Saturday, August 30, 2008

Invisible Cities, Part 4: Almost Famous

"I'm leaving too, baby," Robot Boy declared in his comment to the post directly below this one. "The fatcats ruined our New York with their condo towers." In a sense, he's right. I don't think anyone can live here anymore in the gentle obscurity of impoverished solitude, the way we did twenty years ago, but I also doubt that anyone comes to New York anymore in search of such things. Times have changed.

On the other hand, there will always be the hordes of artistic strivers of various levels of ambition and ability that descend on our city like locusts each fall, whom John Zmirak mercilessly and hilariously parodies in this essay (I confess that I actually know the models for some of his thumbnail sketches quite well).

In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot's last novel, a beautiful, self-regarding young woman whose family has fallen on hard times consults the musician Herr Klesmer about her prospects of appearing on the stage. She is an accomplished drawing-room singer and pianist, but Klesmer (whom Eliot modeled on the pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein, above) discourages her, telling her that an artist's life is hard and guarantees no rewards.

With a slight turn of her head away from him, and an air of pique, she said: "I thought you, being an artist, would consider the life one of the most honourable and delightful. And if I can do nothing better? I suppose I can put up with the same risks as other people."

"Do nothing better?" said Klesmer, a little fired. "No, my dear Miss Harleth, you could do nothing better -- neither man nor woman could do anything better -- if you could do what was best or good of its kind. I am not decrying the life of the true artist. I am exalting it. I say, it is out of the reach of any but choice organizations—natures framed to love perfection and to labor for it; ready, like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say, I am not yet worthy, but she -- Art, my mistress -- is worthy, and I will live to merit her. An honorable life? Yes. But the honor comes from the inward vocation and the hard-won achievement: there is no honor in donning the life as a livery."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Invisible Cities, Part 3

"I had hoped to finally let go of this city, knowing all the while that the longing would start again soon enough, that one never washes anything away, and that this marooned and spectral city, which is no longer home for me . . . would eventually find newer, ever more beguiling ways to remind me that here is where my mind always turns, that here, to quote this century's most famous Alexandrian poet, Constantine Cavafy, I'll always end up, even if I never come back:

For you won't find a new country,
won't find a new shore,
the city will always pursue you,
and no ship will ever take you away from yourself

-- Andre Aciman, speaking of the city from which he was forced into exile in the essay "Alexandria: the Capital of Memory"

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Prayer to Saint Catherine

While going through my sheet music, I found a lovely song called "A Prayer to Saint Catherine," by Virgil Thomson, which I first heard a few years ago when a colleague in my doctoral program sang it in her dissertation recital. It's a setting of a poem by the influential New York poet Kenneth Koch. The song is wistfully conversational, and I remember being moved to tears by my colleague's simple, straightforward, and self-effacing performance of it, which seems just right for the charming but heartfelt text.

If I am to be preserved from heartache
and shyness
By Saint Catherine of Siena,
I am praying to her that she will hear my
And treat me in every way with kindness.

I went to Siena to Saint Catherine's
own church
(It is impossible to deny this)
To pray to her to cure me of my heartache
and shyness,
Which she can do, because she is a
great saint.

Other saints would regard my prayer
as foolish.
Saint Nicolas, for example.
He would chuckle, "God helps those who
help themselves,
Rouse yourself! Get out there and do
something about it!"

Or Saint Joanna. She would say, "It is
not shyness
That bothers you. It is sin.
Pray to Catherine of Siena." But that is
what I have done.
And that is why I have come here to cure
my heartache.

