August 12, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

When Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out our power last Tuesday morning, I already had Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Herman Melville’s Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent close at hand, along with flashlights, battery-operated lanterns, and a portable CD player. Besides the fact that both writers have sailed similarly stormy seas of thought, I knew we’d be printing on August 12, three days before De Quincey’s August 15th birthday and two weeks after the 201st birthday of Herman Melville, who discovered the Opium Eater on his way to writing Moby-Dick.

Painting in the Dark

When Confessions first appeared in the September 1821 issue of London Magazine, elegantly addressed to the “Courteous Reader,” Melville was 2 years old, a reader in the making who would bond with the book in London shortly before Christmas 1849. A hop, skip, and a virtual jump later, it’s August 2020 and De Quincey’s lighting this grateful reader’s way through the after-midnight darkness of a power outage. Taking occasional breaks from the book, I become an impromptu cinematographer, moving the flashlight beam around the living room, poking holes in the darkness and zooming in on details: the densely shadowed corner of a print from Goya’s Disasters of War; a fragment of winding road on a large Art Nouveau vase; flowered fireplace tiles; the bronze glimmer of the andirons; and above the mantle an oil painting of a night scene by an unknown artist, a firelit shoreline, a boat being unloaded by spectral figures, the scene becoming gloomier, more sinister as the flashlight sweeps over it.

Picking up where I left off in the book, it’s as if De Quincey’s been reading my mind, setting the scene, asking if “the reader is aware” that children have the power of painting phantoms “upon the darkness,” a power that in some is “simply a mechanical affection of the eye” while “others have a voluntary or semi-voluntary power to dismiss or to summon them” (my italics because we were told the power would be restored by now, c’mon PSE&G, give us back our power, power, power!), and after a child informs De Quincey that when he tells the phantoms to go, they go, but that sometimes they come when doesn’t want them to come, the Opium Eater assures him that he has “as unlimited a command over apparitions as a Roman centurion over his soldiers.” Picturing the confused and by now perhaps terrified child, I’m reminded this is the same man who was found by one of his daughters one evening sitting at his desk with his hair on fire.

Night Music

Meanwhile as De Quincey’s describing how a theater suddenly “lighted up” within his brain, presenting “nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendour,” I’m busy putting together a phantasmal music hall of my own with some headphones and an Insignia CD-player from Best Buy.

Wishfully thinking that history might repeat itself, I’m tempted to begin my program of night music with Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, who was singing when the living room lights came suddenly gloriously on during the Superstorm Sandy power outage of 2012. I go with Moby’s Wait for Me instead, a more fitting choice anyway since Richard Melville Hall was named Moby at birth as a gesture to his great-great-great-great uncle’s signature work. Listening to the choral orchestral majesty of “A Seated Night” with headphones is the musical equivalent of a De Quincey ecstasy, or, more to the point, a Ralph Vaughan Williams fantasia created on equipment in a Lower East Side apartment by a former club DJ who wrote the background music for the first year of the 21st century. By 2009, Moby wanted to focus on making something that he loved, “without really being concerned about how it might be received by the marketplace.” The result, according to his online diary, is “a quieter and more melodic and more mournful and more personal record” not to mention that “some of the songs sound pretty amazing in headphones.”

It’s all the more amazing to have heard “A Seated Night” for the first time 33,000 feet above the Atlantic on a flight to England. Never mind the superlatives, everything’s richer, deeper, darker with music of “more than earthly splendour” in your ears while you paint flashlight phantoms on the walls of a pitch-dark living room.

“The Fun of Life”

Thanks to Melville’s oldest grandchild (presumably Moby’s great-great aunt) Eleanor Melville Metcalf, I’ve been reading around in Cycle and Epicycle (Harvard 1953), her collection of Melville’s correspondence, along with the aforementioned Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent (Harvard 1948), which she edited and annotated with a nicely balanced mixture of familial pride and sweetly earnest scholarly diligence. Toward the end of Cycle and Epicycle, she offers a “more personal” view of her grandfather in her account of childhood outings to Central Park, where “the joy of all existence was best expressed by running down the hills, head back, skirts flying in the wind” while he followed “more slowly” behind her, calling, “Look out, or the cop may catch you!” Four decades later, “Tittery-Eye” (his nickname for her) expresses her sense of “the man who moves through these pages” with an epigraph from the British writer, H.M. Tomlinson: “Our peering curiosity is the measure of his mastership. His contribution to the fun of life, and his deepening of its mystery, only quicken interest in his person, and desire to examine his relics for traces of his secrets.”

“A Most Wondrous Book”

The traces of Melville’s secrets I found in the Journal date to his last weekend in London before the return voyage to America. While he’s not averse to the use of superlatives, as when referring to a “glorious dinner” now and then, there’s nothing remotely comparable to his enthusiasm for De Quincey’s Confessions. On December 21, 1849, while waiting in someone’s office, where he’d gone “to see about my money,” he “ran out, & at last got hold of ‘The Opium Eater’ & began it in the office. A wonderful thing, that book.” On the afternoon of Sunday December 23, he’s so wrapped up “reading the ‘Opium Eater’ by the fire,” that he’s forced to “employ a fashionable … evasion of visitors.” The next entry is at 3:30 p.m.: “Have just this moment finished the ‘Opium Eater.’ A most wondrous book.” The next, penultimate entry begins “After finishing the marvelous book yesterday, sallied out for a walk about dusk.”

“The Counterpane”

Considering that Melville binged on The Opium Eater the last week of the year before he began writing Moby-Dick, a reader can find immediate evidence of De Quincey’s presence in introductory material like the “Etymology” supplied by the pale Usher who “loved to dust the old grammars” that “somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality” and in the prose of the introductory “Extract” supplied by a Sub-Sub Librarian, “who appears to have gone  through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane.”

