Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cambridge XII

June 30, 2010

Fabulous dream before waking. We had gone camping in a great stony wilderness beside the sea. In places the stone was carved into grottoes and convolutions by the water; in places humans had driven tunnels and even left sculpture behind to be re-fashioned by the waves. I don’t remember who all was there, but I think a large company of my friends, including DJ and Peg Downes. It was very rough, and the landscape was so irregular it was hard learning your way around, but very beautiful. When you went out on an expedition, the stone would be dry sometimes, sometimes filling with the tide. I could run very fast over the stones and through the gathering waters. I noted this because I have never run fast in the waking world. Above the rough coast was a sort of parkland, where the less adventurous dwelt. We were in a huge grotto, cool and echoing, just above the tide. One evening coming back through the parkland, I saw a disturbance. I thought a kestrel was attacking a little red dog, but as I watched, the dog fled away for its life, and revealed that it and the kestrel both had been attacking a grouse. The kestrel had it to itself now, and was stabbing it with long claws. As it did, baby grouse scuttled away from where they had been hidden in their mother’s feathers.

Second trip to the Fitzwilliam, and second clash with the door guards. As before, we triumphed, though if by defiance the first time, but subterfuge the second. I sent part of the group ahead, so they were in before we were detected. When they sent us around to the other entrance to book with the group supervisor, we again spread ourselves out so we didn’t look so many, aided in our caper by a couple dozen rowdy Italian students who appeared at the same moment. The important thing, in any case, is not to do what one is told. The Fitzwilliam has an important collection, but the guards behave like six year olds determined to rule their corner of the playground. Found the Rothschild gallery, full of almost unimaginably beautiful things from the Middle Ages. Found “Orpheus Charming the Birds and the Beasts.”

Cambridge is forty feet deep in the perfume of the lime trees. It is an altogether blessed thing. Because of the way their blossoms cascade, they look jittery when you glance at them, like an old fashioned TV whose picture will not stop rolling.

Hiked for old time’s sake to 134 Milton Road. The journey seems less than the winter I had to make it twice a day. Much has changed, whole buildings, whole blocks, and though there were hints of old feelings, the nostalgia quotient was low, and I suppose that was well. My winter in Cambridge forty years ago was revolutionary. It wrenched me from whatever path I had been on and set me–rightly-- on the one that led to this spot and this time. I have always done things very gradually, or so it seems to me, and most of the life that started one night when I crossed Jesus Green by starlight manifested slowly, to many invisibly. My parents thought the term likely a waste of money, I talked about it so little and so guardedly. But I know what happened and what the consequences were. I do regret not moving faster, harder, with less compromise, but given the circumstances of my life, it’s hard to see how that could have been done without major upheaval and explanations beyond my willingness to explain. Who knows what actually has come of it? If it was all a futility, it was at least a futility more genuinely my own than what I had been headed for at my birth.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cambridge XI

June 29, 2010

Dreadful dreams last night– not that they affected me badly, but that they were brutal and I was rather enjoying them. There was a kind of war in which one combatant on each side faced the other at a time, and devised novel ways of sneaking in and slashing the other to ribbons. As I was waking, my conscious self had a moment to pass judgment on my savage subconscious.

Took ten of the kids to an Indian restaurant last night. One thing I’ve noted is the wide variety of revulsions and abhorrences cultivated by our students. One cannot touch baby powder or anything dry and powdery. Several cannot have their various foods touching in their plate, and if they do they cannot eat it. Sometimes the rules apply to all and any foods; sometimes they are specific. One cannot eat if peas are served– to anyone, anywhere One buys an expensive meal and cannot eat it because it contains cilantro. The next day she is still a little upset from the intrusion of cilantro into her life. One cannot have food touching her lip, so scrapes everything off her fork–audibly–with her teeth. Two hate birds. One hates horses. One cannot sit down at a table or in a classroom unless he is the last to do so. Not a meal passes when someone doesn’t cry out, “Oh, I cannot eat such-and such,” not because they CANNOT, but because it makes them feel funny or it has some tainted association. One keeps silent. Took this motley assemblage to Kettle’s Yard this morning, a unique and wonderful museum no more than five minutes’ walk from our doors. Add it to the long list of places I’d never been in a town I thought I’d covered pretty well. Kettle’s Yard is a series of small houses made into a big house, and that turned into a living space that was more than 2/3 museum. The work is Modern, abounding in excellent sculpture, the paintings second level but tasteful, mostly in, now that I think of it, a calm whitish-to brownish spectrum that must have been easy to live amid. It invites and allows seated contemplation. I did sketches in pencil, of the objects, but also of me living happily and imaginarily in such and environment. Were my house six time its size, no reason why I couldn’t achieve the same thing. Graelin and Matt the Littler seemed particularly taken, and lingered long after they needed to. Jeff gamely leads the way whenever he can, and refuses to let his accident keep him from Evensong.

I believe I hit stride today– which is, my Cambridge life and my Real life harmonized almost upon a moment, and I no longer felt furtive and on-the-wrong-track. Maybe the success of the Byron play helped; maybe it was just endurance.

All the students are dear to me. One does not expect that. There is usually one whose neck needs to be wrung.

Evensong at Kings, XXth century music, rich in contrasting effects, poor in structure or conviction or meaning–as was, I suppose, the century in which it was written. The quality of light made the glass especially buttery and beautiful.

