Unreasonable Weather: Rain

In P-town, gray, soggy, a little chilly, but luminous too. A poet’s weather, and to wit: a poem.

Rain on Tin

If I ever get over the bodies of women, I am going to think of the rain,
of waiting under the eaves of an old house
at that moment
when it takes a form like fog.
It makes the mountain vanish.
Then the smell of rain, which is the smell of the earth a plow turns up,
only condensed and refined.
Almost fifty years since thunder rolled
and the nerves woke like secret agents under the skin.
Brazil is where I wanted to live.
The border is not far from here.
Lonely and grateful would be my way to end,
and something for the pain please,
a little purity to sand the rough edges,
a slow downpour from the Dark Ages,
a drizzle from the Pleistocene.
As I dream of the rain’s long body,
I will eliminate from mind all the qualities that rain deletes
and then I will be primed to study rain’s power,
the first drops lightly hallowing,
but now and again a great gallop of the horse of rain
or an explosion of orange-green light.
A simple radiance, it requires no discipline.
Before I knew women, I knew the lonely pleasures of rain.
The mist and then the clearing.
I will listen where the lightning thrills the rooster up a willow,
and my whole life flowing
until I have no choice, only the rain,
and I step into it.

Reasonable Words: The Internet Effect

There’s been a run on (to me somewhat specious) books about the supposed baleful effects of the Internet. I went to hear Nicolas Carr read from The Shallows, his take on this phenomenon at the Harvard Book Store a while back. You could do a fun social history of the supposed deleterious effects of cultural formats and content through the ages. (I think it starts with Plato, down with reading and writing as they impair memory and extemporization.)

Plato’s points are true, as are many of the criticism of subsequent developments–jazz’s immoral effect, TV’s vast wasteland, video games recalibrating of visual cortext). But are these bad things or just trade offs? A trivial example, is it so bad that handwriting is getting lousier and is not even taught in schools in the U.S. any more? That seems more of the measure to make of these changes. It doesn’t strike me as a moral evil, although good handwriting was once considered a moral good. (Don’t ask me though, my handwriting was always crap.)

Support for that argument that the Internet is not making us dumber, and may be helping us avoid dementia, from Der Spiegel (translated into English).


Most of the report is tied to rising IQs, and does note that vocabulary is changing.

“Linguistically, the generations are growing apart,” Flynn states. “Young people can still understand their parents, but they can no longer mimic their style of speech. That was different in the past.” One possible reason for the change is that today’s young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

Flynn says this is a pity — but no reason to panic. What some have taken for “digital dementia,” he explains, is ultimately just children and young people adapting to a world that is faster-paced and strongly influenced by digital media.



“Children and young people adapting…” Reasonable words indeed: a technology is neither intrinsically good or bad.

MLK Library: The Continuing Saga

What to do with the main branch of DC’s public library, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Martin Luther King Memorial Library, remains a minor, but contentious, issue in the DC architecture scene. Points of agreement: the building is suffering after decades of deferred maintenance; it’s horrendously expensive to maintain (custom glass and lighting all over); it’s not environmentally efficient, and it doesn’t work well for library users.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot of common ground. Preserving modernist buildings is a passion for some, even buildings like this which arguably never really fit in the context of the city (MLK Memorial Library is Mies’s only DC building, and his only library. It was finished by his associates after his death, which makes its claim to Miesian authenticity a little tenuous.) A bunch of big high profile library construction or renovation projects have been sources of civic pride (Minneapolis, Seattle, Cambridge, MA for instance). Although these observations can be rallied in support of or against the building (His only library? save at all costs! vs. His only library, and  it was a mistake from the start.)

My (uncomfortable) viewpoint is more in the “mistake from the start” camp, and that Mies approach was just not that suitable for libraries…or at least this one. The  scale of the building seems off, and the open span interiors are oddly gloomy and industrial, despite being walled by windows. Admittedly, building a truly great library must be one of architecture’s harder assignments, particularly during the torrent of digital change that is reshaping what libraries are for.

In any event, the pics of the proposed new MLK certainly are enticing.

As it is now:

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library

Budget Hero

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank covered a new video game, Budget Hero, which I thought for a moment was EA’s lastest offering (a sequel to Guitar Hero?). It’s from the biz show Marketplace, which takes their irreverent tone to the task of helping people engage with what to do on the budget, as opposed to bloviating about it without being willing to get the least bit specific or face uncomfortable tradeoffs.

A few years back, the group “Public Agenda” out out a book called “Where Does The Money Go” with much the same idea in mind…present the real budget situations clearly and “start a conversation” about the answers. I read it and also gave copies to people. So it’s sad to report that the new edition has “UPDATED WITH EVEN MORE DEBT!” in big type.