The symbiotic electricity is most evident in the passage from the fourth chapter, “The Counterpane,” where Ishmael awakens with Queequeg’s arm thrown over him and recalls a childhood moment that seems haunted by De Quincey’s passage about painting phantoms on the darkness:

“At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it — half steeped in dreams

— I opened my eyes, and the before sunlit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side.”

Backyard Theatrics

We have several outdoor variations on the phantom theatre that suddenly “lighted up” within DeQuincey’s brain, presenting us with daily spectacles of “more than earthly splendour.” We’re down to two avian venues after a raccoon nicknamed Hurricane Rocky for the Beatles song toppled the original Edwardian music hall and a skinny replacement billed as the “squirrel buster.” As for the suet feeder, which still has to be brought in overnight to prevent nocturnal raids, the theater analogy doesn’t quite hold; you might as well try staging a play in a knight’s visored helmet.

Deprived for three nights of cable access to the current addiction (The Bureau), we sit for hours on the deck gazing at our bird feeder combination of Paris Opera House, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Circus tent, the so-called “Absolute Squirrel Proof Feeder” with its adjustable counterweight around the back, and feed platters guaranteed to shut tight when large birds or squirrels arrive. Advertised for use year round, it’s said to be the cardinals’ favorite, with the balance adjusted against access to “greedy squirrels, blue jays, and grackles.”

The catch is if you shut out the squirrels and grackles, it’s like staging King Lear without the Fool, Richard the Third without Richard, the Tempest without Ariel and Caliban, and the Symphonie Fantastique without Berlioz. Above all, you need the squirrels, one in particular, though I’m not sure which anthropomorphic hero does justice to such skill and tenacity. Whether it lands on the green roof of the feeder from some adjoining precipice, or after ascending the nearest tree, this display of power and energy that needs no PSE&G draws cheers from the audience on the deck, especially when Super Squirrel hangs   there pounding the “shut-tight” trays until they rain sunflower seeds. Such moments defy hyperbole. When a chipmunk comes on the scene, it’s pure Walt Disney, but add some croaking grackles and a goldfinch flashing, darting, and swooping overhead and it’s Paradise Lost — or Paradise Regained.

August 5, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The screen test was shot over the shoulder of a bewigged man in period costume, presumably the title character in Danton, a film of the French Revolution that was never made. The young actress clearly has had experience, her voice and diction are excellent, she projects a spirited youthful appeal (“I want to see the king. I want to tell him how things really are”), but as soon she becomes emotional (“my mother is sick, we don’t have enough to eat”), you’re rolling your eyes, and when the man responds with loud laughter at the idea that the king would care, you think at first he might be mocking her performance. Danton cares enough to give her money for bread, a gesture that surprises and touches her and leaves her struggling for words, she’s choked up, virtually speechless, radiant with gratitude (“Oh you — you’re — wonderful!”) as she bolts from the room.

Put yourself in the place of whoever’s reviewing the test and you’ve gone from feeling judgmental (that bit about the sick mother) to wanting more of her, you’re sorry she left, you’re already missing her. Forget the low grade you’d give her reading of the hackneyed dialogue, forget the French Revolution, forget the test: she’s a delight, the camera loves her (as the saying goes), she matters, she’s there, and in spite of the mob cap and period dress, spirit and energy like hers don’t date, she’s “modern,” the surge of life that briefly filled that space some 80 years ago transcending decades of films, fads, and fashion, something fine and true shining through.  more

July 29, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

In Money Heist, feelings, fraternity and love are as important as the plots. A perfect heist, rational and cool, becomes something else when spiced up with Latin emotions.

—Álex Pina

In this season of death and discontent, why do I find myself compulsively whistling, humming, thinking, and feeling the old anti-fascist protest anthem, “Bella Ciao”? Even the cardinals in our backyard are getting into the act; instead of sweet sweet sweet, I’m hearing ciao ciao ciao! The pure and piercing clarity of the sound conveys another message, not goodbye beautiful, but hello hello hello.

The source of my “Bella Ciao” euphoria is the Netflix sensation Money Heist [Casa del Papel], whose recently released fourth season drew 65 million viewers around the world. By early 2018, when Álex Pina’s creation was already the most-watched non-English language series in Netflix history, and one of the most watched overall, the singing of “Bella Ciao” at key moments in the action inspired an international onslaught of cover versions.

“A Cultural Juggernaut”

The most informative account of Money Heist I’ve been able to find is in the April 2, 2020 Guardian (“It’s pure rock’n’roll”), where after hailing “a world-changing, cultural juggernaut of a TV show,” Ellen Jones writes, “The first season of the full-throttle thriller saw its gang – all code-named after major cities and memorably clad in revolutionary-red overalls and Salvador Dalí masks – break into the Royal Mint of Spain taking 67 people hostage and literally printing money: 2.4 billion euros, to be exact.”    

Referring to the series’ “anti-system” philosophy, invoked whenever gang members sing “Bella Ciao,” Jones quotes Álex Pina: “First and foremost, the series is meant to entertain, but an idea runs underneath. Skepticism towards governments, central banks, the system.” After pointing out the series’ roots in Don Quixote (“To rise up against the system is reckless and idealistic”), Pina claims the latest season has the power to “infuse some oxygen into this disturbing climate,” comparing it to “a brutal journey to the limit” while promising that “the audience will not think of Covid-19 while watching it.” more

July 22, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I have seldom, very seldom, crossed this borderland between loneliness and fellowship. I have even been settled there longer than in loneliness itself. What a fine bustling place was Robinson Crusoe’s island in comparison!