Saint Catherine of Siena,
If this song pleases you, then be good
enough to answer the prayer it contains.
Make the person that sings this song less
shy than that person is,
And give that person some joy in that
person's heart.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My Post-Tonal Back Pages

In the fall of 1989, my lifelong friend Robot Boy, upon his return from a sojourn in Europe, came to stay with me at 216 Carlton Avenue (apparently I was a somewhat erratic hostess). He got a job teaching English at a language school that catered to new immigrants, and quickly became friends with a young couple who had come to New York as refugees in the last wave of Soviet Jewish emigration sponsored by the U.S. government. A. and M., who brought their toddler daughter with them from Odessa, were both artists; A.'s work as a still photographer in Soviet cinema is known and prized by connoisseurs. Robot Boy spoke of them often and regarded them fondly, and, in one of the not-infrequent coincidences that make New York seem like a small town, they ended up being my across-the-street neighbors a few years later when I moved with my first husband to the apartment where I would live for the next thirteen years. In New York, A. and M. had two more children, and I had a special affection for their middle daughter, B., whose beautiful singing voice I recognized the first time I met her (she was three at the time, and she and her older sister sang "O terra addio," the duet from the last-act finale in Aïda, for me on my first visit to their home).

I began giving B. voice lessons two years ago. She's now graduated from LaGuardia High School (the High School of Performing Arts), and is headed to music school in another state. In preparation for my own move, I asked her to come over today to help me go through my filing cabinets of sheet music and take what she liked. In the process of this winnowing I found some interesting, obscure pieces of music of the sort I used to collect, but I had to be honest about which among them I am ever going to sing; the rest will have to be given away. With B., it was relatively easy; I made her a pile of the lyrical high-voice pieces I used to sing when I was a young soprano. Then I made another pile of the pieces that I've never sung and most likely never will (and that neither B. nor most people in the world likely ever will either).

One of the pieces that made its way into this second pile was the Fünf neapolitanische Lieder written by Hans Werner Henze (above) for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which I not only have never sung; I had no recollection either that I owned the score or that it existed. When I opened it, however, I saw on the title page a dedication scrawled in the familiar stark hand of my first husband: "For dear Pentimento, with all love, M." It was one of those heart-churning moments that I've resigned myself to never being able completely to escape, the moments that are at once a result and a reminder of the small, ineluctable tragedies that I imagine afflict all but the most fortunate.

I suppose M.'s choice of this piece of music years ago as a gift for me was rather telling. The strongest aspect of our marriage was our artistic comradeship (he was a conceptual artist), and he both encouraged me and strove to understand my efforts in my own discipline. Near the end of the marriage, I accused him of loving me not for who I was but for what I did. "If I decided to become a lawyer, would you still love me?" I demanded.

"If you decided to become a lawyer, you'd no longer be you," was his reply.

The irony is that he is now a lawyer himself.

I also gave B. some of my old recital gowns. They fit her like a glove and looked ravishing, which gave me my first real sense of the many parts of a life that I so diligently built here, and that I will have to leave behind.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Moving Party for Nostographers

My comrade in nostography* Fallen Sparrow proposes Lot's wife, "the Woman Who Died of Sorrowful Nostalgia," as the baleful figurehead, if not the patron saint, of the month of August. I propose Fallen Sparrow as the fellow interpreter in the blogosphere (to quote Kyle R. Cupp) I would most like to help me pack for my upcoming move. I would also like to have Robot Boy there, not only for his brawn, which is considerable, but also to keep me honest.

*nostography: the genre of writing about returning

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Too Late Now, Part 2

I haven't thought about my sojourn at 216 Carlton Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for years, but after writing about my move there, I've been besieged with memories of the place. My time there coincided with the temporary end of my relationship with M. (The relationship started up again the following year when I met him by chance in a part of town where I rarely ventured. I became pregnant soon after, and he urged me to have an abortion, which, perversely enough, led to our marriage a year later, a marriage which was perhaps -- though I loved him terribly -- doomed from the start.)

I spent the autumn of 1989 living at 216 Carlton in impoverished solitude, having lost my waitressing job at a chic restaurant in the publishing district, where most of the profits appeared at any rate to be going toward the wholesale purchase of cocaine. Somehow that fall I was able nonertheless to save up $90 to buy a beautiful black velvet Renaissance-style hat at a neighborhood shop (I passed it on a couple of years ago to Dawn Eden, on whom it looks extrememly fetching). Every morning I would get a chocolate croissant at the corner deli and drink a whole pot of coffee which I made in a large-ish Neapolitan macchinetta. This coffee was so strong that my friends called it "coffee gluten." One frigid day I decided to give it up, and, when I reached the point where I thought I was going blind, I walked for a couple of miles in the cold to clear my head, ending up somehow at a pizza shop in Brooklyn Heights, where I drank a double espresso and promptly felt much better.

One of the things I remember most clearly from that fall is the way the mimosa trees grew behind the building, making a sort of impassable jungle between my brownstone's back lot and the one across the way. When I sat in the window and gazed out across the back lots of my block, I got a delicious sense of the peace that one feels when one is all alone in a quiet place in the midst of an enormous city, the same sense that one gets from staying up all night with only the radio for company. When I think of that view now, I can still hear the bellowing tenor of a man who lived across the way and used to sing along with gospel recordings, the only interruption in the stillness of those mornings, but one that soon became woven into my solitary contemplation.

Those mornings, almost invariably, I would listen to Joni Mitchell's great album Court and Spark (above), and to the jazz programs on WKCR, one of the true treasures of New York City. One day about a week after I moved in, I woke up and switched on the radio and heard, to my shock, a piano ballad version of the elusive song that had been haunting me. The announcer identified the leader as James Williams, with the eminent Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, from the recording Magical Trio 2. I bought the CD and gave it to my brother to tape for me, since I didn't have a CD player; the cassette tape has surely disappeared in one of my many moves since then, and the recording is now out of print. Williams himself died tragically young in 2004.

These memories bring to mind Czeslaw Milosz's 1938 poem "Encounter":

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Invisible Cities, Part 2

My outer-borough New York City neighborhood is served by a commuter train line. I was waiting for the downtown train yesterday when I noticed a tweedy-looking middle-aged woman on the platform, scribbling in a small notebook. I assumed she was writing an agenda or to-do list, but then I saw she was tearing off the pages and sticking them into the frame of a billboard that advertised a real estate auction in suburban Connecticut. I grabbed the pages from the billboard frame as I boarded the train.

The first one read:

3 car garage!!
3 cars x miles/gallon = move to the city

The second:

Where are the people?
They are never home

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Too Late Now

Something About Time

In spite of the fact that it's a month that commemorates some awful times in my life, I love August. (The month of March has traditionally also been a bad one for me, but I have none of the same affection for it.) August is, to my mind, the most beautiful time of the year in New York City. This sounds completely unreasonable, because it's usually the hottest time, the time when the dirtiness of everything stands out in stark relief in the sweltering haze, and the time when the city is overtaken by European tourists; for me, personally, it's also often been a time of loneliness and bereavement. And yet it's also beautiful: I love the way that the hot breeze is punctuated with the fragrance of whatever green things strive mightily to grow in the city, and the swell of cicadas that rises up from every patch of grass, and the solitude and quiet that can be found in the most unexpected places, even on the busiest streets, at certain times of the day.

In August of 1989 I moved into the first apartment in which I lived completely alone. It was in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which is now quite chic, but then was not (though I used to see Spike Lee around from time to time; he was very short). I was reeling from a devastating breakup, and in my confusion had forgotten to have the electricity turned on in the new place, so my first night there was shaping up to be a dark one, alleviated only by the seven-day bodega candles I'd bought at the corner deli and placed around my tiny bedroom.

I was working as a waitress in a restaurant in the publishing district where a jazz pianist, an elderly black man who must have been on the scene for decades, played on Monday nights. One slow night a few days before my move (August is the slowest month for the restaurant business in New York), he played a tremendously beautiful song that I'd never heard before. I couldn't stop him to ask what it was, because a jazz pianist, as the only musician, has to keep up a steady flow of music, segueing smoothly from one song to the next. At the end of the night I saw him start to leave, and I abandoned my tables and ran out the door after him. "What's the name of that song you played?" I asked, humming a little of it.

"I don't know," he mused. "Something about time."

On that very dark first night in my new apartment, I plugged in my tiny black and white countertop television, and, by some kind of electrical providence, it came on. And, amazingly, it came on to a woman singing the song I had just heard played a day or two earlier at the restaurant. It was the Fred Astaire movie "Royal Wedding," and the song was "Too Late Now," sung by Jane Powell, who plays Astaire's sister, in a scene with Peter Lawford. I was astonished, and I knew that there was a God who loved me and who had a sense both of humor and of proportion. He had allowed only one source of electricity in my apartment to remain active, not one that would give me full light, but one that would play me that beautiful song. (I was to live in darkness for many more years, a darkness partially illuminated, indeed, by the beauty of song.)

The song, by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, is sung by Jane Powell in the scene from the movie in the video link above.

Monday, August 11, 2008

I Am Mrs. Lot

Fallen Sparrow has a wonderful post up about a few of the things that interest me most: New York City, memory, and the mysterious grace of God. Among other observations remarkable for their beauty and honesty, he notes that "Lot's wife, in looking back, became pure, distilled tear-stuff, the physical manifestation of sorrow." Fallen suggests that the lot of Lot's wife was the result of an ultimate failing of trust in God's grace. But perhaps her backward glance was actually a tribute to all those beloved ones she was leaving behind, those many souls in varying degrees of darkness who would perish in God's destruction of the cities of the plain. For even in their darkness, those souls must have shone out sometimes in fragmented moments of goodness and beauty.

Or perhaps Lot's wife was a sort of bodhisattva, in Buddhist tradition a soul who vows not to attain its own enlightenment until it has assisted the liberation of all other souls. Or perhaps she was like Simone Weil (above), who, though she had received remarkable proof of the Holy Trinity in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, refused baptism in solidarity with all the suffering souls who would never reach heaven.

Conversion demarcates a life into the time of the old man and the time of the new, setting up a dividing line, a fulcrum upon which personal history pivots. But how many of us have not balanced uneasily on that fulcrum, our sensibilities drawn in grief and compassion towards the darkness we leave behind?

Mourning into Joy, part 2: Tisha b'Av

Yesterday was the anniversary of my abortion. I mentioned this to Really Rosie, and she pointed out that this year it was also the Jewish fast of Tisha b'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and also other tragedies that have befallen the Jews, from the failure of Bar Kokhba's second-century revolt against the Roman empire to the Holocaust. On this day, a day of great mourning, the Book of Lamentations is read, and, in Sephardic temples, the Book of Job.

According to Orthodox Jewish belief, however, when the Messiah comes, this day of mourning will be transformed into one of great joy. God asserts in Jeremiah 31:13: "I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow." This is my prayer for all men and women who've suffered the tragedy of abortion.

The Continuous Life

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don't really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.
-- Mark Strand

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sounds of Summer

I read somewhere recently that while pop music exists in a fixed moment in time -- when you hear a pop song, it will trigger memories of the circumstances in which you first heard it, resulting in many uncomfortable Lost-in-the-Supermarket experiences -- classical music is timeless in the sense that it evokes memories only of itself. This has never been true for me. There are certain pieces from the Western art music tradition that I associate not only with certain moments in my life, but even with certain seasons and years. When I hear Schumann's Piano Concerto, for example, I'm instantly drawn back to my unhappy adolescence, when I played through my mother's thick stack of classical LPs and found the turbulent yearning of Schumann and Brahms to be a kind of balm for my soul. And late summer has always been linked in my mind with Brahms's and Schumann's chamber music, particluarly their vocal chamber music: Schumann's Spanisches Liederbuch, for instance, for four solo voices and four-hands piano, or Brahms's Liebeslieder Walzer for the same vocal and instrumental forces (Brahms, twenty-three years younger than Schumann and a great friend of both the composer and his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann [pictured above], no doubt scored his piece as a tribute to the older man). This music is redolent of the melancholy longing of late summer, the sense of something coming to an end, and when I hear it I remember my first few summers in the city many years ago, spent in a succession of borrowed lofts and sublet railroad flats, when I had nothing except my own great longing to create a beautiful world around myself. These pieces are woven into my memories of those years of poverty, striving, and solitude.