Commonplace Book: Poetry of B.H. Fairchild

A poet who grew up around the shop floor and the classics reflects on craft, and lessons from his father.

by B. H. Fairchild

Gesang ist Dasein

A small thing done well, the steel bit paring
the cut end of the collar, lifting delicate
blue spirals of iron slowly out of lamplight

into darkness until they broke and fell
into a pool of oil and water below.
A small thing done well, my father said

so often that I tired of hearing it and lost
myself in the shop’s north end, an underworld
of welders who wore black masks and stared

through smoked glass where all was midnight
except the purest spark, the blue-white arc
of the clamp and rod. Hammers made dull tunes

hacking slag, and acetylene flames cast shadows
of men against the tin roof like great birds
trapped in diminishing circles of light.

Each day was like another. I stood beside him
and watched the lathe spin on, coils of iron
climbing into dusk, the file’s drone, the rasp,

and finally the honing cloth with its small song
of things done well that I would carry into sleep
and dreams of men with wings of fire and steel.

Bert Fairchild, 1906-1990

Gesang ist Dasein, singing is being, is the title of a poem by Rilke, glossed a while back by Robert Hass in his Poet’s Choice column.


Albuquerque, New Mexico. Machinist George Mainz, working at an axle lathe in the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad shops, from the Library of Congress Digital Collections

A Couple of Warren Buffett Tidbits

Warren Buffett is of course a subject of (perhaps unhealthy) interest from many people. Two interesting tidbits I have encountered in reading.

Things that mattered: he started early, and let compounding compound.  From a blog post by  Morgan Housel

“What if Buffett got serious about investing when he was age 22 – just out of college – instead of age 10? Imagine he spends his 20s learning about investments, and his net worth at age 30 was in the still-impressive 90th percentile. Using today’s net worth percentiles and adjusting them for 1960s-era inflation, that would mean he’d be worth about $24,000 at age 30.

Now we can do some fun calculations.

If, at age 30, Buffett was worth $24,000 instead of the $1 million he actually accumulated, and went on to earn the same returns, how much would he be worth today?

$1.9 billion.”  [Instead of 81 billion]

Later in the same piece,

“But there are times when you have to relentlessly leave something that looks small alone so it has a chance of compounding into something big. Charlie Munger explained: “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”

The whole thing is worth reading. On the starting early, I blogged about this before.

The other point comes from the FT writer John Kay (great stylist and incisive about the woes and wonders of finance).  He points out that had Buffett invested through a managed fund (instead of investing for himself), the typical 2 and 20 fees would mean that Buffett’s personal fortune would today be 5 billion, with the fund that managed his money getting the rest.  (Kay was doing this calculation a few years back when Buffett was at a mere 50 millions: fees would take 90% of his money!).

So take aways: start early, let compounding compound, and minimize fees!

Commonplace Book: Uncle Rudolf

Enjoying Paul Bailey’s “Uncle Rudolf,” set in the early 20th century, and focused on a celebrated Romanian tenor who aspired to Mozart and Verdi, but ended up singing operetta to international acclaim, but increasing disgust. Late in the novel, the narrator, the tenor’s nephew, relates,

“I came to understand, in the years of Uncle Rudolf’s continuing musical re-education, the nature of the distaste he felt for the culture in which operetta had flourished. He had been party to a despicable frivolousness, he said. The gypsies he’d impersonated weren’t real, because they all turned out to be kings or princes or barons, and what were the brigands he’d played but a bunch of rabid nationalists, crude beasts forever casting roguish glances at love-sick lunatic maidens? In the streets of Vienna, Bucharest, and Budapest, a black operetta was being enacted daily while he was behind the footlights singing of a liberty and freedom indistinguishable from tyranny. He had betrayed not only Jean de Reszke and Georges Enesco, but his own best instincts as well. He had sung the kind of music that was enjoyed by those who brought about Europe’s destruction. Such was his conviction in old age , which I refrained from arguing against.

Earlier, in the book, Andrei, the nephew, hears Handel for the first time. His uncle performs at a Christmas party that Andrei is present at as a child:

It is the not-so-famous pianist I remember best, simply because he was my uncle’s regular accompanist. His name was Ivan but he wasn’t Russian. Uncle Rudolph called him Ivan he Terrible whenever he hit a wrong note or was out of time. The prima donna refused to sing that first Christmas and the cabaret artist was so drunk that he forgot his words, to everyone’s amusement, and so it was that my uncle, who was not sober, beckoned Ivan Morris over to the piano.