—Franz Kafka, October 29, 1921

My bedside copy of Kafka’s Diaries 1914-1923 opened to that passage as I was adjusting to the idea of baseball being played before a virtual crowd in an empty stadium. I kept thinking of the recent New York Times photograph of a stylishly masked player batting in front of a “crowd” of cardboard cutouts at Citi Field. Why was that jumbled arrangement of forms and faces so hauntingly familiar? Why was I smiling at the thought of something so creepy, so unreal, so — Kafkaesque?

The answer came by way of the reference to “loneliness and fellowship” in the passage just quoted. Given all the precautionary no-nos the pandemic has inflicted on baseball — no spitting, no high-fives, no hugs, no fist bumps, no intimate catcher-pitcher sessions on the mound, no round-the-horn-and-back-to-the-pitcher routine after an out — who’d have thought that the no-fans challenge would lead to the invention of  ballpark variations on the cover design of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?

Never mind the financial upside already being explored by the owners, like having fans pay to reserve a seat in the stands for cutouts of their choosing. Never mind the distraction potential, like putting an image of the opposing pitcher’s estranged wife in a key position behind home plate. What’s making me smile is the back story wherein Jann Haworth and Peter Blake, the co-creators of the Sgt. Pepper cover, left the choice of cutouts to the Beatles. Told to think of themselves posing for a photograph with a crowd of fans behind them — “the fans could be anybody, dead or alive, real or fictitious” — each Beatle was asked to make a list.  more

July 15, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m on my way to Lambertville after half a year staying close to home, and nothing looks quite right. The road ahead is unwinding like a film that’s been subtly altered by forces beyond my control. The problem may be the music on the stereo. If this is a movie, I’ve picked the wrong soundtrack. The CD of Schubert lieder sounds too confined and wintry for a sunny early Sunday morning in July.

Maybe what I need is a nice rousing jolt from Ennio Morricone. Ever since he died last week, I’ve been revisiting the films he scored for Sergio Leone and reading about his relationship with his old fifth grade schoolmate in Christopher Frayling’s biography, Something To Do With Death. The title, taken from a line of dialogue in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, has something to do with my own state of mind after discovering that two old friends of mine have died, one last month in Indiana, the other two years ago in Zurich.

The view down the long stretch of empty track at the railroad crossing outside Hopewell reminds me of the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West, but more than that, it flashes me back to the hours my friend Bob and I spent playing catch in a lot next to the Illinois Central tracks. When he moved to a town upstate, we signed our letters “your everlasting friend,” no doubt using the same leaky ballpoint pens with which we copied down stats in baseball scrapbooks on long winter afternoons. The last time I saw him in person was — 1960.

Sharing Music

While waiting for the light to change at the junction of 518 and NJ 31, I take the Schubert Lieder out of the CD player and replace it with the Beach Boys’ Sunflower. Why Schubert on a pandemic-haunted morning in July? Because the other old friend I’m mourning is Irwin Gage, the pianist accompanying Gundula Janowitz on this Deutsche Grammophon recording from 1977. I’ve had closer friends over the years, but the friendship with Irwin developed on a summer student tour of Europe, giving it an kind of shipboard romance unreality. Bob and I bonded over books and baseball in Bloomington, Indiana. Irwin and I shared great music in Vienna, Salzburg, Venice, and Rome. If he hadn’t urged me to go, I’d have missed a stirring outdoor concert of Respighi’s Pines of Rome in Venice, the trumpet-glorious March of the Roman legions on the Appian Way like a preview of Morricone’s great showdown fanfare in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was thanks to Irwin that I saw a performance of Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla, five rows behind Orson Welles. We also shared a Mozart program in Salzburg and visits to Beethoven’s house and Schubert’s birthplace in Vienna.  more

July 8, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

What greater gift than the love of a cat.

—Charles Dickens

For the first time since Saddam invaded Kuwait there are no cats in the house. I’ve been adjusting to that enormous absence with the help of In the Company of Cats (British Library 2014), featuring “illustrations through the ages” and choice quotations from poets, writers, and philosophers celebrating feline “mystery and magnificence.”

I’m thinking about two generations of tuxedo cats dating back to Dizzy (1990-2003), the runt of the litter brought into the world against all odds by the ill-fated, small but mighty tabby Tess (1989-1999), followed after Dizzy’s demise by the adopted twins Nick (2003-2018), and Nora (2003-2020), who died June 25.

Like her namesake in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, tawny Tess had seen a novel’s worth of adversity when she first showed up at the back door. Because my wife was severely allergic at the time, we fed and housed the little vagabond in a make-shift shelter on the deck. After disappearing for more than a week (we feared we’d seen the last of her), she showed up pregnant and fiercely determined; now there was no keeping her outside. Our household version of Saddam’s “mother of all battles” was an invasion by the feline force of nature storming from the deck into the kitchen, through two strongbox barricades and up the stairs to this room, where she accomplished her mission on the evening of August 2, 1990, in the same roomy tartan plaid canvas suitcase I’d used on my first summer in Europe.

Tess still haunts this space. A few feet to my left is the spot where she delivered Dizzy and his four siblings, all of whom eventually found homes in the community, except for the jaunty male tuxedo whose place in our family had never really been in doubt. It was for love of Dizzy that my wife finally overcame the allergy that had doomed every previous attempt. Since none of the statements in Company of Cats applies to Tess and her plight, I’m borrowing a line from Mark Twain: “If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” more

July 1, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The last time I road-tested a song was for a column celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ White Album, released in the U.S. on November 22, 1968. Driving from Kingston to Princeton with “Revolution 9” on the stereo, I covered the distance in 8:15, the exact length of the surreal sound collage created by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Twice as long, “Murder Most Foul,” Bob Dylan’s Kennedy assassination tour de force, took me and my 20-year-old-and-counting Honda CRV to Kingston and back and then halfway to Rocky Hill so I could hear it again. The ride was as rich, as dense, and as sweepingly provocative as a novel compared to the churning, driving soundscape of “Revolution 9,” yet both in-motion listening experiences reverberated with the chaotic, fateful aftershocks of the same day in Dallas.                        

