The Power of Art?

I just learned that artist Robert Indiana has died. He was 89, and although he had a lengthy career, he is most associated with his mid-60s work Love:

Love

The work has been reproduced in both two- and three-dimensional forms (including on a popular U.S. postage stamp), in multiple languages. It also has been pirated innumerable times (Indiana was known to collect various ripoffs), and Indiana complained at points that it led people to think of him as a one-hit wonder.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

My dad’s best friend is married to a woman much of whose career was in theater, concert, and exhibit tech. She was also something of an accident magnet — prone to falls from ladders, having scenery land on her, stuff like that, to the point at which she eventually migrated to academia to wrap things up. In any case, early in their relationship, he was visiting her at work when a copy of Indiana’s famous work toppled onto her, giving her a concussion, if I recall correctly. When they told me about it years later, they said they knew they were destined to be together. After all, she had been struck by Love.

I did not make this up.

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In Which a Grocery Run Turns Old Testament

I was picking a couple of things up this morning at the non-Wal-Mart supermarket — I tend to split my business anyway, and things are frequently quicker at Food Lion — and as I was headed to pick up some tater tots, I passed a freezer that held what I guess passes for specialty items here in Mondoville. There were frozen plantain slices, empanadas, and some breads. It was one of the latter packages that caught my attention.

Specifically, it was a package of cinnamon-raisin English muffins. And that’s nifty, because sometimes those might make a lovely family breakfast. But I didn’t notice that they were English muffins at first, because what caught my eye was a Bible reference on the label.

English Muffins

“Wow,” I thought. “I know I live in the Bible Belt, but really?”

I picked up my (presumably ecumenical, but at least store-brand) tater tots and came home, but my curiosity was piqued. So I went to the company’s website, where I saw:

Ezekiel 4:9 products are crafted in the likeness of the Holy Scripture verse Ezekiel 4:9 to ensure unrivaled honest nutrition and pure, delicious flavors.

“Take also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils and millet, and spelt and put them in one vessel…” Ezekiel 4:9

It’s this special, unique combination of 6 grains and legumes that harvests benefits beyond what we normally expect from our breads, pastas, cereals, and other foods.

And so on, with this apparently divinely inspired multi-grain bonanza. But wait! There’s more! They also apparently make other Scriptural sandwich supplies. Behold… Genesis 1:29 bread!

Now, I imagine Food Lion wouldn’t be stocking this stuff if it didn’t sell, and I get the impression that the bakers are pitching their wares toward back-to-nature and health-food shoppers, rather than some vast fundamentalist market, but I couldn’t help imagining other “biblical” products:

I’m just saying, this could be a marketing… well, you know.

 

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In Which the Prof Serves as a Gentleman, a Scholar, and a Dork

(Not necessarily in that order.)

I spent yesterday in Real City, doing a variety of things, culminating in a visit to the Berries’ former haunt of Art Bar to see contemporary garage faves the Woggles. But I’ll get to that later.

I had an appointment down there at 10:30 yesterday morning, but since that’s about a 40- to 50-minute drive from Mondoville, I decided to make a full day of it rather than make two trips. So after lunch at my favorite low-budget Chinese buffet, I went over to the library at Flagship University and did a little work gathering sources for my contribution to the annual Chaucer bibliography. That didn’t take long, but I had plenty of time to kill, so I wandered into the stacks and read some work from Phyllis McGinley (about whom I blogged last week). Specifically, I took a look at  Times Three, the early-60s collection of her poetry that features a warm introduction from W.H. Auden.

The book contains 300(!) poems, and is divided into decades: “The Fifties,” “The Forties,” and “The Thirties,” but it took me a moment to realize that she was talking about her fifties/forties/thirties, rather than about the decades of the 20th C. that we associate with those labels. I chose works more or less at random initially, like the literary version of Dippy the Drinking Bird, but eventually found myself returning to her thoughts in her fifties, as that’s the decade I’m in as well.

