, what piece of music was the man with the baton in hand conducting? Surely, no matter how complex your body is, it's what you do with it that really compels.

* * *

To this end, I think that the really marvellous exhibition 'Assembling Bodies' at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge is a good deal more successful. It runs until November 2010 and I intend to return. It covers an extremely wide range of issues. Organized around seven thematic headings, it comprises both artifacts and art objects; the whole exhibition fits into one room on the second floor, so it is easy to take in at a visit but provides enough to keep one ruminating. The thematic headings include: Assembly of Bodies; Measuring and Classifying; Art and Anatomy; The Body Multiple; Extending and Distributing; Genealogies and Genomes; Body and Landscape. A very good catalogue has been prepared for the exhibition. Well worth a visit if you're in Cambridge.

* * *

And as if the gods were conspiring to keep me thinking bodies, I have just picked up a copy of this new collection of essays on the theme of Dante and the human body, which comes out of the UCD annual Lectura Dantis (in this case, held between 2003-2004). It comprises: Simon A. Gilson, 'The Anatomy and Physiology of the Human Body in the Commedia'; Vivian Nutton, 'Dante, Medicine and the Invisible Body'; Joseph Ziegler, 'The Scientific Context of Dante's Embryology'; Simone de Angelis, 'Sanatio and Salvatio: "Body" and Soul in the Experience of Dante's Afterlife'; Manuele Gragnolati, 'Nostalgia in Heaven: Embraces, Affection and Identity in the Commedia'; Elizabeth Mozzillo-Howell, 'Divina Anatomia: Laying Bare Body and Soul in the Commedia'; Vittorio Montemaggi, ' "La rosa in che il verbo divino carne si fece": Human Bodies and Truth in the Poetic Narrative of the Commedia'; Oliver Davies, 'World and Body: A Study in Dante's Cosmological Hermeneutics'. Have already looked at Mozillo-Howell's very interesting essay (thoroughly resonant for the Bodies exhibition), and of course Montemaggi's very excellent essay.


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