Friday, December 9, 2016

Freed from little Clara's spell: Drosselmeyer tries to rule the fantasy roost in NoExit Performance production

I was present as the second  weekend of NoExit Performance's current production got under way, but feared I had come into something with so long a foreground that I might never catch up. Eventually I felt as cozy as an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking.

The company's oblique take on "The Nutcracker" goes back several years, but was unknown to me before Thursday night at Big Car Tube Factory's performing space in the facility's chilly basement. So oblique is the continuation of the offbeat tradition
Individuality challenged: Production number with Drosselmeyer at the center.
this year that the printed program has that title crossed out and replaced by the words "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic."

The twisted classic brought out for NoExit Performance dissection turns out to be "A Christmas Carol." To say so is hardly a spoiler, I feel, since the production sends up the very idea of spoilers, suspense, expectations, and continuity. Even the curtain call convention is mocked, with just three cast members participating and Drosselmeyer's chief nemesis, the Mustached Man, inert on the floor and rolled offstage after everyone else has left.  Dick Scratchit, a lowlife Drosselmeyer hireling, springs up from his seat in the audience to perform that humble duty.

Drosselmeyer is wrenched from his crucial role in "The Nutcracker" ballet, where he is variously played by elderly non-dancers as somewhere on the spectrum of kindly to creepy. He's a godfather who bestows Christmas gifts on the children of the household, Clara and Fritz. Clara's nutcracker has been broken by her naughty brother, and as she sinks into sleep, her dreams call up a restored toy who becomes a prince leading her into a parade of wonders capped by the marvelous ballet and music of the second act. That's the story everyone knows, and that reminds NoExit Performance of something completely different.

Ryan Mullins directs the show and plays Drosselmeyer. As the creator of this full-fledged oddball, he seems thoroughly at home in the mime makeup, the eyes and mouth darkened for the sake of emphasizing his controlling nature and fear of surprises, his hunchbacked frame slinking about, his voice barking orders and complaints. His character's fears are well-founded, as the Dickens classic worms its way into the show with ghostly visits.

Well before those, we've been introduced to the Scratchits. While in "The Christmas Carol," Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit is firmly under the miser's thumb, the parody character here, together with his conniving sidekick daughter, is an indication that Drosselmeyer is losing his grip. Impeccably costumed and made up, Aaron Beasley plays him as a louche '80s character somewhat on the order of Christian Bale in "American Hustle." Callie Burke-Hartz is the adaptable Tiny Tim stand-in, always with a new handicap to trot out somewhat on the order of Fagin's boys in "Oliver Twist."

With boisterous sound design by Zach Rosing and choreography by a four-woman team, Drosselmeyer's attempt to get a
The richly bedizened ensemble of "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic"
rehearsal under way — or, having belatedly noticed the audience, an actual show — suffers continual interruption and subterfuge. Beverly Roche's costumes for the ensemble are garish and puffy, making them as cartoonish as possible as they thwart the old man. Michael Burke, with extra stuffing fore and aft, is the egregious drag queen Ginger, the smiling spirit of Drosselmeyer's disintegration as a control freak. Georgeanna Smith Wade plays a more benign force behind Drosselmeyer's fading grip on his world as the effervescent Sparkle.

NoExit Performance's connection to the audience when I attended evoked the tradition of classic burlesque or the English music hall. Those bygone theatrical genres seem to have been far from the manner of the "interactive" or "audience-participation" notions of some theater today. The bond is less self-conscious and more a matter of wild-party cheer than bland good will. The contrast with conventional theater, even of a fairly looselimbed kind, couldn't be more pronounced. For comparison, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, reviewing burlesque at New York's National Winter Garden in the 1920s, described the audience as "keenly appreciative, and the house peals with easy thunder more infectious than the punctual crashes uptown."