–You must forget Danilo, and the Gypsy Baron, and the Vagabond King, and that bloody idiot of a brigand Zoltan, and all of the other halfwits in my repertoire.

My uncle cleared his throat, signalling to Ivan that he was ready to begin, and then sang the aria from Handel’s Jeptha in which the anguished father offers up his only child for sacrifice:

Waft her, angels, through the skies,
Far above yon azure plain;
Glorious there, like you, to rise,
There, like you, for ever reign.

I was unaware of Jephta’s plight and I had never heard Handel’s music before, but I did understand , at the age of seven, that I had just listened to something radiantly beautiful.

Commonplace Book: Wacky Weddings

Trying–yet again–to get the blog re-energized. For now just going to use it as a commonplace book, and this Sunday’s NYTimes was full of great stuff. Perhaps none better than this wedding story, which has the best lede I’ve read in a while:

Not your average wedding venue…

“A man born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Toronto and schooled at a Yeshiva and a Japanese-American man raised on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, were married in the rare books section of the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village before a crowd of 200 people, against a backdrop of an arch of gold balloons that were connected to each other like intertwined units of a necklace chain or the link emoji, in a ceremony led by a Buddhist that included an operatic performance by one friend, the reading of an original poem based on the tweets of Yoko Ono by another, and a lip-synced rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” by a drag queen dressed in a white fringe jumper and a long veil.

The grooms met on the internet. But this isn’t a story about people who swiped right.”

The copyeditor did right by the headline too:
Of All the Blogs in the World, He Walks Into Mine




Commonplace Book: NYTimes Book Review Tidbits

Actually had time & inclination to read most of the NYTimes Sunday Book Review today. (Editing standards have gotten a tad rickety there of late, but this issue was enjoyable.)

Three quotes to share:
From a review of a new bio of socialite and Bunny Mellon by Meryl Gordon comes this tidbit,

“I don’t really come here to pray,” Mellon once told the rector of an Episcopal church in the Norman medieval style that she financed and help designed. “I come in to talk with God because he’s a dear, dear friend of mine.”

Second, a Q&A wherein it is revealed that the real Roz Chast is just like the characters she draws. Q: “What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?  A: …Right now I’m listening to “The Old Curiosity Shop.” Listening to a book while working on a craft project, like hooking a rug or embroidering, is my idea of a really good time.”

That it sounds good to me too (minus the crafty part) is perhaps TMI.

Finally from John Williams’ column, pegged to podcasts and a book by Marc Maron of WTF fame:

“Talking about his own tumultuous relationship with his dad, Bruce Springsteen told Maron: ‘People don’t end up in my circumstance who generally had these very placid, loving, very happy fulfilled lives. It’s not how you become a rock-and-roll star.”

Commonplace Book: Dinu Lipatti’s last concert

Today, an excerpt From Paul Bailey’s quiet, moving and beautifully controlled novel Uncle Rudolf. The narrator recollects being taken to a life-changing concert the pianist Dinu Lipatti. (The uncle in question, a fellow Romanian, is a successful tenor in light music, and rueful for an operatic career that never quite arrived.)


It was no spectre who began to play Bach’s First Partita. The apparition became on the instant radiantly animated. Were we aware of the perseverance, and superhuman fortitude, that propelled him that September afternoon? If we were, that would have been our sentimental illusion, since his undoubted fortitude was kept hidden by the pianist behind a necessary mask of civility. It was afterwards – after we had listened in coughless silence to the Mozart Sonata in A minor, two Schubert sonatas and a captivating string of Chopin waltzes – that we realized what an Olympian event we had been privileged to attend. We had not been watching a showman display his skills, nothing so predictable or commonplace. Lipatti was above display and superficial cleverness. He had played for us exactly what the composers had intended us to hear.

Uncle Rudolf was too moved to speak, and so was I. In the years to come, he would often refer to the miracle that had taken place in Besançon, for Lipatti never performed again in public, and died on the second of December that same year.

Lipatti is, at least to music lovers of a certain age, a cult figure of the piano–a transcendent talent, who died young, and left recordings that like Callas’s are instantly recognizable, The word NYTimes critic Harold Schonberg used to sum up his playing was virility, but an aristocratic virility, not brawn rather a strength in reserve inbued with sovereign elegance.

Uncle Rudolf and his nephew are not wrong…and Paul Bailey has written an unusual thing, a novel about a life in music that has a sotto voce ring of truth. (Perhaps because it is shot through with regret…)

Commonplace Books

A couple of nice bits encountered in recent reading: First the poet August Kleinzahler in a piece on poet Michael O’Brien.