Twilight Time in Tulsa

Given the enormity of the audiences their records reached, Dylan and the Beatles had the power to sound and shape the culture of the period, underground as well as mainstream. The Beatles knew what they were doing by releasing the White Album on the fifth anniversary of the assassination, as Dylan knew when he sent Tempest into the world on September 11, 2012 and timed the June 19 release of his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways to coincide with Juneteenth, the date officially marking the end of slavery.  more

June 24, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Finally a dream worth remembering. If only I can remember it. For far too long, with rare exceptions, my dreams have been about trivial tasks and futile deliberations, like asking directions to places you don’t even want to go, and looming in the background always the same monumental obstacle that can’t be moved or toppled or made to vanish. Last night I woke up worn out but smiling, aware that I’d been toiling, climbing, slipping and almost falling, but not afraid, never for a minute. All I knew was the dream had something to do with statues.

And why not, with statues being toppled here, there, and everywhere, all over the world. At the moment I’m  remembering the opening scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, where a crowd of dignitaries is gathered for the unveiling of a monument to “Peace and Prosperity” composed of three figures, a seated female flanked by two male warriors, one wielding a sword. The unveiling of the Olympian tableau reveals the tramp, “the Little Fellow,” curled up asleep in the female figure’s lap. The dignitaries are not amused and shout at him, he tries to scramble to his feet but his baggy trousers get caught on the sword, which seems to hoist him, wriggling, tipping his derby, as the band plays the National Anthem.

“The Statue Song”

I’d been up past three the previous night when I saw an online New York Times front page photograph showing two NYPD cars in front of the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History. My first thought was of a New York night in the mid-sixties with an old friend that began with us throwing snowballs at the statue after sharing a pint of Old Crow. We had nothing against TR, no agenda, we were just “doing what comes naturally” because he was so monumentally there, not because he was “a symbol of colonialism and racism flanked by a Native American man and an African man.”  more

June 17, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Think of it as a double feature. Or better yet, one film, A Tale of Two Poets, with a week-long intermission.

Here are two driven, difficult artists who wrote difficult, celebrated verse. Each chose to “take his own life” or “end it all” on the grand scale. In last week’s column it was John Berryman leaping off a bridge over the Mississippi; this week it’s Hart Crane leaping off a ship into the Gulf of Mexico, his body never recovered, the headlines reading Poet Lost at Sea.

Fathers and Sons

Berryman’s father fatally shot himself outside his 11-year-old son’s ground-floor window at the Kipling Arms apartments, Mandalay Drive, Clearwater Beach, Florida. The shot echoed through four decades, the son reliving it in “Dream Song 145,” the last act of the father “so strong & so undone,” who “only, very early in the morning, / rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window / and did what was needed.”    

Crane’s father, a Cleveland, Ohio candy manufacturer “wholly loyal to the gods of Commerce” was “outraged by the jest of fortune which had given him a poet for a son.” Making it his mission to drive out the “poetry nonsense,” he put the boy to work selling candy and told the other employees to keep an eye on him in case he read “poetry books” during work hours.  more

June 10, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Nobody is ever missing.

—John Berryman, “Dream Song 29”

There’s a video online of John Berryman reading his poem “The Song of a Tortured Girl” in early October 1970, a year and three months before he jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

It’s a short poem about a heroine of the French Resistance captured by the Gestapo and, as Berryman puts it, “tortured in various ways to death without giving up any names.” Watching the faded, grainy YouTube clip, I saw convulsive foreshadowings of Berryman’s last act. Although the video resembles a ghostly livestream preview of Zoom, there’s nothing merely “virtual” about the bearded, bespectacled poet’s spasmodic flailings; he’s not reciting the girl’s ordeal, he’s enduring it in an agony of compassion. You find yourself close to ducking, flinching, not sure whether he’s at the drunken mercy of — or in sly performative command of — his own lines. Everything’s at the last point-of-death remove, every pause feels like a fall into the abyss, and you’re there with the girl and the poet in “the strange room where the brightest light DOES NOT shine on the strange men: shines on me.” Nothing short of the capital letters I’ve added can suggest the way those two ordinary words wrench, attack, all but strangle him. It’s not emphasis for effect, it’s an emotional eruption.

No matter how much you read of Berryman’s work or John Haffenden’s 1983 biography or the Paris Review interview conducted at St. Mary’s Hospital later the same month, October 27 and 29, 1970, nothing really prepares you for the dimensions of Berryman’s presence alive and unwell, and rarely sober, in various online videos. Then you begin to understand his take-no-prisoners attitude to syntax; the poignant understatement of his third wife Kate’s reference to the “lovely confusion” of living with him (“you were part of the project”); and above all his lengthy closing response when the interviewer, his former student Peter Stitt, asks him, “Where do you go from here?”  more

June 3, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Each day’s paper more violent . . . Indochina to Minneapolis … History’s faster than thought …
—Allen Ginsberg, from The Fall of America

The news isn’t just breaking, it’s running wild, raging, incendiary, out of control, so how do you keep up when you’re aiming toward the middle of a week that may exceed your darkest expectations? What do you do when the ever-shifting, on-the-scene, at-the-moment image of a floodlit Washington Monument looming in the foreground of an apparent river of fire headed for the White House evokes dystopian TV like The Man In the High Castle, or David Simon’s The Plot Against America, where Philip Roth’s boyhood Newark neighborhood seethes with a Kristallnacht menace as chilling as the West Baltimore phantasmagoria of The Wire.