How much do you love me?: Drosselmeyer can never be sure.
That's what you get at "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic," though not without a little somber relief from the "easy thunder." When the drama turned dark for a stretch in the second act, a hush settled over the raucous crowd. A giant rod puppet, manipulated expertly by the ensemble, confronts Drosselmeyer with his cruelty and control-freakiness. Mullins advises the audience in program notes that Drosselmeyer deserves to be brought up short, so we are prepared for his comeuppance.

You have to consider where he comes from: a ballet in which he is a nonentity after getting the action started — a work that is a perennial audience favorite even though it's a washout dramatically after the first act, as well as one in which (except in some revisions), the star ballerina  doesn't even appear until the second act. Is "The Nutcracker," more popular in America than any other ballet, a mockery of its own genre?


Mullins and his mates realize that Drosselmeyer was created to vanish like the Cheshire cat, but with more of a grimace than a grin. Self-threatened by dissolution, the show has him wrestling with the perennial dilemma of those who take the stage in anything from "Hamlet" to "Another Twisted Classic": How to attain personal fulfillment, at the height of control, while giving audiences what they want. That's why performers bow at the end. They are saying to their applauders: "We've given everything to make all of this be as good as we can make it, but you're in charge. It means nothing if you don't approve." Drosselmeyer, like Scrooge, has to have his hardheartedness chipped away from him by the prospect of despair and meaninglessness. The audience pulls him back from that brink. It's as good a Christmas lesson as any.

[Photos by Zach Rosing and Big Car]










Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Far out: A new voice in political jazz — Thelonious Trump


Thelonious Trump: Not known for pulling punches as he gigs his way to power.
The sense that Donald J. Trump occupies a parallel universe as he moves into the center of the power arena suggested to me that, if he were an eccentric jazz musician instead of an eccentric politician, he might be a kind of weird analogue to the sainted genius Thelonious Monk (1917-1982).
Thelonious Monk: Sheds light posthumously on president-elect.

So I offer this set list from the forthcoming debut in the nation's capital of Thelonious Trump, helpfully annotated for the uninitiated, with the corresponding Thelonious Monk compositions in brackets.

"Blue Trump" [Blue Monk] — a celebration of the artist's decisive ability to turn crucial blue-trending states in his favor.

"Bright Pennsylvania" [Bright Mississippi] — a jaunty tribute to one of those battleground-state victories, tipping the Electoral College toward him.

"Hack 'n' Sack" [Hackensack] — a tune delving into the strategy of taking advantage of what Russian hackers accomplished on his behalf, enabling the surprise sacking of the Democrats' star quarterback, Hillary Clinton.

"Let's Fool One" [Let's Cool One] — a song of triumph, the "one" being the USA collectively, particularly the pundits and pollsters who never thought Thelonious Trump could come out on top.

"PanDONica" [Pannonica] — hymning narcissism, and the pleasures of filtering all reality through one's own eminence and obvious superiority

"Evidence?" [Evidence] — the question mark is enough of a variation of the Monk title to signal the nation's emergence into a fact-free post-election paradise.

"Error Knell" [Eronel] — a mock-dirge for the reign of fact and the habit of acknowledging mistakes — both obstacles, now neutralized, to the advance of Thelonious Trump.

"Hell You Needn't" [Well You Needn't] — this aggressive uptempo tune stresses the importance of not forgiving people who haven't been nice to you, unless you can "play" them, as in the case of....

"Mittsterioso" [Misterioso] — a meditation on the protracted is-he-in?, is-he-out? status of  Mitt Romney as secretary of state nominee.

"Rudy, My Dear" [Ruby, My Dear] — a cheeky, deadpan-humorous piece addressed to Mayor Giuliani, preparing him for a letdown in his search for a job in the new administration.

"Bum's-Rush Swing" [Bemsha Swing] — a high-spirited number airily dismissing the swarm of criticism that has dogged the artist for years, one of which involves the rancid sexism of...

"Ugly Booty" [Ugly Beauty] — a musical waving off of outrage at Thelonious Trump's rejection of some sexual-assault charges on the grounds that the complaining women were unattractive, and thus not worthy of his attention.