Went finally to the Cambridge Fine Arts Theater to see Quartet by Ronald Harwood, about four aged opera singers in a home. . . apparently for aged opera singers. It was well acted, with a skeletal Susannah York in the cast, and most of the audience old enough to remember when Susannah York was not a skeleton at all. I had great hopes for the script: it was witty, did not insult the intelligence, was well (if a little too well) structured, but it dodged greatness at about the mid point and took a power dive by the end. The death-march to the foreseeable denouement could have been deflected a little if, at the end, the quartet from Rigoletto had been sung by the croaking old relics they knew themselves to be, and if then they had been triumphant, recognizing who they were at the moment, being at peace with themselves and what was passed. That would have been heroic. That would have been real and transcendent at once. Instead, there was a mortifying lip-synch to a recording, and a red projected sunset behind. The wily old coots fool everybody (though it’s hard to imagine that anyone really would have been fooled) by playing a recording of their former selves, so vanity and illusion rule an end that could have been ruled by broken majesty. Maybe the producers insisted. Still, it does dishonor to the playwright’s craft and to the dignity of old age. I did enjoy the evening. That must be said. But outside my little room of enjoyment was a wilderness of outrage.

The Fine Arts lingers in memory because there I heard Michael Macliamoir recite Yeats, the first I had ever heard of that great poet, and the beginning of an enduring love.

Ordered a vodka tonic for the interval, and got a vodka and Coke, Turned out not to be too disgusting.

The red sunset made me think of my father, who painted a red sunset on his garage door to signal the ending of his life. What did he hold as the brilliant, memorable, irreplaceable moment of his life? I burst into tears, because I didn’t know. What must the people on the street have thought?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cambridge 10

June 28, 2010

Visit to the Barton School today, as near as I can tell an idyll of happy memories and dedicated teachers. I wanted to play with the kids. Hell, I wanted to BE one of them, starting all over in a different world.

Off then in perfect weather to Ely Cathedral. The roadsides were dressed in orange and lavender as poppy and thistle interspersed. I’ve been to Ely several times now, and each time the first glance at the mighty nave is awe-inspiring. In its day it must have been as unanswerable as the pyramids. I saw Queen Phillipa and her retinue entering the south doors. This was the first time I climbed to the Lantern. I am the Official Encourager, so it wouldn’t have done for me to refuse, though narrow staircases and high parapets have never been high among my preferences. But all, was well, One of us could not fit through the door from the roof, and one hand a panic attack on the stairs, but other than that it was clear sailing. My knee is a mess, but the staircase was so narrow I could do most of the climbing with my arms. It has been a climbing week for me already, as last night, the pubs closing early and I not ready to retire, I climbed the Castle mound for the first time. It is. . . well, not disappointing, but not breathtaking either. Kings looks like a rowboat tied to four poles upon a lake of roofs. I felt I couldn’t linger, as a boy was sitting with his arm awkwardly around a girl, and he was explaining in a rather stern voice and she was sobbing. I came up and went down so quietly they didn’t know I was there. Made friends with a puppy at the bottom. His owner had just been taken to the hospital, and his caretaker offered me ownership. “See, he likes you already!”

The bus passed Maggie’s house. There’s a new coat of white paint and a fine blue trim. I felt better.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cambridge 9

June 27, 2010

Our charges had an exciting night last night after the American defeat. Sarah, leading the girls footloose and inebriate on the streets of Cambridge, solicited a midnight punting jaunt from some professional punters. I hope the girls know how long they will cherish that experience, whatever becomes of the boy after. A young man was standing alone at the bar last night. I perceived he was American, and drew him into our group. His name is Adrian, and he is here because the Cornell track team is making a tour of England. He runs the steeplechase. Now the girls declare there was never anything like him (Kasey is seriously hooked), and he thinks I’m altogether remarkable, and nothing like his professors at Cornell. His dad grew up in Akron, and I knew all the places he spoke of in Ithaca. Small world and all that. After such a night, only Bethany arose and accompanied me to Eucharist at St. John’s this brilliant morning, where they sang the Mozart “Ave Verum Corpus” and the Hayden Little Organ Mass. . . which they played. . . on a little organ. The singing was surprisingly imperfect. However, I am one of perhaps a minority who prefers St. John’s to Kings’ (the choir, not the building), for the greater richness and humanity of its tone.

I didn’t make it to the dance. It was too far to walk, nor was I even certain that the placed I mapped was the place Steve meant. Other new friends have conversations over cups of tea--

England showed itself off worse than we in its game with Germany today, which we watched with a throng of Brits at the County Arms, where the bartenders love us for bringing crowds.

Evening drink at an Italian open-air place on the edge of the Market. Thought long and hard about what I had to think on. I had wanted to go to a play reading, but was told it was sold out. I didn’t believe it, but I stalked on, disappointed, muttering. I don’t deal very well with “no,” except in those rare situations in which I am convinced it is the real and final answer. Motorcyclists roared through the streets in a gesture, I think, of defiance of the university, now that that overwhelming institution is dispersed for the summer. Am I having “fun” here? I’m not sure I am, though everything we do is improving, exciting, memorable. I feel I’m not really doing what I’m MEANT to be doing, though working on the Byron play might address that. I’m not enjoying myself as much as I’m sure I will in retrospect. No problem students– well, maybe one, but he is from another school, and wanders off alone to get, I’m afraid, too drunk and too mouthy. I did not make a rule about going out alone, but now I wish I had. Everyone else commits their indiscretions, at least, in goodly company. Now that I think of it, that “problem” student is exactly like me. Except I trusted myself to go unscathed.

Spanish students (come to learn English) play soccer on the LC lawn, probably the roughest usage it’s ever had. There are clear stars. The ones who are not stars but who yet make a daring play are given rounds of applause.