What can you do but try to keep pace, making a bid for vicarious relevance by tying your weekly hovercraft to art and adversity in the belief that inspired acting, poetry, music is always timely, always worthy of interest. That’s been the motive force driving these pieces week after week, year after year. Along comes Hurricane Irene, a flooded basement, the power out, so you listen to Chopin, read The Winter’s Tale by candlelight, and write about it. When terrorists shoot up the Bataclan in Paris, you connect by way of Henry Miller, Rimbaud, and the Velvet Underground. When youth is under fire at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, you write about the night in 1963 the Beatles played there before swooning audiences of young girls who could have been the mothers or grandmothers of the victims. When terrorists savage Brussels, it opens the way for a column on MI-5. A terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge inspires a flashback to Wordsworth and his spirited sister Dorothy.

Sunday night it’s breaking news gone wild in D.C.’s City of Dreadful Night where the White House of Usher has gone dark and the only refuge is down the rabbit hole into the third season finale of Ozark, high on the super reality of art and outrage, your heart full watching a brother-sister tragedy and the transformative performance of Laura Linney.  more

May 27, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

It avails not, neither time or place; distance avails not. I am with you, men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.

—Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Facing the approach of a “grim milestone” with “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000” on the eve of Memorial Day 2020, the editors of Sunday’s New York Times produced a front page Walt Whitman himself might have conceived.

It’s as though one of the editors discussing how to convey “the vastness and variety of lives lost” had been reading Leaves of Grass. You might almost think Whitman had suggested the wording of the secondary head, “They Were Not Simply Numbers on a List. They were Us,” before putting the weight of his spirit behind the idea of culling “vivid passages” from coronavirus death notices of hundreds of newspapers around the country. No wonder the resulting inventory — “the conductor with the most amazing ear, the grandmother with the easy laugh, the entrepreneur and adventurer” — seems to echo Whitman’s “pure contralto singing in the organ loft, the carpenter dressing his plank, the connoisseur peering along the exhibition gallery.”

Always With Us

America’s poet is always with us on Memorial Day. Who else could have imagined, celebrated, or publicized such an event? He had a stake in it long before the ceremonial occasion was officially relocated from May 30 to the last Monday in May; in fact, he was there a century and a half before, having been born on the last Sunday in May 1819. He makes his generation-transcending presence vividly felt in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where time or place or distance “avails not,” and the “similitudes of the past and those of the future” are as “glories strung like beads” on his “smallest sights and hearings.” more

May 20, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Picture a poet who makes a living writing thrillers. He’s on the run in San Francisco, having been falsely convicted of murder, and his face is all over the papers. Escaped Killer On the Loose. A rich, beautiful, sympathetic woman who followed the trial and has good reason to believe he’s innocent gives him shelter in her deluxe apartment overlooking the bay.

That night he flags down a taxi driven by a friendly, worldly, wise-cracking cabbie who immediately recognizes him. The cabbie knows of a genius plastic surgeon who can give the poet a new face that very night for $200. “Not only that,” says the cabbie, “this guy is a bit of a dark poet himself, he can mend your mind while he’s fixing your face.”

The first thing the doctor asks the poet is “What sorta face do you want?” He has a gallery of possibilities. “I could give you middle period T.S. Eliot. Or I could do early Robert Frost.”

“Nah,” says the poet, “How about Humphrey Bogart? Can you do a good Bogie?”

“Sure, all the time. Everybody wants to be Bogart, but I thought you were a poet.”

“I make a living writing thrillers,” says the poet. “I thought the cabbie told you. Anyway, Bogart is a poet.”

“Funny, now that I think of it, you talk just like him,” says the doctor. “You’ve got his voice.”

“So do you, doc. Everyone should sound like Bogart at three in the morning. That’s what I want to hear as the drug kicks in. I want a film noir mood. Voices speaking soft and low. The sound of coffee and cigarettes, sheltering in place while the world goes mad.”

“Right, but when you’re going under, you want poetry. I usually say a few words. To see folks through. Something mildly hypnotic. Sounds like you don’t want clarity. You want to mask the meaning. Give it a touch of mystery. Just the thing to be hearing as you flow down into darkness. Wallace Stevens always works. Like ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ — by the fifth blackbird, you’re on your way. Now… just close your eyes.” more

May 13, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Let’s get rid of that old man hate
And bring our fellow man up to date.
—Little Richard (1932-2020)

“Good Golly, Miss Molly,” it looks like the death of Little Richard has invaded a column marking the 50th anniversary of Kent State, Paul McCartney’s first solo album, and the break-up of the Beatles. But surely there’s room for the man who taught Paul “everything he knows.”

By the time they formed a band, Lennon and McCartney had taken crash courses at the College of Little Richard, as can be heard in John’s frenzied “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and Paul’s out-of-the-body and over-the-top “Long Tall Sally.” With some help from the singer who “came screaming into my life as a teenager,” Paul took rock-and-roll-roller-coaster hysteria to another level in “Helter Skelter,” a fitting theme song for the state of the nation, whether you mean May 1970 or May 2020.
America Screaming

Speaking of college, say you’re on the first day of a European tour, one of 36 American students, all but eight of them females. It’s a sunny afternoon in Delft, and you’re coming out of Vermeer’s house in a still-life spell feeling three centuries away from the U.S.A. You’re wandering through a street fair with calliopes and bump-em cars near a quaint park with swans when you hear a sound — no, it’s too big to hear, the sound descends on you, it attacks you, it eats you alive; it’s the sound of America screaming — “A wop-boppa-LOO-BOP a-lop-BAM-BOOM!” Yes! Glory be! Hallelujah, suddenly you’re a rock ‘n’ roll patriot ready to sing the anthem and salute the Stars and Stripes of joyous chaos (“I got a girl named Daisy, she almost drives me crazy”) — but except for one or two Daisys and Miss Mollys, most of the girls seem appalled and embarrassed by the neuron-shattering blast of “Tutti Frutti.” more