Some of the work was topical, but has worn well. There was a poem noting that although humanity has developed new technology for mass slaughter, we’ve always had quite a bit of talent in that field, whether we used guns, swords, or clubs and rocks. Another poem discussed the novelty of color TV, but wondered what difference it really made if the content wasn’t any better. (I particularly nodded when she said it wouldn’t even matter if a screen were fifty inches, if it still showed the same old thing. As it happens, that’s the size of the TV here in my den.)

[Side note: As I was looking up the poem I linked above, I found a blog post about McGinley from the Paris Review. It strikes me as a pretty good summation of why the literary establishment has ignored her — and why the public has increasingly come to ignore the literary establishment. It works in both directions, you know, and the next time you hear someone talk about the decline of poetry, this might be a nice place to start. Anyway…]

But the one that really hit me was this one, which I’ll share with you:

Midcentury Love Letter

by Phyllis McGinley

Stay near me. Speak my name. Oh, do not wander
By a thought’s span, heart’s impulse, from the light
We kindle here. You are my sole defender
(As I am yours) in this precipitous night,
Which over earth, till common landmarks alter,
Is falling, without stars, and bitter cold.
We two have but our burning selves for shelter.
Huddle against me. Give me your hand to hold.

So might two climbers lost in mountain weather
On a high slope and taken by the storm,
Desperate in the darkness, cling together
Under one cloak and breathe each other warm.
Stay near me. Spirit, perishable as bone,
In no such winter can survive alone.

That’s worth keeping, I think. So I think I’ll pick up a copy of Times Three before too long.

From there, I went to the local used media emporium, where I traded a couple of books I hadn’t sought for Two Kinds of Truth, the latest of Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch novels. I’ll probably read it this evening.
After that, I bought a couple of burritos at a Del Taco and made my way to Art Bar. The venue usually only hosts bands on Saturdays, so this was the first time I had been there on a Friday, and I was surprised to discover that it was open when I got there a little after seven. Turns out that on weeknights, they open at five, rather than eight.
When I went in, the Woggles were setting up for a sound check, even though they were the headliners. It made sense to me — find the settings you like in advance, rather than lengthen the transition between bands (it was a three-band bill), and set the board back to there when you’re up.
After a couple of minutes, I chatted a little with “Mighty” Manfred Jones, the band’s frontman (and the afternoon DJ on the Sirius XM Underground Garage channel). He and I are Facebook friends, and we’ve swapped a few e-mails over the years. And despite having heard the Berries, he still talks to me, so go figure. They had played in Savannah the previous night, so it was a relatively short haul for them. I let him get back to setting up the merch table, and relaxed while we waited for the Capital City Playboys to open the show at 9:30.
I’ve been on the bill with the Playboys on a couple of previous occasions, and I’ve mentioned that they’re rated as one of the area’s top live acts. They still are, and they blasted the crowd with their revved-up rockabilly, stoking everyone up for the rest of the night.
Next up were Boo Hag, a two-man, guitar/drums local outfit that define themselves as swamp punk, which seems pretty accurate to me. There was a definite Cramps-ish vibe to some of what they were doing, but they were more goth and less cartoonish than the dearly departed Lux and gang, and they’ve developed a pretty significant local following in a short time. By the time they were done, the walls had begun to sweat.
While Boo Hag were conducting a highly amplified voodoo ritual, I noticed something going on right in front of me. There was a young woman there — I’d guess her as mid-20s, and she was standing in front of me enjoying the show when a guy came up to her and started talking. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because the music was just too loud and my hearing is less than spectacular anyway, but the body language indicated that she wasn’t enjoying his company as much as tolerating it. He’d edge over, she’d edge back — you likely know the drill. But she didn’t seem hostile or confrontational either. So after a few minutes of this, she left the crowd in the performance area and headed into the room with the bar. I followed her, and as she got a drink, I tapped her on the shoulder.
“Do you know that guy?”
“Yeah. I’ve known him for years. He’s just kind of abrasive sometimes.”
“Well, is he bothering you? Does someone need to do something?”
“No. I mean, he’s being… well, him. But no, it’s okay.”
“You’re sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah, But thanks.” So I faded back to the performance space and listened to a little more Boo Hag.
As they were doing their thing, I bought a DVD from Manfred, an indie movie called Stomp! Shout! Scream!, a “Beach Party Rock and Roll Monster Movie.” The Woggles contribute to the soundtrack, and Manfred lends his golden tones to an off-screen but diegetic DJ part.
But then it was time for the main event, and as always, the Woggles gave the crowd their money’s worth. I don’t know how many of the people there were fans when the band started — I had spoken to a few folks, and they hadn’t heard of them before. But I guarantee that the audience was made up of fans after the first thirty or so seconds of the opener. Manfred is one of the most energetic frontmen I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and the band has been together for years and are a crack 60s-style fratty R&B outfit. I suspect it’s impossible to watch them without having fun. In fact, after the first number, a guy I had spoken to just earlier said “You were right — they’re amazing!” That earned me a fist-bump.
At a break between songs, Manfred intro’d a Chubby Checker cover. “It’s even better than the Twist! It has karate, and it has a monkey. And when you put those together, what do you get?”
“‘Karate Monkey!'”, I yelled from the crowd. Hey, I’m a fan.
“That’s right!” And the band tore into it.
A little later, he introduced a recent number. “You guys are probably too young, but do any of you know anything about a show called The Prisoner?” I gave the customary crowd-member whoop, discovering too late that apparently, I was one of the very few who had. Manfred looked at me and said “Of course you have.” I shrugged. Remember, a professor is simply a dork who has turned pro.
They also did terrific versions of two of my favorites of theirs, “What Kind of Girl” and “Baby, I’ll Trust You When You’re Dead.” But all good things have to come to an end, and so it was for this particular scorching set. It was after one a.m., and I still had to get back to Mondoville, so I headed for the exit.
As I did, the young woman from earlier and I saw each other. “Have a good rest of the night,” I said.
“You too,” she said, then added. “And that was really nice of you earlier. Thanks.”
“No problem,” I said. “I just wanted to be sure you were all right.”
“Well it was really nice.”
“Hey,” I said. “I have a daughter.”
And that daughter was still up when I got home at about 2:20. I told her good night, and then crashed until about 10:30 this morning. I think I still got up before she did.
Posted in Culture, Education, Family, Literature, Music, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