Cambridge 8

June 26, 2010

Steve phoned late yesterday evening, and I went to him. We are to go to some sort of dance tonight, though I can’t figure out where it is. He was taking his girlfriend: whether he dropped her, we’ll be a threesome, or she was a fiction all along I don’t know. He did show me the photos of his two daughters, right after he showed me his favorite fortunes from the Chinese restaurant. When people are talking about what they’re doing tonight, I’m tempted to say, “I have a date,” but I suppose discretion to be preferable, at least for the moment. S is not the kind of person you share, except under very special circumstances. I’ll probably watch the US/Ghana match along with everybody else, then totter around Cambridge looking for a dance.

Began writing a play about Byron’s pool. Something has been “wrong” or “off” about this trip, something minor but pervasive, and I think it’s possible that I haven’t had a major project to be working on, haven’t had an anchor. Maybe this is it. The kids are looking after themselves; Jeff knows he can call on me if he needs me; I have no idea what S wants or needs in a run longer than a night; perhaps I am meant now to look after myself

Gave up the Lord Nelson Mass to watch the USA/Ghana match with the group. It was the right idea, though the match was a disappointment. The Yanks were never fully on the field. My immediate neighbors were French who, rude, malodorous, and hysterically anti-American, seemed like they were trying to fulfill as many stereotypes as they could in a short period of time.

I was on the castle mound when the moon rose blood red.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cambridge 7

June 25, 2010

Met Steve at the Pickerel last night. It was Mystical Drunk Night as the night before had been Rowdy Football Fans night. Steve asked my name, and when told him said, “I am writing a book whose main character is named David. He meets seven other men who are also named David.” Turns out that the Davids are the mystical cities of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation, and that the main David is Ephesus, and when he saw me he was shocked, as he says the description of the angel Ephesus is one “with a golden head and the face of a child,” and he assumed I’d come to start the Apocalypse, and he had been chosen as witness–an event he had already anticipated. I think he was serious, in a way, in the sense of creating a fiction so intriguing to him he decided to live in it. I’d ask, “Why do I attract all the crazies?,” but I already know the answer. I listen to them, usually with genuine interest. Steve’s gentleness was remarkable, as though with every word and gesture he was caressing some tiny animal. I didn’t know how drunk he was–or if he was drunk at all–or what portion of that lovely affect was his all the time. He was quite handsome, in a wasted way, like a movie star coming off a three day bender. My body still feels the enthusiasm of his embrace. He was a little obsessed with Satan, and at several points said, “I am the opposite of Satan.” I can attest to that, anyway. He was always forming a continuum with his hands in the air, Love on one end, Satan on the other. I told him my place was not quite so far to that side as his, but far enough. His phone number sits on the computer as I write. I’ll be obsessing all day about the right time to call. Steve is from Liverpool, and sometimes he sounded–a little comically–like John Lennon. There is so much archness in the Liverpool accent that it is difficult to tell how serious a person is. I think they use that to their advantage. Steve made me feel I had been welcomed here.

Marcella, returning around midnight, saw a doe and a fawn on the street before St. John’s.

Hiked with the kids to the Fitzwilliam after breakfast. It has a very much better collection than I remembered, with some pieces that are quite spectacular. A work I copied when I was learning to paint was Veneziano’s saint restoring with widow’s son killed by an ox-cart, the dramatic horizontal of the widow’s white swathed head. We had trouble getting in.
“Are you a group?” says the harpy at the door
“Yes,” says I, introducing our little band.
“Well then you can’t come in. Groups must make arrangements at least a week ahead.”
“Well, then we’re seventeen individuals. Seventeen individuals would be OK?”
“Yes, but you came as a group, we’ll have to count you as a group.”
“No you don’t. We’re going in as individuals.”
She called in this burly, scowling guy who shook his head violently at me, which was the gesture by which I determined we WOULD go in come what may.
They explained that they couldn’t have us clumping through the gallery when there were other clumps there, and I explained we wouldn’t clump, but would dissipate till all but invisible, but one perceived the argument was about who was going to get his way. I was. I don’t think they expected outright disobedience. In we went, and neither clumped nor gummed up the works of the august establishment. A British failing has always been to fight to the death over things that were arbitrary from the first.

Evening: Evensong at Kings. I have said before it is one of the unsurpassable pinnacles of human achievement, and I have nothing to say but that again. The motet was Bruckner: a thundering, serpentine perfection.

My children laugh on the darkening lawn. They laugh from the balcony above my head. I want nothing but to laugh with them, or to create a place for their laughter to be undying. Cambridge is all one laughter on this night.

Second Cambridge Poem

Since You Asked

Since you asked, I would become this:
a vast falcon-like thing,
with dark pinions, or with bright,
outstretched above the boys in their foxholes,

above the shining-haired girls being beaten
on the street because of their beauty,
between the mothers and the grind of toil
that made them hags before their time.

Hawk-like, owlish, eagle-like, I would cover
as they do the fierce chicks, the little ones,
against the tangle of insignia
that preys in wicked majesty upon the world.

Nor would I feel the need in this
to be particularly forgiving:
a rumor in the night,
a trembling of air between the poles.

I see one bent over, holding with sharp claw,
eating their hearts even as they ate. Let it be me.
I would have them finally written out.
Set me watching in the iron tree.