"Epistrophywife" [Epistrophy] — a tender ballad in praise of  third wife Melania, the kind of woman who (for now) has the artist's loyalty and commitment.

"Straight, No Recount" [Straight, No Chaser] — Thelonious Trump's slam-dunk argument that, despite his earlier assertions that the election system is rigged, it's now disgusting that anyone should pursue recounts for any reason.

"'Round Midnight (Hillary Concedes)" ['Round Midnight"] — a self-satisfied ballad recalling the time of day that his much-derided opponent threw in the towel in the early hours of Nov. 9.




Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A member of the current APA jury, Lori Sims plays a captivating program of French and French-influenced music at Butler University

Norman Lebrecht, the provocative British blogger and aggregator, recently posted a brief essay asserting that Claude Debussy wrote music without meaning, music that's just about the notes. I found the rant rather opaque, because I had no way to engage with Lebrecht's position besides disagreeing with it.

And nearly seven decades ago, in an often useful book titled "The Literature of the Piano," Ernest Hutcheson said something not so dismissive, but still meant to put Claude de France in a box: "Debussy's music delights, fascinates, amuses. I have not heard its most ardent admirers claim that it ennobles."

Lori Sims' French program was a special treat.
It's safe to say that innovators in the arts are always found to have something missing. What they lack often turns out to be what they have deliberately left behind in order to innovate. So we are dealing with a circular argument that, in the case of Debussy, simply has to be put on a shelf when considering how Lori Sims played the second volume of Debussy preludes Monday night in Butler University's Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall.

In town to serve on a three-member jury for the Premiere Series of the Amerian Pianists Association, Sims has long been on the piano faculty of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Near the start of her career, she was one of three Beethoven Fellows chosen in 1993 under the APA's  differently structured predecessor competition.

On Monday, she offered not only a well-judged exposition of the 12 pieces, but also one that was thoroughly felt. I dare say that her performance was even ennobling, as well as having those other qualities Hutcheson was happy to identify. Debussy's directions are quite detailed, except for pedaling. She was scrupulous about the former, illuminating and apt with the latter. From her realization of the extremement egal et leger  instruction at the head of "Brouillards" to the distant quotation of "La Marseillaise" in "Feux d'artifices," everything was as it should be, as fine as anyone might imagine it.

Eidson-Duckwall is a lively hall, which means that every sound from a solo piano can flex its muscles. It was amazing how detailed and varied the palette of Sims' interpretation was. You could have anticipated problems at the softer, more "impressionistic" end of the spectrum, but her playing there was just as full of character as in the flashier pieces. The ideal of "a piano without hammers" was bodied forth in "Feuilles Mortes," just as the piano's percussive qualities were lent some display room in "La Puerta del Vino" and "General Lavine - eccentric."

Humor in that piece and in "Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C"  bubbled forth, with the latter taking on the requisite ruddy-cheeked quality in celebration of Charles Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" as "God Save the King" was quoted at the outset."La Terrasse des Audiences du Clair de Lune" was spellbinding, typical of the way the unique character of each prelude was both sturdy and three-dimensional. Music without meaning? I don't think so.

After capturing probably every heart at the sparsely attended event by opening with a glowing account of the familiar "Clair de Lune," Sims turned to the contemporary composer David Colson, a colleague at WMU,  for "Three Transcendental Preludes." The poetically titled works owe an acknowledged debt to Debussy as well as to Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb. They reflected such influences without being submerged in them, however.

A striking impression was made by "I saw an Angel," the second one, with its thundering reminder that angels are messengers with not always comforting messages. This one would be a terror atop a Christmas tree. The performance was capped by "Above His moons and its waters, He watches, smiling as it gently rains," which called upon the recitalist to whistle — which she did with sustained accuracy and breath control — and to strum and pluck inside the piano. These are techniques that can be used in fresh ways, not just as if royalties had to be paid to George Crumb. And so they were here.

