Friday, March 27, 2015

George Morrison in Minnesota

George Morrison is well-known for his driftwood landscapes. There's a big one hanging at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  I've walked by it a thousand times, to the point where it strikes me as, well, a little dull.

But there's nothing dull about the retrospective of Morrison's work at the Minnesota History Center. The exhibit takes us from his decision as a student to switch from commercial art to fine art, drawn to the romance of being a serious artist, through years of abstract expressionism in New York and France, then back to Minnesota to teach at a time when Native American Studies was in its infancy as an academic field.

Work from each period draws our attention. An early landscape, realistic in the way that Marsden Hartley's paintings are realistic, gives us an animated impression of hills and fields in the vicinity of Grand Portage, where Morrison grew up.

Paintings and drawings from the time Morrison spent out East betray the influence of Kline and deKooning, though it strikes me that Morrison's abstracted forms from that period also bear a certain likeness to the stolid still-lifes of Giorgio Morandi.

Some of them also harbor elements of 50s kitsch, meaning, I guess, that the forms are pleasantly abstracted, rather than angrily torn or ultra-coolly lifted  from life. I kept thinking, "That looks like the cover of an Ornette Coleman album I used to have."

In the course of the 50s and early 1960s Morrison became fond of intense magentas and thick impasto, though one of my favorites from the period is a delightful mess of yellow and blue smears with a few black highlights. It might have been at this time that he began to make collages out of driftwood gathered on Atlantic beaches.

Though these wood collages have become Morrison's hallmark, I find them a little too smooth, cool, and calculated. The wood isn't really driftwood, so much as it's discarded lumber. Morrison has fitted pieces together ingeniously to establish knots of activity held in place by vertical and (more often) horizontal lines of weathered lumber. Alas, the overall effect is more calculated than natural. I get the impression machines were involved.

Even less interesting, to my eye, are the intricately patterned totems he built out of blocks of wood. The wood itself is polished, the patterns are graph-like, and they remind me more of corporate clientele than of natural spirit.

Late in life Morrison brought various elements from other phases in his career together in some of his best paintings—seascapes in glaring magentas and blues of the sort that haunt Monet's predawn paintings of Rouen Cathedral. But here it's just the horizon and clouds of color interpenetrating, breathing together. Like nature, yes, but the intensity comes from within.

The romance of the serious, genuine artist, seeing what's there and also what isn't there—seeing where things overlap and refuse to fit. Summoning a place, and an atmosphere. Wow.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Poetry for a Spring Evening

There were spring-like overtones in the air last night at sunset, but not enough to keep me away from a reading at the Merriam Park Library of poets who've been published recently by Nodin Press.

The basement meeting room was packed—maybe 75 people— with chairs strategically positioned beyond several doorways. I'd gotten there late and looked ruefully at the last remaining cookie on the plate. (Of course I didn't take it.)

The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, and Alayne Hopkins, director of Friends' programming, buoyantly introduced the poets before each one took a turn at the podium. (Disclosure: I often work with Nodin Press and was involved in the production of all of the books involved in the reading.)

Jill Breckenridge read first, due to the spelling of her last name, and she was a good one to set the mood. She reminded us with a wry look on her face before she'd uttered a single word that poetry can be wise and fun at the same time. Though I can't claim to remember every poem that she (or any of the poets) read, she shared a good three-line poem about aging and a longer one about accidentally attending a party in her black Cuddl Duds.

Norita Dittberner-Jax read next, exploring a slightly more meditative vein. In one poem she described the mood of a different era, when the war in Vietnam was on the news and her children were very young. Before reading a second poem, she said, in a quiet voice, almost to herself: "I've been thinking a lot about trees lately."

Now, if we were at a meeting of the Parks and Trails Council, that remark would be followed by some sort of recommendation for planting trees, or cutting down trees, or caring for trees. Then again, in a psychiatric setting, the remark might lead on to considerations of the proper medical prescription and dosage to get those tree-thoughts under control.  

But in a poetic context, instrumental reason (as the philosophers say) gives way to other modes of thought.

I, for one, knew exactly what Norita was talking about. I think about trees myself—not what to do with them, but about the trees themselves: their presence, their grandeur, their quiet durabilty, the differing character of the mulberry and the beech, and so on.

But if I remember correctly, the poem wasn't about any of that. The speaker was sitting under a tree, at a cafe, listening to snatches of conversation as people passed, appreciating all the snippets that were contributing to a stunning moment ... and praying that no disaster strike to puncture the moment. But the pray was not for herself. It was for the world, and the passing people, and the  trees.

I suddenly had the feeling that I was at Quaker meeting, where all is silence until someone, moved by the "inner light," stands up to speak. The difference, of course, is that the poems being read had been conceived long ago, then polished and improved upon. Yet the spirit in the room was very similar, and no one in the audience, I think, would have had the slightest difficulty accepting the notion of an "inner light."

It's a remarkable thing when people, many of whom don't know each other, get together and share lives.

Michael Kiesow Moore read next. I suspect he uses the middle name to differentiate himself from the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, though after listening to him read, I began to wonder if perhaps the two are related. Both feel compassion for the underdog and express it eloquently. But Michael K. also has other interests in mind. The first poem he read, which might have been called "Stepping Through the Shaman's Door," was a poetic invocation to trust our intuition. He had the crowd laughing uproariously with another poem describing what life would be like if introverts ruled the world.