Stage Movements

“I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world[.]”

— Richard II, from the play of that name, Act V, scene 5.

***

A couple of evenings ago, I received an automatically generated e-mail from the Kentucky Department of Corrections. I’m notified when there is a change in my brother’s situation, and in this instance, I was told that he had been moved from the facility  at which he had spent most of the past four-plus years to a different one nearby. Apparently (per a phone call I made to a department office), a new prison has gone online, and some inmates were moved to the new place, which created vacancies at other prisons. Michael has now filled one such vacancy.

Although we don’t communicate, I try to stay somewhat informed about his situation, so I read a little about his new surroundings. It’s a minimum- to medium-security facility (as Mike was convicted of capital crimes, even though he escaped the death penalty, he is ineligible for less than medium security), and offers a number of inmate programs, including classes leading to an Associate’s Degree and the possibility of other college-level correspondence classes. Prison industries reportedly include a print shop and some sort of data entry operation.

But another program at Michael’s new home caught my attention. A number of prisons across the country have a Shakespeare Behind Bars program, where inmate troupes put on annual productions of Shakespeare’s plays. It turns out that my brother’s new home has a troupe of fairly long standing, one that was even the subject of a documentary film. Last year they did Julius Caesar, and the current production (Midsummer Night’s Dream) just closed.

As I said, I don’t communicate with my brother — not from any particular animus, but because I suspect there probably isn’t much point. Still, he’s a bright guy, and I can’t help but wonder if we may both explore some of those plays as the years and our separate lives unfold. That, at least, might be nice.