Microsoft Academic Search

I think MS’s academic search portal has been around a while, but it’s new to me, tipped by Never Ending Search, a blog on libraries I read.

It’s got some tasty features, including graphs of citations, and those ever-present citation clouds, that don’t always seem to mean much but sure are purty.

Their list of features:

Academic Map: Navigate geographically through organizations and authors in a specified domain.
CFP Calendar: Search for conferences you may be interested in by domain, time and location.
Domain Trend: Visualize the research trends i n computer science through an interactive stacked area chart.
Organization Comparison: Juxtapose two organizations and compare their citation counts, keywords, top authors and more.
Co-author Graph Display which researchers have the most collaboration with a particular author–in a kind of degrees of separation visual
Co-author Path: Display how two researchers are connected via their co-authors.
Genealogy Graph: Display the advisor and advisee relationships of a particular researcher.
Paper Citation Graph: Discover which publications have cited a particular publication.

Also new (to me at least) is Mendeley, a citation manager tricked out with social network gizmos. It would be interesting to know what the actual pick up on these tools is, and whether it varies by discipline? They are neat, but there seems to be a lot of overhead for using them, and wouldn’t scholars like creating their own “workflows” for lack of a better word? The research “texture” of humanities sources, as well as the setting–grand old library reading rooms, for instance–is part of the pleasure. A database of PDFs isn’t quite as rewarding.

Reasonable Words: Enrique Vila-Matas

Still humming from reading Dublinesque, a book that gets inside your mind via the mind of the protagonist, the recently retired, somewhat fraught ex-drinker, Riba, who was a Barcelona publisher of ambitious literary fiction.

He never found the genius writer he was looking for, and now, in his 60s, has come up with the dubious idea of getting a group of friends together to go to Dublin to conduct a requiem for the Gutenberg Age, with, among many other Joycean subtexts, the ongoing challenge of staying on the wagon despite nightly visits to Irish bars, including one fateful one he’s seen in a dream.

It’s a gorgeously written book, and accordingly one that I’m savoring by a reading only a few pages, sometimes just a few paragraphs, at a time. A sample taste, from p. 148. The group of mourners/celebrants has finally made it to Ireland; they have an old car and are tooling around:

Time: Around two in the afternoon.
Day: Sunday June 15.
Place: The port of Howth, at the north end of Dublin Bay. Less than a mile from here is Ireland’s Eye, a rocky seabird sanctuary built on the ruins of a monastery.
Characters: The four travelers in the Chrysler.
Action: They park at the edge of the town, the foot of the cliffs where Nietzky, who knows the place, has suggested they walk for a while. They stride along a path through the rocks, and once a certain amount of vertigo has been overcome–blue and gray lights in the fishing port, and high up, in the sky, scudding clouds over the Irish Sea–Riba can finally see Dublin. He still hasn’t seen the city, despite already having been on the island for some hours.

Even though it’s so far off, he finally sees something of Dublin, sees it from high on these cliffs that rise up from the sea. Flocks of birds float on the water. The fascinating sadness of the place seems accentuated by the sight of these fleets of somnolent birds, in the middle of the day, and it’s as if the void becomes intertwined with the deep sadness, which from time to time finds its voice in the shrieking of a gull. A magnificent landscape, boosted by his enthusiastic state of mind that comes from feeling he’s in a foreign land.

Timidly moved, Riba recalls a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Irish Cliffs of Moher”:

They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,
Above the real,

Rising out of present time and place, above
The wet, green grass.

This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations
Of poetry

And the sea. This is my father or, maybe,
It is as he was,

A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth
And sea and air.

There’s Dublin, slightly hazy in the middle of the bay. A girl goes by with a portable radio playing “This Boy,” by The Beatles. And the song gives him a sudden feeling of nostalgia for the time when he too was close to the “race of fathers.” He’s not young anymore and doesn’t know if he can bear such beauty. He looks at the sea again. He takes a few steps toward the rocks and immediately feels that he ought to stand still, because if he keeps on walking he’ll probably end up staggering along, blinded by tears. It’s a secret emotion, hard to communicate. Because how can he tell the truth and let his friends know he’s fallen in love with the Irish Sea?

This is my country now, he thinks.

Before, when he drank, Riba didn’t distinguish between strong and weak emotions, or between friends and enemies. But his recent lucidity has slowly given him back his capacity for boredom, and also for excitement. And the Irish Sea–over which he now imagines a great mass of gray clouds with silver edges floating–seems to him the most superb incarnation of beauty, the highest expression of that which disappeared from his life for so long and which now–it’s never too late–he has found all at once, as if he were in the middle of a great storm, feeling like a man who senses his life is going downhill, yet is faced with the unmistakable beauty of a gray sea edged with silver, and which he’ll never forget as long as his memory serves him.