Cambridge 6

June 24, 2010

Maggie Norton haunts the Cambridge experience for me. I hear her Glenda Jackson voice, its girlish high notes, the vaguely sinister low notes, like one who has been keeping watch under a foggy bridge. I hear her “Now,” uttered when she had spooned out the final portion of supper, a benediction and a cry of victory. I think of her closets crammed with dresses she designed herself, so that her boarders had to live out of our suitcases. What has become of daughter Nicola, of son Mark, of Mark’s stunning friend from Wolverhampton? I hear Maggie calling “Nicola!” with a multiply nuanced organ-tone of propriety, concern, irritation. I think of leading (or rather following) Nicola through the streets on Guy Fawkes night, I being the only one home to bring her out onto the fireworks and goings-on. What became of the Canadian Naval officer who left Maggie with two children and a shambling house on Milton Road? When we were there, she was given a spread in Vogue, and the sitting room was buried under patterns and cloth and the tittering of the women friends who came to help. What on earth could she have thought of us? I went to see the house on Milton Road ten years ago. The tricycle in front suggested she was no longer there. Maybe I’ll go back again. Maybe I won’t. I’d love to see the garden, where Maggie claimed, without offering proof, there was a hedgehog. Let’s face it. It’s been 40 years. Nicola could be a grandmother. Mark’s insolence could have landed him in jail or in Parliament. The beautiful things in the house–there was some noble connection I have forgotten–may be dispersed into a hundred fashionable flats. There is nothing left but recollection.

Cambridge fills me with false nostalgia–longing for a time and place which I never actually experienced. What if I had gone here as an undergraduate? I doubt it would have made me a different person, but it might have given me easier, less self-conscious access to my higher self. Like any good Irish Ohio boy, I find the high culture I want to create and the heroic deeds I want to do also a little embarrassing. I think I would not be so hobbled by that had I been an undergraduate here. On the other hand, perhaps it would have made me insufferable. Perhaps it’s just that bit of mortification which renders me liveable.

We lit candles in Saint James’ Cathedral in Bury St. Edmund’s yesterday. I began it, to show the students it was allowable. When it came time to pray the prayer I had paid for, it was for J. Hadn’t expected that, but I honored my first thought.

The search for a good new living poet is almost always frustrating. This time it was not. I found Sheenagh Pugh. Not all her work is equal, but “M.S.A”, is a masterpiece,

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cambridge 5

June 23, 2010

Early train to Bury St. Edmund’s. We had our tour with the perky Englishwoman, and I was convinced of the significance and former majesty of the place. But I was also reminded how much I hate tours, and never in my own travels take them unless I have been deceived into it. My own process would have been to take the train and wander, maybe to have stayed a night, absorbing without the Greatest Hits version provided by the very well informed and well meaning and almost infuriating tour personnel. The ruins are spectacular, though, and the place in its day must have been magnificent. When places like it were falling, it was the end of a civilization, and the one replacing it was not its equal. There are so many reasons for hating Henry VIII– and the one good thing that came out of him, the Anglican Church, may have come in its own. Our guide was perpetually being interrupted by squirrels, quarreling pigeons, children. There was much more of the town I would have liked to see, and rather less of what she showed me. The Cathedral is very beautiful, but it made me meditate on the rightness of building in a style 500 years out of date. Was the Norman really the great age of faith which one wishes constantly to be hearkening to? We toured the Greene King brewery. Part of the wisdom gained at the Natural History museum– that sometimes you don’t need to see the innards of a thing to appreciate it-- was operable here. The flat truth is that I don’t really care how beer is made, and now that I know, it’s smelly and sort of icky, with a whole lot of damp grain lolling about in nasty brown tanks. The day must be commended, though, for extreme beauty which holds now even as it inclines toward evening. The ruins of the abbey must be remembered for the largest and most beautiful roses, as outsized and voluptuous as the compound must have been itself.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cambridge 4

June 22, 2010

Graelin led us to a pub last night, the Saint George, between the river and Midsummer Common. It was farther than I’m normally willing to walk for a drink, but all was jolly and joyful once we got there. Most of my charges are 20 or under, a difference I notice only sometimes with issues of vocabulary, or when one of them is leading the expedition at the teenager death-march, at which time I can barely keep up. Though, now that I think of it, I’ve spent my life at the back of the clump. It is less time than genetics. Josh was approached by a desperate-looking man who, apparently, wanted to seduce him into El Quiada. Marcella spilled beer on herself, and I needed to escort her home lest she walk alone, and we had time to get to know one another.

I look from my window and see my kids spread out sunning or shading on the garden grass.

Evening. Gibbous moon in my window. Today’s adventure was a hike to Grantchester to take in Rupert Brooke’s ambiance, and the deeper presence at Byron’s pool. We did hit all the spots we were meant to hit, but the lack of planning (and mapping) caused the route to be very much longer than it needed to have been, and I came home, effectively, a cripple. Tossing down antibiotics against the infections I know must come. I kept walking, to pubs, this evening, so prevent my legs from seizing up. Watched a little of the world cup with Paul the Polish waiter, and then at the County Arms and the Isaac Newton. Grantchester was beautiful, and one understands why Brooke loved it, and even more (from his photos) why Grantchester loved him. We walked through fields–many, many long fields–of placid red cows. At Byron’s pool boys and girls were bathing, and each showed me a foot pulled into some deformity to show they were a true heir of the poet. The pool is not what one expects– larger, richer, not secluded at all, formed now (then?) by a concrete dam. By “richer” I mean in terms of the variety of wild life, ducks and moorhens and wagtails and every insect and flower water plant in the world. My students presented poems by and little dramas concerning Rupert Brooke beside Byron’s pool, and before we left we shouted in unison LORD BYRON to salute the great ghost. Snacks at the Orchard. Limping home then, me trying not to complain in front of them for whom I mean to be a tower of strength.

At the Waterstone’s music shop, I bought CDs of Palestrina, Dufay, Savall, Marais, Gombert, and am playing them one by one with shameless greed.

Every vista of Cambridge pleases me this time. From the castle heights the unfortunate tower of St; Johns’ squatted under the unshapely moon, and I cried out lovely!

First Cambridge Poem

Graduation Day, Thinking of Byron on the Trinity Backs, Half Moon

Never shall beauty, truth, honor be enough.