May 6, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

There is certainly not one government in Europe but is now watching the war in this country, with the ardent prayer that the United States may be effectually split, crippled, and dismember’d by it.
—Walt Whitman, circa 1864

It was when the current administration seemed to be inciting civil unrest in the name of liberty that I began rereading the 1861-1865 entries in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days in America, where he calls “the war of attempted secession … the distinguishing event” of his time. In his notes to the volume he assembled in the early 1880s, the “specimens” were “impromptu jottings” collected during visits to “the sick and wounded of the army, both on the field and in the hospitals in and around Washington city.” Given the science-driven nature of the ongoing, no-end-in-sight “war” against the coronavirus, it’s worth noting that the poet’s use of the clinical word “specimens” refers to “persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bed-side, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead.” Some entries “were scratch’d down … while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes,” and are left just as he “threw them by after the war, blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, … not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march.”

Musings on a Mask

As soon as I tie on the mask, an ordinary walk becomes a wartime narrative. Sensing someone else almost directly behind me, I obey the social distancing guidelines and move to my left, out of the way, and as he passes, we exchange a look, a shared awareness that there’s a war going on and we’re living in the so-called epicenter, with more fatalities per capita at this moment than any other state.

This being the first time I’ve been out for a walk with a piece of Scotch plaid tied over my nose and mouth, I’m imagining masked versions of everyone from Mickey Mouse to Mozart, Darwin to Dostoevsky, including my own history from the bandanna-masked outlaw in boyhood shoot-outs and sword fights to the surgical-masked, blissed-out father witnessing the birth of a son. Mainly, I’m hearing Bob Dylan’s voice as if through a densely-woven mask as he growls his way past “the cities of the plague” to “the last outback at the world’s end” in “Ain’t Talkin,’” the haunting endgame song on Modern Times, an album recorded 15 years ago. Another track on my pandemic playlist is “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s epic meditation on the Kennedy assassination, the title lifted from Shakespeare and presented as a gift to “fans and followers” along with the uncharacteristically empathetic advisory “stay safe, stay observant.”  more

April 29, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

We’ll sigh goodbye to all we ever had
Alone where we have walked together…

—from “I’ll Remember April”

If I’ve been compulsively whistling, humming, thinking “I’ll Remember April” lately, it’s not because my mother and my son were born April 20 and 28, or because my father died April 14, or because Duke Ellington was born on April 29, in 1899, or because jazz great Lee Konitz died of the coronavirus on April 15, or even because Shakespeare arrived and departed on April 23. Any month with so Shakespearean a claim to fame is surely worth whistling about.

Kerouac and Konitz

My recent fixation on this great American standard — I mean the music, not the labored lyric — began on the night at Birdland in early October 1951 when Jack Kerouac watched “in amazement” as Lee Konitz took “complete command” of the song Kerouac instinctively puts in the present tense as “I Remember April.” First noted in his journal six years before the publication of On the Road, it’s a characteristic, blissfully contradictory free-association streaming of his Manhattan-based jazz consciousness reimagined in narrative form in Visions of Cody when he follows “the famous alto jazzman down the street” after spotting him in “that bar on the northeast corner of 49th and Sixth Avenue which is in a real old building that nobody ever notices because it forms the pebble at the hem of the shoe of the immense tall man which is the RCA building.”

Following Kerouac through a wildly free-form meditation on Konitz’s solo in the journal, you go from the player standing “with the alto on his gut, leaning to it slightly like Charlie Parker the Master but more tense and his ideas more white” to “a 12th-century monk, some Buxtehudian scholar of the dank gloomy cathedrals practicing and practicing endlessly in the bosom of the great formal school in which he is not only an apprentice but a startling innovator in the first flush of his wild, undisciplined, crazily creative artistic youth (with admiring old organ monks watching from the background).” After blowing a series of “beautiful, sad, long phrases, in fact long sentences that leave you hanging in wonder,” Konitz “suddenly reveals the solution,” a weirdly dazzling combination of musicianly foresight and hindsight “that at last gives you the complete university education” in the structure of the song, “a beautiful and American structure” that leads inevitably to Kerouac’s realization (as if you didn’t already know) that Konitz “is doing exactly what I’m doing … and here I’ve been worried all along that people wouldn’t understand this new work of mine.” He means of course the work in progress that became On the Roadmore

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The biggest revelation for me was the combination of seriousness and fun that I saw at every rehearsal I witnessed at Kelsey Theatre,” says Princeton University professor Stacy Wolf, author of Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America (Oxford University Press, 2020). “I loved witnessing those emotions sitting together.”

Kelsey is the focus of “Community Theatre,” the fourth chapter of Beyond Broadway. As its title suggests, the book examines productions by organizations throughout the country. Wolf’s research included visits to Worthington High School in Minnesota; the Zilker Summer Theatre in Texas; and the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Colorado.

Although Wolf lives fairly close to Kelsey, which is on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, she did not always intend for it to be the focus of the chapter about community theatre. “Originally, I assumed that I would write about a number of different community theatres across the country, and examine how they operate differently,” Wolf says.

That approach would have resembled that of the following chapter, “The Sound of Music at Outdoor Summer Musical Theatres,” which includes the Open Air Theatre in Washington Crossing, Pa., plus outdoor theatres in Austin, Texas, and Marin, Calif.  more

April 22, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Find Your Place at the Library,” the theme for National Library Week, April 19-25, was chosen before the pandemic forced most libraries to temporarily close their doors. The American Library Association’s animated lighthouse logo cleverly puts the in-home alternative “Find the Library at Your Place” simultaneously in play through the flashing of the lighthouse beacon. With each flash of the beam, the silhouette of a sailboat appears headed toward the lighthouse while a library user can be seen in a tiny window near the top of the tower.

