Happy birthday, Adrienne Rich

Just a quick note today: happy birthday to Adrienne Rich, one of the first 20th-century poets I read. Mrs. Listach’s honors English class was a long time ago now. I remember being interested, challenged, and sometimes frustrated by this sort of poetry, but that 1985 class marked the beginning of that exploration for me.

Diving Into the Wreck
      First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
abroad the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it’s a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or week

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
and I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
Obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Adrienne Rich

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Urgh! But, in a good way

One of the high-definition music channels played a truncated version of Urgh! A Music War this week. It’s one of my favorite concert films, and one of the best documents we have of the earliest days of alternative music. The omission of some of the film’s most interesting performances annoyed me no end: Klaus Nomi, Toyah Wilcox, and Gary Numan were all cut. Still, there are so many standout performances that the list is numbing after a while: the Police do “Driven to Tears” and “Roxanne” (Miles Copeland produced the film), Oingo Boingo performs “Ain’t This the Life,” Steel Pulse deliver a tight, sizzling version of “Ku Klux Klan,” XTC belt out “Respectable Street” in rare concert footage, the Cramps get demented with “Tear It Up.” Then there’s the Go-Gos, Dead Kennedys, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joan Jett, Wall of Voodoo, Pere Ubu, UB40, Jools Holland, and, and, and . . .

The Cramps

Contract issues over the many performances meant the movie was only available as an out-of-print videocassette and laserdisc for years, but joy! I find out now that Warner has FINALLY made the movie available on DVD. In celebration, everybody do the “Sign of the Cross! It’ll make you feel real boss!”

She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.

Twin Peaks premiered on American television over twenty years ago now. I missed the actual anniversary by several weeks—should have gotten my fish into the percolator sooner—but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, so why not share?

Laura had seeeeeecrets

Twin Peaks used some familiar elements of American television, but the resulting show was something entirely new. Dale Cooper was a handsome, square-jawed detective, the Hornes ran Twin Peaks with a greedy resolve straight from the soaps, Major Briggs added a touch of government conspiracy, Andy and Lucy provided romantic comedy appeal, the Log Lady and the Bookhouse Boys reinforced the show’s mystical underpinnings. And it all might have been a mess if not for creator David Lynch. Lynch was and is a careful, formalistic film director; his artistic decisions become self-indulgent, even incomprehensible at times, but they’re never sloppy or unconsidered.

Twin Peaks caused a sea change in the hour-long television drama. TV wasn’t seen as the bush leagues anymore as real directors like Bryan Singer, James Cameron, and Barry Levinson began to work in television. Episodes didn’t have to be rushed out only to be forgotten in a year; planned story arcs were no longer just a gimmick for the nighttime soaps. The second Golden Age of Television didn’t really kick off for another ten years, but the critical and commercial success of The Sopranos, Lost, The Wire, Arrested Development, Heroes, Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Deadwood, 24, etc. would have been impossible without Twin Peaks. I just finished watching the entire run of The Sopranos last week, so there’s a spot in my schedule to watch through a classic again. I think it’s time to revisit a question I already know the answer to: who killed Laura Palmer?

On sport and story

I’ve not been a raving sports fan for many years, but I still occasionally watch games on TV. I had a fantastic time this weekend at Chris and Dan’s watching the Kentucky Derby. The Saints’ Superbowl victory still makes me feel all warm and fuzzy months later. The Winter Olympics were a bigger deal in Vermont than they are in most places as we root for our native skiiers and boarders. I also catch boxing matches when I can, and recently began watching a fun series on the Travel Channel called Dhani Tackles the Globe. All those events have made me think about sports more often than I used to, and especially about how sports are portrayed on television.

Sport is one of the very few activities not directly related to survival that can be found in every culture. We all eat, drink, sleep, procreate, and protect our young, but beyond that? We all search for altered states of consciousness, we all try to explain the world around us the best way we know how, and (germane to this discussion) we all play games. (Not every individual will necessarily do all these things, but any coherent social group of humans will.) For cultures with less developed technology, sports are an important tool to teach youngsters survival skills and to let young men display their abilities to potential mates. Modern folks like us don’t need to be able to throw a javelin straight to write a database or jockey a cash register, but the appeal remains.

I think a lot of that appeal is the excitement of the true unknown. So much of contemporary media and entertainment is yawningly predictable: a disease of the week on the hospital drama, sitcom dating hijinks that were already tired on Three’s Company, a crack bomb-disposal squad that inspires no nail-biting whatsoever. (Last year’s biggest hit movie, Avatar, had already been done by Orion as Dances with Wolves and by Disney as Pocahontas; viewers either forgave the similarity or didn’t notice.) But in sports, the viewer doesn’t know how matters are going to end up. Neither does anybody else involved, for that matter–participants, coaches, expert commentators, producers, etc. There may be favorites, even a heavy favorite, but an early NFL commissioner put it best:  “On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team.”

With so many people eager to watch sports, television has broadcast games from the beginning. But there’s a tension between the instincts of television programmers and the appeal of sports that’s been growing deeper for some years. It boils down to this: TV producers want stories. Good stories sell, and TV networks spend obscene amounts of money and anguished effort trying to figure out exactly what aspects of exactly what kinds of stories sell the best. So they couch English Premier League matches, heavyweight boxing championships, and autumn baseball games in the language of coherent narrative. Hometown boys show up to try for the big job, tattooed bad boys get in trouble with the law, scrappy underdogs just might make it this year. Sports broadcasts use swelling music, silken-voiced commentators, heartfelt interviews, carefully assembled clip pieces, and swooping cameras to emphasize sport as narration. But sport is as messy as any other aspect of human life, steadfastly refusing to follow Aristotelian laws of drama. The veteran player with bad knees might crumple to the ground rather than fight grimly through the pain; the fight of the century might turn out to be an unpopular split decision.

I’d like to see  a fresh different attitude on the part of the networks. What if we focused more attention on athletes’ training than on their drinking? What if we stopped pretending that a professional sports team is some kind of embodiment of a city’s urban spirit? What if we got back to just enjoying some really, really good games?