But I have taken to walk the dark Backs under the half moon.
He flattens the water.
He gems the long grass.
Whatever color he sheds around him,
it is perceived ice-blue,
as if the imperial moon had warred and won
all the gray spires, all the complicated brickwork.

The youths of Trinity dance by candlelight,
the boys’ voices like a water deeper than the moony Cam,
the girls’ voices like the sudden rising of night birds,
as they never do.
The river listens.
The bridge listens.
They bear all onward, longing to cleave to one place, listening.

The cob and the pen and four sooty cygnets
sleep in the grass beside the river.
They alone look as they always do in the transfiguring night,
for their glamor is with them always, even in sleep.
The cob raises his head to listen. He is still asleep.
He is not listening to us.

I say to whomever’s listening,
“Find a way to bless.
Find a way to uphold.
Find a way to stay.”

So the half moon answers.
It is Byron, boy of Trinity,
in a long arc entering the water
without a sound, without a ripple,
barely breaking the moonlight–
Byron with his body ice-blue in the ice-blue plenum,
the ardors for an hour cooled,
the hot words set aside, stroking in the great cool
and the greater dark,
unheeded in the sleep of swans
I think if I could make this moment stay . . . .
If I could seize the ice-blue trailing silks as they sweep
inexorable across the daiseyed grass . . .

The great swan shifts his feathers in his sleep.

Never shall beauty, truth, and honor be enough.
There must be the waxing half moon,
the even-now-declining laughter,
the tender generation of the swans,
the blue god in the river uttering such words,
weaving together an age and an age--

Blazing, fleeting, gone, imperishable;

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cambridge 3

June 21, 2010

I had forgotten to mention that Matthew B, Graelin, Casey, Sally and I went to Great Saint Mary’s Sunday morning. It was not sung matins, but rather family morning prayer, with the adjunct sweetness and silliness. We played bingo. That was supposed to alert us to the community of Christ, which gathers together, like bingo players, even though the rewards are modest. The choir was horrible.

Walked after a frugal breakfast (honoring the sickness of the night before) to the train station to test whether the distance is walkable in the time we have. It is, but it is not pleasant. Visited the Sedgewick Museum of Natural History, which was sweet, but. . . mostly fossils. . . and I realized there are some things in whose existence I can rejoice without actually seeing them. However, hanging from the ceiling they have huge kites made in the shapes of the creatures of the Burgess Shale, which is the single coolest thing ever. I got into my travel mode of much walking, then finding a cafĂ© to drink a cappuccino and write. Wrote a poem under the trees at St. Paul’s, about Byron and Trinity and the half moon, which had been inspired the night before. I realized that the moonlight angler had been Aengus Og, which is why the perfection of the night came to a point in him, and why I had not–this was mysterious to me at the time–dared to look him in the face. Lemonade in the garden of the Fitzwilliam. The clerk was studying Swedish. I was so happy. Cambridge by then had open to me like tapping the last stone coat away from a gem.

The sad student gave up and went home. I think she will regret it always.

Class, then exhaustion, then these words upon the page.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cambridge 2

June 20, 2010

Sun out, air soft and lovely. I think my investing in a sweater at Marks & Spencer’s was the voodoo needed to bring summer to this place.

One sad student, constantly on the verge of tears, phoning her mother five times a night. She is very beautiful and everyone likes her, so it is difficult to see what the exact problem is. All through our happy supper at the Castle her eyes were red and puffy from the effort not to cry. She came to my room tonight to assure me it was nothing personal, and as baffling to her as it is to us. I felt powerless, but also pretty well in sympathy, remembering the few times I was almost dead of homesickness, after having been away from home many times, having a great time where I was. In my instance, looking back, it may have been a feeling of out-of-placeness, of not belonging, however kind people were to me. I think the same is true for her. In either case, there was no way out but through.

Met a Chinese student in the Castle. He had just got double firsts, and I praised him, and we talked of the history of medicine, he lauding the guy who discovered the life cycle of cholera, whose name I forget. Sic transit gloria mundi. . . . Anyway, I saw him on the street later, and was glad. This is in fact the night when I slid into Cambridge, locking in with a snap like a piece in a puzzle. Each journey there is such a night, and I am glad when it comes early. After the colloquy with the sad student, I went walking. It was late, but this is the shortest night of the year, and we are far north, so there was still dark blue light in the sky, and, most notably, a gleaming half moon. I walked along the backs, with the road to my left and the varying sweetnesses of flower and flowering shrub and aromatic grass to my right. The Castle supper, however jolly, had not set well with me, and at one point I had no choice but to find a place to eject it. The Saint John’s playing fields are not, apparently, completely fenced in, for I plunged through some shrubby onto the edge of a vast expanse of moonlit lawn. There the deed was done, and there I gazed at the blue, perfect, tranquil beauty of the Cambridge night. Despite my reason for being there, it was romantic. I found a road across the river and into the colleges. The graduates of Trinity were partying by candlelight on one side, the happy boy and girl voices making music on the gliding river. The word “privilege” comes constantly to mind when one speaks of Cambridge or Oxford, but I think we should allow the word a context not of exclusion but of universal fulfillment. Why should we grudge it that somewhere, where the worlds gather together like the tip of a spear, things are perfect. I was glad for those kids and their perfect night. I prayed in the moonlight that it might last forever. On the left side of the bridge came on of those moments that are etched in the mind, and till the end of days will stand for something. A pair of swans and five cygnets were asleep on a brick boat ramp leading down to the water. I stopped to speak to them, and bless them as I passed. Just beyond them–he must have heard me speaking to the swans– was an angler baiting his hook. When I passed on a little, he too spoke to the swans, assuring the pen and the cob that he meant no harm and they needn’t bestir themselves. The instant I saw him, baiting his hook, a dark vertical above the snow horizontal of the roosting swans, condensed in the mind as one of those moments of perfect beauty. For a while I walked through a medieval city–except probably more well lit– and then home, just as the road was lengthening.