The first half closed with Regard de l'Esprit de joie from Messiaen's ecstatic 1944 suite "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus." The toccata-like piece, with complex rhythms and a transcendent layering of material to near overwhelming effect, drew from Sims a full exhibition of her technical and interpretive strength. A portrayal of divine joy from a composer who took his faith with utmost seriousness requires no less than what the pianist brought to it to shake skepticism to its core.




Monday, December 5, 2016

Last APA Premiere Series concert of 2016 brings Texan Sam Hong to the Indiana History Center

Sam Hong is now a student of Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute.
Variations as a roomy, attractive compositional form blossomed as the piano came into its own in the 19th century. The piano is the ideal instrument for fitting a host of ideas concerning color, texture, expression, and rhythm onto a thematic template and expressing it through one interpreter.

Some of that legacy — ranging from the slight to the substantial, from the compact to the expansive — formed  the solo half of Sam Hong's Premiere Series concert Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center. The American Pianists Association is bringing to town five finalists, one of whom next April will win the fellowship in its 2017 awards.

The 22-year-old Korean-born Texan showed the near-capacity audience in the Center's Basile Theater that he had more than obvious ideas about what makes variations so compelling for the attentive listener.

One of the most formidable of such works — Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24 — brought the concert up to intermission. The second half featured Hong with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Hong offered a beguiling account of the Brahms, forging emotional connections with its variety. He seems to have a keen sense of time and pacing. By the time he got to the fugue, he was set on resisting the need to crown what had gone before with anything too grandiloquent. There was a variety of momentum and dynamics that checked the fugue's juggernaut feeling quite successfully. He gave the illusion of having more in reserve even at the very end.

At the outset, Hong favored a dry presentation of the theme, but proved to be more of a colorist as the work proceeded. A tolling-bells variation benefited from more lavish use of pedal. His technical command was secure, with crisp articulation dominant. He was always sensitive to rhythmic figures that go so far in giving each variation its own character. The octaves were stunning, and rolled chords rang out.
I would have liked more scaling back expressively to a feeling of naivete in the "musette" variation and in a few of the others, however.

Incisiveness and well-proportioned rhythms were well applied to the opening work, Aaron Copland's Piano Variations. The most enduring of the young Copland's  pieces, this 1930 elaboration on an angular theme bears many hints of the "Americanist" Copland to come: sonorities of sculptural vividness, with strong contrasts of register and an open harmonic palette that were later to reveal him as an unlikely but successful tone-painter of rural and Western America ("Appalachian Spring," "The Tender Land," "Billy the Kid," "The Red Pony," etc.).  Hong offered a lithe, sharply etched interpretation that made the 10-minute piece take on the breadth of the Brahms in comparison.

In between came Beethoven's charming Seven Variations on God Save the King, an easy-to-take-in representative of the variations form. It benefits from having a familiar tune, and the contrasts among the variations were competently set forth in this performance. The slight pauses Hong put around the variation in minor mode were an effective touch.

After Matthew Kraemer led the ICO in an alert performance of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, Hong returned to the stage for the C minor concerto. The collaboration was crowned with success in the Rondo finale. Superb rapport between soloist and orchestra gave the movement an extra playfulness that is not always evident, the theme being all business with a tincture of sternness. 

The coordination was conspicuous earlier as well. Hong's unaccompanied statement at the start of the Largo movement was properly hushed, and set up a distinctive feeling of partnership with the orchestra, especially in such chamber-music episodes as the floating bassoon-and-flute dialogue against the piano's triplets and sextuplets.

The first movement was properly spirited and smooth-running, although the hectic quality Hong brought to the cadenza seemed excessive. But, with velvety trills, he made the way it subsided before the orchestra's re-entry convincing. It was among many signs in the concert that Hong is a well-equipped virtuoso with dependable insight about the expressive context of everything he plays.




Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles": Look at what Donald Trump has accomplished so far! Yuck!