That little sailboat flashes me back to third grade and the library activity in which the number of books you read was indicated by the progress of your miniature ship or car or train or fire engine on a large prominently displayed chart. For me the most evocative image in the ALA logo isn’t the lighthouse, it’s the sailboat. Before you’re aware of such things as symbols and metaphors, you’re already playing the game; with each book you finish, the ship with your name on it moves closer to the goal. While the idea may have been to put a competitive charge into reading, what happened in my case was a merging of reading, identity, and motion: the more you read the farther you travel, guided, in effect, by that lighthouse beacon. It was more about going places than finding a place in the library or finishing more books than anyone else.  more

April 15, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I first used the e-word in print to describe the mood during the aftermath of the September 11 attacks when New York had become the “emotional epicenter” of the nation, “America’s city.” So it seemed when passing strangers met your gaze, you connected, as if you were sharing the same loss, and every firehouse had a shrine, firemen were warriors, and cops were heroes.

The subject of that September 7, 2011 column was Portraits: 9/11/01 (Times Books/Holt 2002), the journalistic landmark that New York Times executive editor Howell Raines introduced by way of Walt Whitman’s claim that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Looking at the faces and reading “the 1,910 stories it took 143 reporters to research and write,” I was reminded of the “Human and Heroic New York” chapter in Whitman’s Specimen Days in America (1881), where “after three weeks walking the streets,” he observes “ endless humanity in all its phases,” and finds “the brief total of the impressions, the human qualities … comforting, even heroic beyond statement.” For Whitman, the “daily contact and rapport” with the city’s “myriad people” provides “the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken.”

Whether or not New York remains the “epicenter” of the pandemic, Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York: Stories (St. Martin’s Press 2015) makes a “most effective” over-the-counter remedy. In contrast to the thumbnail sketches and snapshots of specifically documented individuals in Portraits, the people in Stanton’s book appear to us in the quick of the moment without names, or biographical specifics, and few clues about who they are beyond the photographer’s gift for matching uniquely expressive faces and backdrops with the choicest, most expressive comments gleaned from each encounter. more

April 8, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’ll be writing in depth about Federico Fellini (1920-1993) later in this, his centenary year, but there’s no way not to mention the director of La Strada when Italy has been at the epicenter of the pandemic, with locked-down neighbors on rooftops, balconies, or leaning from open windows expressing solidarity by singing, strumming, clanging, and making their own free-form fear-and-death-defiant music. No wonder, since song is at the heart of the land, and the language, simple as a tune heard on the street, elegant as an opera; whether it’s poetry on the page or on the canvas, just say the names, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Puccini and Pavaratti, Venezia and Firenze. You can hear it in the air, or see it shining in the eyes of the wonderstruck waif Gelsomina in La Strada, the film that shaped my imagination of the place a year before I arrived in person.

That was the summer when Dominic Modugno’s song “Volare” was the “virus” infecting all Europe. No need to know the Italian lyrics to sing the chorus, “Vo-lare,” as if your heart was soaring, then joy-sounds, oh-ho, then “Can-tare,” Italian for singing, drawn out to the last measure of musical devotion, then more happy, happy Oh-oh-oh-oh-ho’s, then, “Nel blue di pinto di blu” (the formal title), which is about the blue sky you’re flying into on the wings of the song that seemed to come out of nowhere, an infusion of pure melody, musical nitrous oxide that has you laughing with the sheer exhilaration of singing it.  more

April 1, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m not missing Opening Day. No use pretending this into an April Fools move by Joe Torre and the owners. So I tell myself. No need to feed on field of dreams fantasies. I can live without the misery of blown saves, lost leads, delusional winning streaks, walk-off home runs, magnificent catches, bench-clearing brawls, heartache, and hype. I could care less how the sign-stealing narrative plays out for the disgraced Houston Astros. It’s actually healthy when you think of it. No more high blood pressure moments second-guessing managers Tony LaRussa or the two Mikes, Matheney, and Schildt.

True, for a while I had to overcome my habitual itchy-trigger-finger visits to the St. Louis website on mlb.com for rebroadcasts of Classic Cardinals Moments like the titanic home run by Albert Pujols that stunned the then-National League Astros and super fans George and Barbara Bush in the 2005 NLCS playoffs or the Mother of All Walk-Off heroics of David Freese in the 2011 World Series.

So here I am with a shelter-in-place mindset looking out the living room window at the backyard bird feeders while pondering potential subjects ranging from comic books to comfort food, desert island narratives to the National Pastime.

Thanks to the determined nocturnal activities of a certain raccoon, the bird feeders have to be taken in every night and returned to their respective branches early every morning by my wife, still in her robe and slippers, a bird feeder in either hand. In our domestic comic book, Little Lulu has evolved from the Little Red Hen into the Bird Lady of Princeton Ridge.  more

March 25, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Meanwhile, here we are, with America hanging from a cliff that looms larger every day” — so ended a “Cliffhangers and Character” column about escaping into films and series television thrillers like Stranger Things, Ozark, and Babylon Berlin.

That was in August 2018.