Cambridge 1

June 19, 2010

Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. I’m fairly sure I have the same room I had ten years ago, though my recollection of that time is uncharacteristically thin. It seems more commodious to me now than it did then, as my standards plummet and my level of gratitude ascends. The flight from Charlotte was crowded and uncomfortable, the personnel at Gatwick apparently deliberately unhelpful, the weather lousy. A deer in a meadow was my first sight in the bus. I watched rolling wet fields full of beautiful horses and magpies between here and Gatwick– which is a lot more rural than I thought. I almost never take the window seat, but this time I did, and saw the sun come up in a sea of rose and gold, miles above the real sea, and then Cornwall grow dark green out of the waters.

Jeff is on crutches and has an alarming gash on his head, but is otherwise hale and even buoyed by the elation of survival. We ate together in the Castle, a homey pub with good food.

Walking tour of the town in a driving rain, informative, though I did hear one of the students say, “All this was in the book.” It made me happy at least that she had read the book. Many anecdotes of scientists; scientists are not as amusing anecdotally as poets. Exam results were posted on the Senate House today, and there was much dolorous or elated perusal.

Finished The Riding Funhouse and rushed chapters to agents by email. I had two positive responses within twenty four hours, which was shocking. I was unable to respond in any way beyond, “Thank you, see you later, my plane leaves in an hour.” I have to wait for Monday to get the password for WiFi to see what the nest installment of this drama will be. My dreams in sleep on the plane included fantasies of reading tours and absurdly large advances.

Evening. My room was so cold that when I woke from a nap, I began shivering with chills. The chills reacted with my dehydrated travel state, and muscle spasm agonized my entire torso. The only cure is water, but when I turned on my faucet the water was dull red with rust until I’d let it run for a while. Ouch. Flow. Ouch. Flow. There is a temperature regulator in the room, but I have it cranked to Hell Fire, so I think it’s a placebo. Have not taken off my raincoat since then. And to think that a day ago I was embraced orchid-like by the southern hothouse.

Me: Can I get WiFi in my room?
Porter: Of course, all the rooms are equipped with WiFi.
Me: It doesn’t seem to be working.
Porter: You need the password,
Me: Can I have the password?
Porter: Of course you can!
Me: Great! What is it?
Porter: There’s the thing. We don’t know the password.
Porter: The people who know the password won’t be here till Monday morning, You’re welcome to use the computer here (gesturing to the one with 15 people in line to use it.)
The secret, plainly, is to keep answering “yes” until your questioner realizes on his own that the answer is “no.”

Though my legs were in agony, I was lonely and unhappy in my room, so I made one last sortie onto the streets of Cambridge. It was the right idea. Bought vodka, and though I’m not drinking it, I know I can. Cambridge is like no other place I’ve been. The conversations you can understand at all are about ethics and music and string theory. Two women with memorable bosoms at the Castle, whom you would mark down as good ol’ gals in any bar in Asheville, were talking about French literature. Largely in French.

Friday, June 18, 2010

June 17, 2010

Drinks with Jake and his partner Peter last night. Peter fragile, high maintenance; Jake strong, supportive-- an almost stereotypical marriage. What are the Christers so worried about? The same patterns assert themselves in the same situations, so nothing human is as strange as we’re afraid it might be.
June 16, 2010

Distant thunder.

JK emails from a British hospital that he has injured his knee. Auspicious beginning to the Cambridge adventure.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

June 15, 2010

Wandered to the Usual last night for a drink, met up with Carly, Thomas B, Cody, Beau, and the girl whose name is a proper noun. Cody plays so much with is hair and beard that one forgets his classic American symmetrical handsomeness. Some nights there I know everyone, some night, no one. Last night it was everyone.

Bluster of thunder off in the north, but we’re still awaiting the blessed rain.

I think the novel’s title is The Riding Funhouse Home. It sounds awkward, but if I can get used to the awkward sound, the meaning is apt.

The rain came at last. I sit here deep in the night, making up a story to justify the made-up stories.
June 14, 2010

The costume design for the Chicago Anna Livia, Lucky in Her Bridges appears on the Internet. At least the costumer took it seriously.

Sweaty session of weeding in the sunstruck morning garden. Leaning over to weed, I was blinded by not just a drip but a flow of sweat. It felt like warm sea. Little tomato plants are coming up from last year’s planting.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

June 13, 2010

Gray dawn. Smolder of red tansy in the garden. Scarlet lily interrupting the rolling green of the back yard.

Just now fully recovered from the tribulation of first day of Studio Stroll, with its ten hours (nearly 12 for those who nervously got there to “prepare”) of tedium, labored politeness, heat, disappointment, occasional bright spots of meeting or reacquaintance. I have work far more fit to be seen than ever before, but it makes exactly zero difference to the bit of the crowd eddying up into my space. Did paint, though; did work on my novel. A man did come in with a grumpy blue macaw named Kinky.