Gratitude to my wife and occasional accompanist for buoying up this performance of my latest song parody at the piano.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Theatre on the Square has a "naughty" yuletide show to go with its "nice" one

No American growing up with what used to be called the commercialization of Christmas can fail to be familiar with holiday stress. That's the aspect Theatre on the Square focuses upon in "A Christmas Survival Guide," which just opened on the Mass Ave theater's Stage Two.

Apart from brief allusions to a few traditional carols, the show doesn't touch on any particular attitude to the holiday's religious meaning. TOTS flags it as "naughty" not because it ever tiptoes up to the edge of sacrilege, but rather for some slight bawdiness and a smattering of four-letter words, none of which is "yule."

Levi Burke accompanies Eric Brockett in his  Mrs. Claus persona.
As seen Friday night, the blend of song and dance and a notable comic sketch proceeded smoothly, anchored to a busy tapestry of piano accompaniment and comic participation by music director Levi Burke, plus voice-over excerpts from the putative self-help book of the title, full of the kind of fatuous or obvious advice common to its genre.

A woman shares her Christmas woes with a couple of companions, whose nature won't be revealed here, in a hilarious sketch fully exploiting the madcap talents of the show's other male participants, Josiah McCuistion and Eric Brockett. Let's just say that three different perspectives on what provides Christmas joy are put forward — with considerable clashing.

There's an extended suite of songs by the effervescent McCruistion expressing Santa pride as the consummation of elfin dreams. Then he's joined by cast members Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, and Anna Lee less than twenty feet from stardom as backup singers, helping Santa strut his stuff soulfully as perpetual master of the revels.
The "Survival Guide" girl group: Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, and Anna Lee.

In the middle is a segment presenting one of the women as a particularly needy adult. That points to a perennial Christmas down side — grownups have no Santa to sugarcoat the season for them. That's why some have to turn for comfort to actual sugar, a fact that comes out in a lively song parody called "The Twelve Steps of Christmas."

Tireless at the keyboard, Burke supplements the gang of five, who are onstage almost continuously. His piano playing is nimble and spirited, with some slapdash moments that can be partly excused by his adoption of the manic personality he shares with the cast. Director Lori Raffel had the further inspiration of having the stage manager, Nikki Sayer, interact with the main quintet in ways that involve more than the need to move furniture and props into and out of place.

There's also a brilliant torch song for Mrs. Claus performed by Brockett and a clever role-reversal performance of what's called here "the date-rape song" — "Baby, It's Cold Outside," with the girl an insistent seductress and the guy protesting that he really can't stay. There are other lively tweaks of convention: The bouncy enthusiasm for old-fashioned dashing through the snow that goes with "Sleigh Ride" deliberately runs off track. Similarly, the ensemble's "Silver Bells" makes it clear that urban Christmases in the cell-phone era aren't quite the sparkling winter idyll the song suggests.

Chapter by outrageous chapter, the guide proceeds boisterously and with well-knit variety for 90 minutes without intermission.  Late in the show Friday, there were oddities of pacing and texture that made a few numbers feel like finales that turned out not to be. The actual finale, a reprise of "The Man With the Bag" (choreographed by Jan Jamison) didn't have the bang-up confidence and pizazz that reprises need to have to justify their one-more-time placement.

Still, there's every chance that "The Christmas Survival Guide" will leave most audiences' rosy cheeks with deepened laugh lines between now and Dec. 23.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, December 2, 2016

Hay that creaks, eyes that lift altars: How contemporary dance helped me to be a better reader of poetry

You must tread carefully when it comes to conclusions about how different arts reinforce each other. Just because you find different art forms stimulating hardly confers the right to smudge the integrity of each simply because you find the mutual influences you may detect fulfilling.

With that caveat, I have to declare that a piece Dance Kaleidoscope has put on two of its programs has helped me find a way through a knot that afflicts the interpretation and enjoyment of poetry. The dilemma is how to read a kind of fused image that showcases both stasis and motion. 