Unreasonable Sounds: Coloratura

So this post is likely only of interest to my hard-core opera fan readers. (There are at least two of you I think…Lisa and Andrea. Arnab, I’ll make you an honorary one, god knows I’ve subjected you to enough opera in 30 years of friendship).

Just back from Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a work that lives up to every opera cliché: ridiculous argument, stock characters, and preposterous coincidences. (Just a taste: the heroine’s honor is redeemed because she, while sleepwalking, walks across a bridge by a mill, singing a four-part aria of surpassing difficulty. This proves that she could not have been fooling around with the count while betrothed to another. She just had an untreated parasomnia!) Ach! such problems these people have!

The clichés don’t matter a bit, though, because the music, particularly that final sleepwalking bit, is exquisite. Long-breathed melodies that unfurl and envelope you so seductively that time slows down in waves of golden sound. And we did get some golden sound Sunday afternoon–a little intermittently, it’s true–but the young Cuban soprano Eglise Gutierrez sang Amina, the Sleepwalker, and in the aria “Ah non Credea Mirarti,” was just glorious.

Check her out doing this role in a staged production in Argentina.

Her ability to spin out the “long line” in such a lyrical, smooth way is key to this particularly opera. (Her love interest, the promising young tenor Renè Barbera, did very well in this department too.) Amina also calls for a lot of coloratura, the fast ornate singing, full of high notes, trills, scales, etc. that singers like Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills were famous for. (People like me, who love operatic coloratura, are sometimes called canary fanciers; keeping the “bird” thing going, Jenny Lind, a legendary coloratura was termed “the Swedish Nightingale”). “Ah non Credea” in La Sonnambula is followed by spectacular coloratura bit that closes the opera, which, in truth, Gutierrez wasn’t quite up to. So I did what is often a bad thing when I got home–went you YouTube and searched for the singers who had nailed this bit of musical olypmics with close to a perfect 10.

Here are the links from my searches, for any fellow canary fanciers out there:

(Even if you are not a fan of opera, I think you’ll agree that these are remarkable displays of the flexibility and expressive power of the human voice.)

Roberta Peters

(Both a bit of Bellini’s Puritani and “Ah! non giunge” the Sonnambula finale.)

Perhaps not an excess of taste, but “wow” factor in extremis.

Joan Sutherland

Fearlessness, thy name is Joan.

and my favorite

Amelita Galli-Curci, a golden age singer. Nothing like the modern style, but with a lightness and clarity in the voice that I think time travels back to Bellini’s era.

With her you don’t have to chose between long legato line, hers is magical, seamless spun gold, and the coloratura, which alone, among singers I know, was delivered with a feather-light touch. Yes, the recording is old. It’s worth listening through the scratches.

And the cabeletta:

Had enough? Didn’t think so, it’s probably only you and me here now. And for us, the voice that made me fall in love opera and still makes me hold my breath.

The Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé:

Okay, back to ordinary life now!

Digital Bibliophiles Rejoice!

Both mediums can merge! (Although it’s a wee bit labor intensive).

Fascinating short from a Polish arts academy project. Finally, an e-book format I could get behind.

Elektrobiblioteka / Electrolibrary from waldek wegrzyn on Vimeo.

There’s a manifesto at http://www.eyemagazine.com/blog/post/electro-library-dreams. (Of course, there is.)

Call Me, Moby?

Despite 15 years as a New Englander, I missed the annual reading of Moby Dick at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, but now I have another chance to hear it aloud. The Guardian reports on a broadcast launching tomorrow with a different person reading each of the “subversive, digressive masterpiece.”

Magnificent yet daunting, Moby-Dick stands as one of the great classics of American literature, much admired but – sprawling and intimidating – seldom read. Now an unlikely combination of fans including David Cameron, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry and Simon Callow are set to change that after joining the cast of an ambitious project to record the novel in its entirety.

Part of the Plymouth International Book Festival; not clear how to tune in though.

Musical Words: Stephanie Blythe and Shirley Verrett

Off to hear the great American mezzo Stephanie Blythe tonight. Here she is at the Tucker Gala in 2000 in Carmen. She also sings Irving Berlin and Cole Porter!

If you are in DC and a singing fan, there may still be some tickets left for tonight’s performance at the Kennedy Center.

And because You Tube is the way it is, here’s a scorching version of the same scene with the incomparable Shirley Verrett.

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