 

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Bad News from an Old Hometown

I learned last night that a high school classmate and former bandmate, Kevin Black, was found dead at his home yesterday. Details are sketchy — apparently he had complained of respiratory issues earlier in the week, but had not seen a doctor. [CORRECTION: Having spoken to a family member, I’ve been informed that Kevin’s fiancee was at the scene and had called 911, but efforts were unsuccessful. As I said at the time of writing, details are sketchy. I regret the error. — WM3]

Kevin and I were friendly, although never really in each other’s inner orbits. He was the vocalist for a while in the band I played in during my senior year of high school. When the other three of us decided the fit wasn’t right (and in retrospect, some of that may have been driven by the fact that he likely couldn’t hear himself — our P.A. left a lot to be desired, and we had no monitors), we went from a quartet to a power trio, changed the band’s name, and were thoroughly chickenshit about it, letting our manager/sound guy/principal roadie/shreve (a term we borrowed from Rush) break the news to him. (This is not an uncommon m.o. in the bush league band business — I’ve been fired that way as well.) Unsurprisingly, Kevin was hurt, but he remained in our orbits off and on over the years.

From time to time I’d run into him when I was in Northern Kentucky, or I’d hear from someone who had seen him recently. We’d laugh about things, get caught up, and then fall out of contact again. But he always seemed genuinely glad to see me, and I always found our encounters to be pleasant.

 

The last time I saw him was in 2013, when I was up there for my brother’s trial, or for one of the events leading up to it. There was an unofficial class reunion at a local pizza joint one Friday night, and Mrs. M and I took a break from things and swung by. Kevin was there with his wife — they split up three years later. But we spent a good chunk of the evening, well, doing as we always did — engaging in goofy chatter, talking about music and the goings-on in our lives (although in my case, that had pretty much become public record.) As ever, it was nice to see him. He worked as a DJ at a couple of local stations for a while, hosting a later band of mine for an in-studio gig, and running a weekend show on another station a few years ago.

Kevin

Kevin Black in 2010. Rest in peace. (Photo via Dennis Cossens on Facebook.)

Another friend and former bandmate of mine was in a short-lived classic rock band with Kevin at the turn of the decade. Dennis told me that Kevin had taken up the bass and had become quite proficient at it. But the band fragmented fairly quickly — they often do — and once again, Kevin fell out of touch.

And now he’s gone, and while we were friendly, I don’t know that I can really claim the right to be considered a friend. But we were more than acquaintances, I think, and we shared the connection that people have when they care about music and work together to make it for a while. And when I went to bed last night, and as I woke up this morning, I felt the world has become a little dimmer. So long, Kevin — and thanks.

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Poetry Corner: Discovery? Recovery?

I tell my students on a regular basis that part of being a medievalist is realizing how much stuff you’re simply never going to know — the information is lost to devouring time. It requires a certain level of humility, and I think it’s useful to maintain that in life generally: “Then again, I could be wrong.” I try to make a point of that when I teach — I’m just a guy who has read a lot; there will always be gaps and speculations. Even so, sometimes things I didn’t know, but think I should have known, ambush me.

That happened this morning as I was surfing the Web. I encountered an article at National Review Online about the poet Phyllis McGinley (1905-78), who won the Mystery Chicken (Pullet Surprise!) in 1961. Admittedly, she’s out of my specialty, and Ms. McGinley’s career seems to have transpired chiefly after the 1951 Louis Untermeyer anthology that formed much of my poetic foundation when I was a kid, but so did the Beats, and I know about those guys. But I had never heard of McGinley before this morning. She doesn’t appear in my daughter’s Norton Anthology of American Literature, nor did she in the Heath Anthology I read cover-to-cover when I prepped for my comps around the turn of the millennium. But as Jeremy Carl’s article informs us:

W.H. Auden, perhaps the 20th Century’s preeminent English-language pooet, lionized Phyllis McGinley, and wrote the introduction to her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Times Three in 1960. She appeared solo on the cover of Time magazine a few years later (one of only nine poets to receive that honor in 100 years) at a time when this was the ultimate mark of popular prestige.

[…] Robert Frost was reportedly an admirer, as were celebrities […] She was even a formative influence on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton […] , the latter of whom wrote gushing letters to McGinley in Sexton’s early career.

Now, however, all her work is out of print, and as I can attest, one can make it a pretty far piece in academia without any knowledge that she ever existed (although she died during my lifetime, and although a Christmas special of my youth was based on her first book). So what happened?