“But [George] Oppen taught O’Brien a great deal, lessons he took to heart. Later, he described what he had learned:

A kind of plain-spokenness about inner things. Not to simplify. To know as precisely as you could just how complicated things are, and not to make them either more or less so.

Patience. That there are things you can’t rush.

‘Paradise of the real’. That it was here, if anywhere … How resonant that word ‘real’, was for Oppen, for Duncan, for Jack Spicer.

That there was no part of one’s life that couldn’t be part of one’s poem.

Clarity. That clarity was possible.

That you could employ prose or verse as needed.

That writing poems was a serious business. Not that you had to be a bloody owl, but that it mattered.”

And a quote from a piece on libraries in the Sunday NYTimes (the essay is by Manesh Rao here quoting Sophie Mayer).

“[The library is] the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space,” because there “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge — the book.”

The first library I remember going to, The Chicago Public Library (now a historical society) On Michigan Avenue.
The first library I remember going to, The Chicago Public Library (now a historical society) On Michigan Avenue.

And finally encountered this lovely piece ending a recital recently. Ivor Gurney’s “Sleep” (here sung by Bryn Terfel).

October Musings

Although the days have been uncharacteristically summery, we’ve finally had an October shower followed by an uncertain sky, which evokes a few lines of Basho I love.


It was early in October when the sky was terribly uncertain that I decided to set out on a journey. I could not help feeling vague misgivings about the future of my journey, as I watched the fallen leaves of autumn being carried away by the wind.

From this day forth
I shall be called a wanderer,
Leaving on a journey
Thus among the early showers.

You will again sleep night after night
Nestled among the flowers of sasanqua.

And some seasonal mums from Dumbarton Oaks. dsc_0063

Commonplace Book: Rabih Alameddine’s “An Unnecessary Woman”

Tipped by a NYPL blog entry on world literature, I’m engrossed in An an-unncessary-womanUnnecessary Woman, a novel in the first-person about a reclusive reader and translator, Aaliya, holed away in an old apartment building in Beirut who starts out every Jan 1 on her new translation project. Something, when complete, she just shoves in a box and stores.

The novel is a love letter to reading and listening: full of references to books, writers, composers and musicians whose works make up Aaliya’s real world.  In this passage, she has just put on an LP of Bruckner’s Third Symphony:

Here’s a charming tale about Bruckner that I love, though I believe it

Anton Bruckner
Anton Bruckner

must be apocryphal. When he conducted the premier of this same third symphony, the audience abhorred it. Personally, I can’t imagine why. Not only is it beautiful, but if it has a flaw, it may be that it’s a little melodramatic and kitschy, two attributes that audiences tend to love. But who can account for tastes? The audience booed violently and stormed out of the hall. I imagine the composer looking back in abject sorrow at the honeycomb of heads in the theater before exiting and locking himself in the conductor’s room, alone as he would always be. Forlorn and forsaken. Bruckner remained by himself until everyone had left the building, at which point he returned to the pit for a last farewell. He saw a young man still sitting in his seat, a young composer so overcome that he’d been unable to move a muscle since the symphony began, not a twitch. The young Mahler had been cemented in his seat for more than two hours, weeping.

I am not a young Mahler. Today the music doesn’t move me, and I do not find it soothing.

Wave after wave of anxiety batters the sandy beaches of my nerves. Oh, that’s a bad metaphor if there ever was one. Just horrible.

Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working.

Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote—dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps.

I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I though I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant—I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant—but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.

I could have been a midget.

All our dreams of glory are but manure in the end.

I used to imagine that one day a writer would show up at my door, someone whose book I had translated, maybe the wonderful Danilo Kiš (The Encyclopedia of the Dead), before he died, of course. He the giant, me the speck with midget dreams, but he would come to thank me for caring about his work, or maybe Marguerite Yourcenar would knock on my door. I haven’t translated her, of course, because she writes in French. And what French. In 1981 she was the first woman inducted into L’Académie française because of her impeccable language. She would appear to encourage me, to show solidarity, us against the world. I, like you, isolated myself. You in this apartment in this lovely but bitter city of Beirut, I on an island off the coast of Maine. You’re a forsaken, penniless translator who’s able to remain in your home by the grace of your landlord, Fadia, while I am an incredible writer whose girlfriend, heir to the Frick fortune, owns the entire island. I am respected by the world while you are mocked by it. Yet we have much in common.

 I had dreams. …




%d bloggers like this: