Friday, July 23, 2010

Nothing is plumb, level or square.

Love Song: I and Thou

Nothing is plumb, level or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage's nails
into the frame-up of my work:
It held. It settled plumb.
level, solid, square and true
for that one great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it I sawed it
I nailed it and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand cross-piece but
I can't do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.

--Alan Dugan

What a killer poem, huh? I saw The Last Station recently - the movie with Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer about the last days of Tolstoy's life. It is a movie about marriage and it reminded me of this poem, which I truly love.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Penn & Teller: The Wisest Men on the Planet?

Last night Rhys and I went to see Penn & Teller at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was so, so good. I love magic. And I love what Penn & Teller tell us about magic.

Magic is all about working very, very hard to create an illusion. The Cigarette piece is Teller losing and finding a cigarette, miraculously lit or unlit, in his hat, in his pocket. We are watching the impossible and it feels delightful. It feels good. You know what, I like that feeling. I am hungry for that feeling and that feeling is magic. I apologize for that last sentence which I feel would cause the Iowa Writers Conference severe nausea.

Then Teller does the same sequence from the other side. Penn talks you through the palm, the switch, the simulation, the steal, the misdirection, the ditch, the load and the French drop (a combination simulation and ditch). While he walked the audience at the Hammersmith Apollo through that last night, it didn't diminish the poetry of Teller's illusions, it enhanced it. It showed how difficult the switches and loads are in truly compelling magic. Difficult, but performed by humans. And that is Penn's, especially, searing message in this show. The magic is the feeling, the wonder. It is always a matter of steal, misdirection and loads.

At the end, Penn eats fire. So electric was this performance, by the way. I was reminded of the footage of Danny Kaye at the Palladium in the 1950's, a historic concert, where Kaye scandalised London by sitting on the edge of the stage speaking honestly about his life. I was reminded when Penn tells us about watching fire eaters when he was a kid at the circus. He says he knew he was different from other kids because of his reaction to watching people eat fire. To his peers, those people were freaks but to Penn those fire eaters were his instant confreres.

How brave to say that. And how especially brave to out yourself as a freak in London. This ain't Vegas, Penn, they don't feel the love so much here.The freak thing could get your visa denied here in a couple years.

Penn talked about the pain of the trick, and the devotion he had to it, and how it always, always hurts. He was saying perfectly true things about himself as clearly as he could. That was magic. I had a jolt of wonder and joy when Teller made a hundred goldfish appear in an empty bowl and I had maybe a bigger jolt of wonder and joy when Penn told the truth of his life. The parallel is art, right? Art or truth?

Instead of going to my ten year college reunion, I ended up in New York with a broken-hearted friend. She had a pain worse than unrequited love, she had almost not unrequited love. I came up from DC and we performed the traditional break-up best friend rituals: we watched Heartburn and The Way We Were (I still recommend this cure, actually). Before we turned on the movies, we posted her profile to By the time the movies were over, thirty promisingly photographed men had sent funny e-mails begging to correspond with her. That was good. But the best part was Saturday afternoon. While our classmates gathered in that West Chicago suburb, we went down to the East Village and saw a magic show in a dusty community center.

The magician was a man dressed homelessly. He made bubbles dance with each other in the air and then made the bubbles turn into butterflies as he told us of the joy of falling in love. And when he told of breaking up with his beloved, he swallowed needles. He retrieved them, tied together, the symbols of the damage to his heart. It was joyful. It was magic.

Magic makes you feel better. I am sure it's the shock to the neural networks of seeing the unexpected, I'm sure it's the increased load of synapses that fire as you watch looking for the palm, the switch, the simulation, the steal, the misdirection and the load. And on top of that, the magicians told us their secrets with an intimacy reserved for family and closest friends (Note to Penn: For English people, not even family and closest friends). Inspiring evening. As good as Mahler's Third, as good as The Pillowman or The Walworth Farce (ok, close to as good as those plays), as good as looking at Starry Night and dreaming of the Dr. Who Van Gogh.

We need more magic in this world and we need more magicians brave enough to tell us their secrets.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Philip Larkin's poem, Maiden Name

Marrying left your maiden name disused.
Its five light sounds no longer mean your face,
Your voice, and all your variants of grace;
For since you were so thankfully confused
By law with someone else, you cannot be
Semantically the same as that young beauty:
It was of her that these two words were used.

Now it's a phrase applicable to no one,
Lying just where you left it, scattered through
Old lists, old programmes, a school prize or two,
Packets of letters tied with tartan ribbon -
Then is it scentless, weightless, strengthless wholly
Untruthful? Try whispering it slowly.
No, it means you. Or, since you're past and gone,

It means what we feel now about you then:
How beautiful you were, and near, and young,
So vivid, you might still be there among
Those first few days, unfingermarked again.
So your old name shelters our faithfulness,
Instead of losing shape and meaning less
With your depreciating luggage laiden.

This poem made me want to keep my maiden name. The idea of Larkin's that women lose shape and mean less upon marrying is so repugnant I had to defy it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Chestnut: Hero of Central Park

So Owain was watching this movie in the latter hours of Pizza Night, aka, Friday evening. On Pizza night I drink something fizzy and kind of free range my children. On Fridays I have parented all week and I'm tired. And I haul those cute children, 47 and 28 pounds respectively in a bike trailer to school and back, five miles round trip, five days a week. I got zero carbon emissions but baby, my quads are sore on Friday.

Which is all a defense for why Owain was watching the Disney Movie Channel for Kids offering Chestnut: Hero of Central Park. As I cleaned up the kitchen - by this I mean disassembling the endless disorganized piles of clutter the tides of life deposit there - I was listening to the movie in the other room. Two orphans who don't want to leave their vaguely Hispanic orphanage are adopted by a couple who live in an improbably spacious apartment on Central Park South. The catch is the orphans have a puppy but no pets are allowed in the building, plus their adopted Dad is allergic. Those poor orphans have to sneak a Great Dane puppy named Chestnut into the building and into their new life. Oh, the hi-jinks! The issues! This movie doesn't so much pluck at your heartstrings as hack at them with a razor.

Because the movie featured a dog and scatological humor, when my husband came home from work Owain told him Chestnut: Hero of Central Park was the greatest movie ever made. Which was interesting because when Rhys and I went into the kitchen to talk I told him Chestnut: Hero of Central Park was in fact the worst movie ever made and came up with the hacking at your heartstrings with a razor line which amused me endlessly (to be fair Rhys was less impressed).

I was still chuckling when Owain came into the kitchen, his face wet and serious with pain. "This is terrible! Chestnut died! Chestnut died!". And my heart broke painfully as I watched him go through the terrible agony that true empathy brings. I suspected that Chestnut may not stay dead, so I tried to cuddle him while we went back to the living room to watch the end of the movie.

When I was 8 I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and when Aslan was sacrificed by the White Witch on the Stone Table I was so profoundly sad that I could not function. I could not be consoled. My mother, alarmed, took the book away from me and didn't give it back to me for three days. Those were three dark days. When my mother reluctantly returned it, I read that Aslan came back alive, defeated death. I felt such joy. The purest. In retrospect I see how important this was to my Christianity. The idea that there is something out there bigger than death that deserves our attention is such a compelling one. Easter is such a great story.

Luckily for us Chestnut was not really dead and Owain got to experience intense happiness with just a fifteen minute delay. And there was a moving speech (eye-spraining eye roll) and a huge donation to the orphanage (stay down, pizza) and then the movie was over. But I know those circuits have been opened for Owain, those neurological paths of shocked grief are now there. And I remember what that meant for me, and I guess I wish he could have waited until he was at least eight. He's just six.