Phyllis_McGinley

Phyllis McGinley, Poet and Essayist (Photo from Wikipedia)

From what I can tell, there have been several factors at work. First of all, she seems to have specialized in what is called “light verse“, formal and sometimes occasional constructions with a sense of humor, in an era marked by the serious-as-a-heart-attack confessional poetry of the aforementioned Plath and Sexton. With the exception of Ogden Nash, little recent work of that sort seems to have lasted. However, light verse can address serious subjects, and can even carry a sting. See, for example, this example of McGinley’s work:

Intimations of Mortality
on being told by the dentist that this will be over soon

Indeed, it will soon be over, I shall be done
With the querulous drill, the forceps, the clove-smelling cotton.
I can go forth into fresher air, into sun,
This narrow anguish forgotten.

In twenty minutes or forty or half an hour,
I shall be easy, and proud of my hard-got gold,
But your apple of comfort is eaten by worms, and sour.
Your consolation is cold.

This will not last, and the day will be pleasant after.
I’ll dine tonight with a witty and favorite friend.
No doubt tomorrow I shall rinse my mouth with laughter.
And also that will end.

The handful of time that I am charily granted
Will likewise pass, to oblivion duly apprenticed.
Summer will blossom and autumn be faintly enchanted.
Then time for the grave, or the dentist.

Because you are shrewd, my man, and your hand is clever,
You must not believe your words have a charm to spell me.
There was never a half of an hour that lasted forever.

Be quiet. You need not tell me.

***

Or consider this pair of sonnets:

The Landscape of Love

I.

Do not believe them. Do not believe what strangers
Or casual tourists, moored a night and day
In some snug, sunny, April-sheltering bay
(Along the coast and guarded from great dangers)
Tattle to friends when ignorant they return.
Love is no lotus-island endlessly
Washed by a summer ocean, no Capri;
But a huge landscape, perilous and stern–

More poplared than the nations to the north,
More bird-beguiled, stream-haunted. But the ground
Shakes underfoot. Incessant thunders sound,
Winds shake the trees, and tides run back and forth
And tempests winter there, and flood and frost
In which too many a voyager is lost.

II

None knows this country save the colonist,
His homestead planted. He alone has seen
The hidden groves unconquerably green,
The secret mountains steepling through the mist.
Each is his own discovery. No chart
Has pointed him past chasm, bog, quicksand,
Earthquake, mirage, into his chosen land–
Only the steadfast compass of the heart.

Turn a deaf ear, then, on the traveler who,
Speaking a foreign tongue, has never stood
Upon love’s hills or in a holy wood
Sung incantations; yet, having bought a few
Postcards and trinkets at some cheap bazaar,
Cries, “This and thus the God’s dominions are!”

***

It seems apparent to me that she can write. So why else does she seem to have disappeared? According to Wiki:

Marriage and stability were extremely important to her after a childhood of frequent moves and “never having a real home.” Having married happily at 32, she loved domesticity the way a woman can only when it has come late to find her. McGinley’s life with her husband, Charles Hayden, was, her daughter Patsy Blake stated, “a sanguine, benign, adorable version of ‘Mad Men.’ ” The couple entertained avidly: the regular guest list included Bennett Cerf, the drama critic Walter Kerr and leading advertising executives of the day.

An ardent Roman Catholic, she embraced domesticity in the wake of second-wave feminism, wrote light verse in the wake of the rise of modern avant-garde and confessional poetry, and filled the gap between the housewife and the feministintellectual who rejected the domestic life. McGinley would spend most of her professional writing career fending off criticism that tended to diminish her image of a suburban housewife poet—an image that was meant to dismiss any depth in her writing. McGinley actually labeled herself a “housewife poet,” and unlike Anne Sexton who used the term to be ironic and self-deprecating, McGinley used it as an honorable and purposefully crafted identity.