At the time, after binge-watching the first two seasons of Netflix’s sensational German import about Berlin in its racy late-twenties, pre-Third-Reich heyday, I called it one of the best shows of the year. Now, when the whole world seems to be hanging from a cliff, my wife and I have just survived the recently released third season of Babylon Berlin. “Released?” — imagine a maddened bull charging out of the gate of the Weimar past. Grab it by the horns and off you go. As with the first two seasons, your bond with the show, your ballast, is a charismatic couple: the damaged, unrelenting Bogart-in-a-Trilby-hat police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and the spunky, savvy, charmingly undaunted Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), plus stunning visuals, epic musical sequences in arena-sized cabarets, and cliffhangers to die for, but nothing equals riding the bull of season three in the pandemic present.

“It is a bit of a mess,” my shaken wife said as the season finale clawed, shrieked, howled, knifed, bled, drugged, and cross-dressed itself to a close. Only something this outrageously improbable and fascinatingly visual could hold its own in times like these. As New York Magazine’s “Vulture” Kathryn VanArendonk says, “it’s the kind of show you get to the end of, and then desperately need to talk about with every single person you see for the next week.” Not much chance of that these days, at least not in person. But here we are. more

March 18, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

It makes surreal, unhappy, pandemic sense, that after last week’s preview of the long-awaited five-day Bryn Mawr Wellesley book event at the Princeton Day School gym that ended after less than two days, I find myself writing a book review about a once-in-a lifetime art event that closed a week after it opened. The e-mail invitation from the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) offering “great art” as “a source of solace” came with an implicit now or never alert. The fact that a “number of steps” had been taken to assure the public’s safety left little doubt about the endgame possibility. The promise of “a touch-free museum experience,” and the proviso to keep our social distance, no handshakes, no hugging, along with the assurance that “new disinfection protocols are in place” seemed clinically antithetical to the spirit of the show.

At the same time, there was an irresistible attraction in the element of risk, the idea of an embattled and unprecedented showing of Cézannes, two galleries of “infinite riches” by the “wonder, wonder painter,” as Ernest Hemingway once called him. And there was the paradoxical upside, that because of the threat of the virus, there were no crowds bustling between you and the work of a painter who once told a friend, “One minute in the life of the world is going by! Paint it as it is!”  more

March 11, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

Reading the opening paragraph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four you don’t need a 7 percent solution of anything, be it cocaine, morphine, or the adrenaline of anticipation, to appreciate the twin themes of addiction and deduction at the heart of the impending Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. Along with a first chapter titled “The Science of Deduction,” you’ve got the simultaneously calming and compelling bedside manner of Sir Arthur’s prose, as he slows you down with phrasing that puts the everyday world on pause for “some little time.” And anyone addicted to the rare book mystique has felt something like the “mental exaltation” so “transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind” that Holmes cites in defense of his habit when Watson warns of the “pathological and morbid process” of a drug that may “leave a permanent weakness.”

For Holmesian book sleuths who know their stuff without relying on smartphones or scanners, the quest for printed gold requires the deduction of clues in the form of those deceptively trivial details that can make thousands of dollars worth of difference in value. For the first issue of the first edition of The Sign of Four (not its occasional variant The Sign of The Four), the broken numeral “138” on the contents page appears as “13,” and the misprint “w shed” for “wished” is found on page 56, line 16. A copy with those flaws goes for as much as $8500, and might fetch thousands more without the bookseller’s minutely detailed admission of evidence such as “neat repairs at spine ends and corners; corners and board edges slightly bumped; hinges repaired; endpapers blistered in places,” areas of “slight discoloration” on the covers, “gilt a little dulled, especially on spine.” And of course it’s necessary to disclose additional and more exotic clues  (move that magnifying glass closer, Holmes), namely the two “faint red stains on the slightly chipped and curled edge of the contents page.” more

February 26, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

“Where are our black players?” That’s the question August “Gussie” Busch, the beer-baron owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, asked his manager and coaching staff one day in the 1950s, according to David Halberstam’s October 1964 (Ballantine 1995). “How can it be the great American game if blacks can’t play? … Hell, we sell beer to everyone.” Not only was Busch well aware that Budweiser sold more beer to the black community than any other brewery in the country, he’d heard rumors of an integrate-or-else boycott.

At this point I was about to resort to that old crutch, “the rest is history,” except it’s not that simple, it never is. When I first wrote about October 1964 in October 2014, I had no knowledge of the provocative historical evidence that would be revealed to me in February 2020. My focus was on the merging of African American history with baseball history in Halberstam’s account of how the Cardinals eventually “came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time.”  By spring training 1964, a racially balanced team was being put together and harmoniously integrated. Busch’s solution to the issue of segregated living facilities, and Florida law, was to have a wealthy friend buy a motel and rent space in an adjoining one, so that the players and their families could stay together. As Halberstam writes, “a major highway ran right by the motel, and there, in an otherwise segregated Florida, locals and tourists alike could see the rarest of sights: white and black children swimming in the motel pool together, and white and black players, with their wives, at desegregated cookouts.”

Fifty years later in a St. Louis suburb, a white cop shot an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown. Even as the Redbirds were on their way to winning the Central Division, the Michael Brown story dominated the news, the shadow of Ferguson spreading in the direction of Busch Stadium until a group of protestors, most of them African Americans, gathered outside the home of “Cardinal Nation” during the National League Division Series. The result was a shouting match that tainted the racially enlightened narrative of 1964 and the generally accepted notion that St. Louis fans were the most savvy, civil, and respectful in baseball.

Writing six years ago, I wondered how many fans affronted by the intrusion of racial conflict on the hallowed ground of playoff baseball knew that Michael Brown’s family had placed a Cardinals cap on the lid of his coffin. Various news stories pictured people in the Ferguson crowds casually attired in Redbird regalia, and there were undoubtedly fans among the Ferguson cops who showed up at Busch wearing Cardinal jackets and hats, as devoted to the emblem of the two redbirds on the slanted bat as the citizens of Ferguson rallying for justice in the name of Michael Brown. more