Choreographer Brock Clawson
I didn't see this for a long time, until memories of a DK guest-choreographer premiere came back in a new light. Originally, Brock Clawson's "Lake Effect Snow" struck me in my blog review for its look inside the emotions of a protagonist (danced by Noah Trulock) as both actual events and dream-states influence him.

That's one kind of fusion that this piece encompasses superbly.  But "Lake Effect Snow" has also stayed in my memory for the way it covers a spectrum ranging from stillness, or minimal motion, focusing on the protagonist, to rapidly paced movement — some involving him, some of it for the ensemble— in whole or in part. With its narrative emphasis, "Lake Effect Snow" enfolds within its movement vocabulary the progress of time itself. But stillness, especially with the solo dancer seated on a bench, his back to the audience, or in fleeting arm-around-the-shoulder hugs with another, is a crucial part of a narrative that privileges change. And a wonderful unity is achieved.

Poetry, like dance, is also linear. But dance has the advantage, when it is as skillful as Clawson's piece, of telling a story in contrasts of movement and stasis that make sense in more than the practical sense of husbanding dancers' energy and giving them and the audience "paragraphs" into which the choreography's discourse falls. Even more important, its handling of time can be more natural, especially because lyric poetry,  while the reader takes it in over time, is a block of unmoving words you can readily come back to. Poetic imagery has to do extra work, sometimes by fusing different sense impressions to represent both what we see as portraiture or still life and what we move through. This can cause problems for interpreters.
Swinburne: Can sandals be bound over speed?

One of those problems spurred this essay. A vastly experienced literary critic allowed himself to be tripped up by what he found in one poem, only to praise the same kind of device a few pages later. Terry Eagleton, in "How to Read a Poem," heaps scorn on a stanza of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon," introducing it as an example of the poet's "worst":

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
     Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
     With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
     Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night. 

In a brief analysis, Eagleton notes with asperity that "the narcotic music of the words works to muffle the meaning." But only by taking the most literal view of Swinburne's imagery can the critic find this stanza short on meaning. "It's hard to see how you can bind on a sandal over speed," he says, also scoffing at the last line: "How can day and night have feet?"  

Yet, less than ten pages later, in the course of praising the unconventional form of
Robert Lowell's creaking hay got a critic's approval.
Robert Lowell's "Mr. Edwards and the Spider,"  Eagleton incidentally admires the same kind of fused image he deplored in Swinburne (1837-1909): "The homely image of the hay creaking to the barn, where the  imaginative masterstroke of 'creaking' redeems what might otherwise prove too banal a phrase, comes wrapped within a highly sophisticated manipulation of metre." Here's the stanza: 


  I saw the spiders marching through the air,
  Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
      In latter August when the hay
      Came creaking to the barn. But where
        The wind is westerly,
  Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
  Into the apparitions of the sky,
  They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea....


How can hay creak? one might ask if one were echoing Eagleton. And can't you indeed bind a sandal over speed, if "speed" is understood as being a potential quality of a runner's stationary foot, soon to move fleetly in one of mythology's most famous foot races? In the same way, the hay being moved to the barn is itself motionless and noiseless, but on a wagon moving into the barn, it takes on the "creaking" of the vehicle hauling it. Lowell (1917-1977) has fused sight and sound.

It is somewhat forced but not false for poetry to do something that dance accomplishes naturally. In a continuum, the meaning of a dance piece's still moments is caught up in episodes when there is quite a bit of movement. Sometimes stillness and movement are simultaneous, as they are at various points in "Lake Effect Snow." Together, they help create the work's significance.