Phyllis McGinley felt that the capability to foster familial relationships was what gave women their power and she fought to defend their rights to do so. Despite her admiration for the housewife and her duties, she fully recognized the monotony and drudgery that went along with this role. Most of all however, Phyllis McGinley felt that, no matter what path a woman chose to follow, the most important thing was for a woman to recognize and acknowledge her unique and honorable place in life. McGinley’s point, an eternally divisive one, was clear: a woman who enjoyed herself as a wife and mother should not submit to imposed ambitions nor feel constrained to demand change in the institution of the Church which she so cherished. “The Betty Friedan philosophy, that “committed” women will not need the regard of any man to feel alive, is rationally and effectively refuted by Miss McGinley.”

[…] McGinley has been criticized for providing readers with transient humor but not actually effecting any change. Betty Friedan has said that McGinley was a good craftsman but did nothing to improve or change the lives of housewives. To Friedan, domesticity cripplingly confined women and did not allow them a chance to pursue their own interests or careers. This was a reoccurring opinion amongst many of the second wave feminists who were McGinley’s contemporaries. As a result, her poetry was largely ignored by feminist critics.

Jeremy Carl says much the same, although (as one might expect from an opinion journal like NRO), more polemically.

Simply put, McGinley’s thought crime was that she was a happy, Christian, suburban mother and housewife who extolled both her life in the suburbs and traditional roles for women.

[…]In a 1959 review of her collection of essays, The Province of the Heart, one reviewer commented upon her work being a summary of “the joys of being all the things that modern fiction deplores: married, feminine, suburban, maternal.”

[… Betty] Friedan compared her to an “Uncle Tom” for attempting to put a warm and humorous face on the inherent oppressiveness of her condition as a homemaker.

(It may be worth noting that McGinley’s collection of essays (Sixpence in Her Shoe), described by Carl as “a direct response” to Friedan, spent six months on the NYT bestseller list and apparently significantly outsold Feminine Mystique.)

Carl even argues that McGinley may have anticipated Friedan with this poem from 1953:

The Old Feminist

Snugly upon the equal height,
enthroned at last where she belongs,
She takes no pleasure in her Rights
who so enjoyed her Wrongs!

Nearly 20 years ago, in one of my theory classes, we discussed part of the project of feminist criticism as being the recovery of women’s works that had seemingly been lost to history. I don’t know that Phyllis McGinley was the sort of writer they had in mind, and a quick check of my favorite database yields two entries in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (“American Humorists 1800-1950” and “American Poets 1880-1945: Second Series”) and one in Contemporary Authors, but as I said, she was new to me this morning (which has slipped to afternoon), and she may merit further examination.

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Education, Literature | 1 Comment

Messages in Bottles

Life has a way of bringing people together and apart in ways we might not expect. Events and experiences, both good and bad, connect us, and when you find people who share your commonalities — whether positive or negative — you recognize the connection, and do what little you can, exchanging thoughts, ideas, and the willingness to listen like bottled messages cast into the water between our individual islands.

The murder of my parents in 2009, and my brother’s trial four years later, were fairly high-profile events in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area where they and I had lived. As a result of that, I met some folks involved in other high-profile murder cases in the area. One such case — the murder of Michelle Mockbee — has resulted in an arrest, but the adjudication process remains in progress.  I became acquainted with Ms. Mockbee’s sister, and we’ve chatted from time to time in the ensuing years, and will likely continue to do so as the accused murderer’s second trial gets underway.

Another case, however, remains unsolved. During a break in my brother’s trial, a woman named Beth Stephenson-Victor approached me. Her elderly parents had been murdered in 2011, and when I met her, the case had reached a dead end. The detectives had found DNA, but were unable to connect it to anyone. As it happened, a detective on my family’s case was also aware of the goings on in the Stephenson case. He said all that they could do is hope that one day, it would get a hit in a database.

Stephenson

Bill and Peggy Stephenson, murdered in May, 2011.

Now, seven years after the murders, the case remains unsolved. A local television station has run a couple of features about the case this week. Beth asked me to share them, in the hope that they may appear in front of someone who knows something. So I do.

It’s among the longest of long shots, I know, and I’m sure she does as well. But we do what we can, putting our messages in bottles and casting them away, in the hope that one day, they may reach someone who can respond to them. Maybe it’s you, and if it is, watch the features. Open the bottles.

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