The evening looked just as unpromising, ahead being one of those events you go to because you promise your friends you will, but which you dread and dread. It was the closing night of the long celebration for Ray Johnson at the Black Mountain Museum. I’m glad so many people have dedicated their time to his memory, but I never saw much beyond a hobbyest with means and loyal friends, and a tragic end. I’m thinking of Kelly next door, and the way her overheard day could be presented as epic: It was not just that she took her son to the park, it was that she took her son to the park as they were both pretending to be pirates. She called this ‘make believe,’ and it marked a watershed in American parenting. The poetry for the evening was meant to reflect Surrealism, and I suppose it did. One of the poets was boring and the other was partially my fault. I knew him when he was a baby poet, maybe had some influence. But he began talking the talk before he understood there was a walk to be walked. He still doesn’t understand it. He is context without content. The reading was essentially a presentation of credentials, as though he were auditioning for the role of Prophet.

Miles Davis cannot be mentioned in a poem unless the poet is up to something. This is one of the immutable truths.

The musicians were wonderful, especially a girl who sang operatically to an accordion. She gave me her card, and I could know her name in a minute. We went out afterwards to a new wine bar on Walnut, DJ and I and Thomas B and the accordion girl and a kid named Beau and a girl with a common noun for a name which I don’t remember, and Madison the puppeteer and Cody the Actor, and it was one of the finest evenings in memory, joyful and–yes-- poetic, and we drank $80 wine and I woke myself this morning with laughter. That was the reason the day was, at last, a success.

The Internet suggests that my old school, Hyre Junior High with its Ohioana mosaics, has been demolished. It was new when I went there. You expect a building to have a longer run than yourself.

Evening: the gallery stroll ends in sweaty disappointment. Why do I do this year after year?
June 12, 2010

The first 4 o’clocks are blooming ibis red.

Started a novel four days ago, think now of little else. It makes me happy. Building a world in my head.

Saw Elizabeth’s Southern (Dis)Comfort at 35 Below. Beautifully written and beautifully performed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June 9, 2010

The hummingbirds cannily come when I am lost in the interior of the house, but the level of sugar water drops in the jar, so I know they have returned, if not quite forgiven.

Other people, who see an untamed jungle, which might look to them casual even to the point of neglect, do not realize how happy I am with my yard. Walking the walk through the backyard is like looking from a plane at the Brazilian rainforest, only the trees are rolling intricacies of violets and cobra lily, with irises and wood poppies and acanthus and the like hidden except for due season. Where the light breaks, the vegetation becomes tall and crowned with white. The front yard begins with the cloud of blue hydrangea, and spreads out over –well, all the flowers I have mentioned time and again, and some I have unaccountably passed over but love when I see them all the same. The Time of the Towers begins, with hollyhocks shooting up higher than I can reach with my outstretched arm, and the great mulleins gathering themselves to shoot even higher. I could pull weeds every day and not be caught up, and a month away instills a sense of despair in the regard, but also the untrained eye might not see that much difference between weeds and flowers not in flower, for I favor the big horsey ones which might be weeds anyway.

Gave up with the rewrite of Timothy Liberty, recognizing in it the first fault I had to overcome as a playwright, cropping up again like a fever caught from a corpse. Back in the day, I was amazed at how fast my first plays went. They were quick, easy, and pretty good, and won prizes the first time out. But what I recognized almost at once was that I was writing that kind of absurdist play whose full weight rests on the wise line, the bright-edged non-or-semi-sequitur. One can write wise lines all day, and think oneself a success, so long as the question of meaning never arises. TL has meaning, but you have to wade through a lot of gratuitous wit to get to it. Sea’s Edge has meaning, but you have to know The Tempest, to which it is a wise-ass sophomoric commentary, lyrical and self-protective. Smart line suggests smart line, allusion suggests allusion, and soon you have a smart play that can’t move anyone very much, except to a kind of admiration. My students–the best of them–find this mode fast. It delivers a kind of success very quickly, producing something stageworthy and engaging, and which showcases their late-won ease with the ironies of the world. It’s hard to talk them out of it because it’s so good. You say, “It’s all wit and no heart,” and they wonder if you mean that as a negative criticism or not. And they have before them the awful example of Beckett, who at the very first raised free-floating irony and rapier non-sequitur to a level so high they almost sound like drama. That Beckett’s plays aren’t about anything is a hard conclusion to accept, because they are so damn good. Beckett gets a seat on Olympus by being so cagey one is never sure whether he’s a fraud or a prophet so burdened with prophesy he can’t get the full sentence out. In the midst of playing Estragon, I realized it was the first, but the work of the master forger is still a masterwork, so one keeps silent. I aspired to that sort of skill through maybe three plays. Then I wrote worse for a while in order to write better, for the exposed heart is always harder than mockery, which, now that I think of it, is the easiest thing in the world. Now I develop subterfuges to shorten the way for my students, to make them see they really don’t want to be, out of the panoply of choices before an artist, clever.

Most of the original plays one sees hereabouts are clever. The ones which are not clever are generally bad, though the minds of the playwrights who wrote them are just as good as, or better than, the wiseacres’. This is the dilemma. Take the low road and you get a kind of result very fast, a result tailored to the variety show and No-Shame stage, where people laugh and say how witty you are and in five minutes it is gone. Take the high road and– well, take the high road in any case. It’s a way to open yourself to (and sometimes to deserve) mockery, but it is also the only way to excellence.
June 7, 2010

Calm evening after turbulent day.

I bought black dress shoes.

Went to the studio twice, one in the morning and once, just ending now, at the edge of night. Each time I did good work, and hadn’t expected to. Each time I was finally worn away by the truck drivin’ music coming from next door. C has the worst musical taste in the world, and cannot live even a second in silence. Nor is it enough that only she might hear. It is observable that people with the worst taste are the most bent on imposing it upon you, as if, becoming ubiquitous, it would somehow stop being bad. Tonight the steel guitars and country twang was replaced by– even worse, if that can be imagined– multi-diva versions of “We Are the World.” I went out into the holy twilight and shook my head like an injured dog.