Before leaving Swinburne, it's worth noting that Eagleton scorns the stanza's next-to-last line, dismissing the language about east and west at opposite ends of daytime as "merely verbal counters to shuffle around in place of genuine observation." In fact, the progress of time is one of the main ways we measure motion, so that using fragile descriptors for dawn and dusk emphasizes the brief temporal hold each phenomenon has on our experience of days: Phenomena that are "faint" and "wan" in snapshot perceptions can, under the spell of passing time, also quicken and shiver. "The passage is full of florid gestures and empty of substance," says this learned critic, in my view missing the point.
Hart Crane: Much to explain.

This kind of fused image is not hard to find in poetry. Hart Crane (1899-1932), a poet whose complexities both excited and baffled his contemporaries, used one in the middle of "Voyages: II," and explained it in an essay, "General Aims and Theories." The phrase is "adagios of islands" in this stanza:

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,--
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.



Crane wrote: "The reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc." Obviously, the islands are stationary. Assigning a slow tempo to them is really placing them in relation to the observer's being on a boat moving slowly among them.

Crane was a poet with a lot of explaining to do, some of it forced on him by editors and patrons. An anthologized exchange of correspondence in 1926 with Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, offers many fascinating insights into Crane's procedures, including what I am calling fused images, where two different kinds of perception are blended. Here's the third stanza of "At Melville's Tomb":

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars. 

The third line, Crane wrote Miss Monroe, "refers simply to a conviction that man, not knowing perhaps a definite god yet being endowed with a reverence for deity  — such a man naturally postulates a deity somehow and the altar of that deity by the very action of the eyes lifted in searching."

"Lift" is a powerful verb, because it involves both movement and exertion. It's no accident that lifts are such an important feature of both classical and modern dance. It also has symbolic import, suggesting ascent to some element or realm above this world. Crane makes the word work extra hard here, because it is actually the eyes that lift their gaze aloft in search of a deity. Here that motion fuses with the stationary heaviness of altars in the actual world.

Robert Frost preferred unfused imagery.
Some poets are averse to this kind of verbal welding. They may want to contemplate the yin/yang of stillness and movement, but they prefer to set them side by side, as Robert Frost (1874-1963) does in "The Most of It.

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all. 


There are bookends of stillness around the extraordinary movement described here. The concluding bookend is particularly powerful in that it suggests that the meaning the human observer wants so badly to extract from nature seems both final and questionable. In between falls this narrative of a powerful creature emerging from the lake, past the man on the "boulder-broken beach" and into the woods. 

If he were not temperamentally opposed to what he might have seen as a blurring of experience instead of feeling a duty to clarify it, Frost might have worked on an image like the buck lifting the lake (where the lake is a metonym for the "crumpled water" it's pushing), or perhaps (to bring in the element of sound) booming the lake as it emerged from the water. Frost's poetry is instead full of clear-eyed contrasts of stillness and motion.

Fused imagery is thus not for everyone. And the temptation to contrast something seen as still, as if in a mental photo album, with the motion it represents may mislead a lesser poet.

Rod McKuen: Definitely not going with the flow.
Many years ago I dipped into Rod McKuen (1933-2015), hugely popular at the time, to find this prose-poem passage. I just now located it again online, since I don't have any of his books. Here's McKuen: "I have no special bed. I give myself to those who offer love. Can it be wrong? Lonely rivers going to the sea give themselves to many brooks in passing. So it is with me...."

No, it isn't, Rod. He's so anxious to show his willingness to merge with others — it's an almost creepy sort of intimacy with McKuen — that he reverses nature by having rivers flow into tributaries, rather than vice versa. A poet may thus confuse himself  in searching to fuse something still (the river system as a structure, as if seen statically from above) and something moving (actual river flow). So may a critic (Eagleton on Swinburne) in trying to apprehend this sort of imagery.

Such fusion is entirely natural to dance, particularly in works with an implied narrative. Clawson's protagonist in "Lake Effect Snow" owns his solitude and his quiet moments in addition to episodes that engage him actively with others. It's all of a piece.

Dancers don't flow into tributaries, and they may well bind sandals onto speed.

A reader of poetry can learn much from dance, and come back to poetry with renewed insight and appreciation.