Grieving for my hummingbirds. I let their feeder go dry. Now every five minutes I creep to the window to see if they’ve forgiven me and come back.

Sat on the terrace of Mountain Java and wrote poems until the light was too thin. I was happy for that time.

The yellow hollyhocks are eight feet tall. From the living room they look like spires sweeping out of the cloud of Mary blue hydrangea.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Summer Festival Chorus Link

JR sends the link for a recording he made:
June 6, 2010

Footsore in the morning, from the wearing of bad shoes for the concert, and they were brown shoes with a tuxedo, so things were a disaster, foot-wise, from one end to the other. The second annual “Taste of Opera” was fun, if less well attended than one would have thought for all the hoopla. The opera patrons are even older than the patrons at NC Stage. How did we sound? I have no idea. I was not confident, but neither did I feel I’d made a mistake. The Diana Wortham is very dry and you hear nothing on stage. This does not matter in a stage play, but when singing it can be disorienting. We climbed the balcony to hear the other acts, and they were, by and large–with the exception of the tenor who sang Mozart and later Tony in West Side Story– flat and–with the effort to get the sound in their own ears– a little strident. What impressed me was that the singers were good actors, and gave a sense of the moment in their selection rather than just planting their feet and singing. BF was there, his intimidating beauty softened with time. Actually, I wouldn’t have know him until I heard him sing. He wondered why I had stopped sending him e-mail updates of my life. The answer was because I couldn’t imagine that he’d be interested, though apparently he was. A few of the voices were too big for the room, and sounded distorted, like an amp turned too high. The handsome dark-haired bass sounded like a Tartarean vacuum-cleaner when he began, though I think he heard it and focused his tone so by the end his voice was blue fire. DCS said twice how he’d like to get me back on the opera stage. Did he forget he fired me, or did I somehow misinterpret that event? All in all, the events of last evening were unfamiliar enough to me that I keep turning them over in my mind. I have done opera, ballet, drama, and have found that the kindest and least diva-like people are in the opera, and that the hardest-to-comprehend traditions are in the ballet, and by far the most doubtful training is in the theater. This says nothing about the end products, though, and I find that curious. Often the actor with the least training is the most electrifying on stage. This is never the case with opera or dance. Both opera and dance strive for a perfection that is, by and large, pre-ordained and will be welcomed with a joyful familiarity. Yet only mediocre theater wishes to recreate perfections of the past, while good theater hopes to astonish with some new height or nuance which is the accident of the moment.

Sitting beside Jonathan Ross is a music lesson. He makes me realize how sloppy and inattentive my music-making is. He holds every beat out its full value, observes every marking, divines which note to skip by with a touch and which to bring to full resonant bloom. He makes mistakes, but never the same one twice. I catch myself singing as though the car were double parked or I have something better to be doing. You’d think I’d overcome the imperfections of my voice with more attentive application, but the fact is I’m generally singing with people less accomplished than myself, so half-assed begins to seem like enough.

I must stop buying cheap shoes.

The hydrangeas bloom en masse– that blessed blue, ultramarine and snow, Mary’s mantel blue.

Deleted a book I wrote years ago– Canticle for the End of Christendom. It was meant to be a sort of summa theologica, but it was mostly just angry, punishing, settling scores, embarrassing the idiotic, blasting the hypocrites. I must have been very angry for a very long time.
June 4, 2010

Four hour singing rehearsals are probably not productive. Last night my mind checked out at about the 3 hour mark, my voice 20 minutes later. At one point (at several points, actually) the sopranos would sing a passage wrong, then Michael would play it correctly, then they would sing it exactly as they had before. Then he would play it again, then they would sing it wrong again. It was exhaustion. There is a point past which no new achievement can flow, a point at which things must simply be left alone for a while. Vocal directors resist this truth more than others. Barber’s “The Coolin,” at least, leapt from the realm of nuisance into the realm of the beloved. The Brahms is transcendent. Jonathan said of it, “I don’t understand how anybody knows how to write music like this.” My explanation is that they don’t. They open their minds to the Holy Spirit. But I am having a wonderful time. I have avoided intensive short-term preparation throughout my life– knowing that a hint today then an evening to take it in works better for me than a frenzied barrage– so the we-have-two-days-to-do-this panic is, this one time, fairly romantic.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June 3, 2010

First rehearsal last night of Michael P’s Summer Festival Chorus. We sing at the opera gala and at our own concert on Sunday. It’s the sort of thing I delight in, hard work on rewarding music, with a group that is probably matchless in the region. It’s like being on stage with a really fine acting ensemble, though I’m more confident in theater and so this has a keener thrill to it. I had expected, in fact, to be the amateur of the group, but that turns out not to be the case. Anxious solo sessions at the piano probably helped. Also, though I have very far from the most beautiful instrument, all those operatic baritones have nothing below a G, so I have below the staff to myself, wallowing around as though in blue chocolate.

Strange exhaustion upon me. If I lie down I sleep, and there are moments when I cannot help but lie down. Still decompressing from the semester? In some new life rhythm? Could not bring myself to wade out into the sunlight and pull a weed. Though I did finish The Estuary in my studio, and began a rewrite of Timothy Liberty.
June 2, 2010

The greatest cloud of hydrangea blossoms my bushes have ever borne are about to shift toward sky blue the yellowy-orange of this year’s garden.
May 31, 2010

Francine Trevens writes that our Short Plays to Long Remember won an INDIE award. I haven’t looked that up, but she seemed very excited.

Midnight. This has been a long, accomplished day. If all the summer could be like it, I would be happy.

Jerry Crouch asks me to audition for Fagin in Oliver. Vanity whispers yes; everything else shouts no.