Carol Rucks made use of her time behind the podium to give us the flavor of growing up in a Roman Catholic family of twelve where the paterfamilias was strict with his children but easy on himself. She made it clear she has lots of vivid memories roaming around inside her head, but has transformed them in ways that shine new light on the enigmas of growing up. (If I could describe it better, I guess I'd be a poet myself.)

To the bubbly Dara Syrkin was given the challenge of reading a representative sampling of poems from the forthcoming Nodin Poetry Anthology.  The poems were interesting, though at this remove I can only remember two. One related a dream in which the speaker assumes the personae of all the characters in The Wizard of Oz by turns. The line I remember is "I'm always too quick to trust the loudest voice."

I also enjoyed Dara's own whimsical poem about dating gladiators, then deciding to get a chariot for herself.

The last poet on the program, Greg Watson, was fighting a cough, but we wouldn't have known if he hadn't apologized for the cough drop in his mouth. He read one poem ostensibly found in the sleeve of an old 78—I remember the image of the vinyl discs dropping down the spindle, from the poem, and also from life. Another poem had the evocative title, "Let This Wine be the Night." Greg's images often morph in unusual ways without dispelling the mood or losing the thread. He can be describing something romantic and evidently concrete—and then it's not.

The entire evening was going that way for me, but in reverse. I'd been taken in quite a few directions— stimulated, delighted, anguished, or enthralled—and now I was back home in the library in the midst of a room full of thoughtful people.

Publisher Norton Stillman made a little speech before the event broke up, expressing how much he values the personal friendship of the authors he works with. I've worked with Norton for years and I have seen that this is true.

I enjoyed saying hi to Carol Connolly and Ted Bowman. My old buddy Don Ladig (no slouch as a poet himself) was there; his knee is healing nicely. And I chatted at length with poet Kate Dayton and her husband Joe about the Northern Lights, the flowers in the desert south of Palm Springs, and other important stuff. 

As people were leaving and chairs were being put back in the closet after the event, I butted cordially into a conversation between Michael Moore and Linda White. It occurred to me only later that I was exhibiting all the hallmarks of those extroverts that Michael has grown more than a little tired of over the years.

But based on the humor and insight conveyed by his poems, I'm pretty sure he's already forgiven me. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Knausgaard Comes to Minnesota

Travel writing tends to be a litany of clich├ęs and misapprehensions, but if the prose is sprightly and the impressions are fresh and vividly rendered, no genre is more fun to dip into. In any case, if we haven't spent much time in the places involved, we hardly notice the lack of depth and social insight. What's being described seems a lot like what we'd probably see if we were there.

Some travel writers know the regions they're describing well, of course. Lined up on my conceptual bookshelf of personal favorites are Michael Jacobs' books about Provence and Andalusia, H. V. Morton's classic descriptions of Italy and Spain, Lawrence Durrell's book about the Greek islands, and Norman Lewis's books about the Costa Brava and India.

Recent classics that leap to mind are Adam Gopnick's Paris to the Moon, Ian Frazier's Great Plains, Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons, Tom Piazza's Why New Orleans Matters, and Robert Sullivan's Cross Country.

When foreigners come this-a-way to offer their analyses of American life, things get a little dicier. Everyone quotes the nineteenth-century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, and with good reason. Many have followed in his footsteps, Bernard Henry-Levy being among the most recent I can recall.

But modern-day visitors from abroad tend to search out the freak shows and truck stops, ghettos and reservations, Portlandias and Peorias. I guess that's where the stories are. But is that "America"?

On a Greek ferry heading to Santorini I once struck up a conversation with a young Swiss couple who'd been traveling the world.

"Are the small towns of America genuinely interesting?" the man asked me, with a good-natured but doubtful look on his face.

I thought for a moment before replying, "Not really."

Hey? What about Oxford, Mississippi? Taos, New Mexico? Point Reyes Station, California? Thermopolis, Wyoming? Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Price, Utah? Bayfield, Wisconsin? Bardstown, Kentucky? Stonington, Maine? Ste. Genevieve, Missouri? Durango, Colorado?

Yeah, well, you've got a lot of driving ahead of you.

*   *   *

The New York Times recently commissioned Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard to take a driving trip from l'anse aux meadows in Newfoundland to Alexandria, Minnesota (the home of the Kensington Runestone) and write about the experience. It must have been a spur-of-the-moment commission, because Knausgaard didn't have time to do the slightest bit of research. In fact, he didn't even have time to renew his driver's license. I wouldn't have expected the rugged, chain-smoking Norwegian to make excuses, but he blames it all on a stressful Christmas.

As a travel piece, Knausgaard's account is worth little. He knows nothing and he sees nothing. His only connections to America seem to be musical—the blues and Kid Rock. He's read the Icelandic sagas but even when staring at archaeological remains of the Vikings' presence in North America he can't shake the notion that the tales are literary fabrications.

Knausgaard did go to the trouble to look up the Kensington Runestone, allegedly left by Vikings in what is now western Minnesota back in the fourteenth century. But it's evident he didn't read much of the Wikipedia entry he consulted. He seems to think they arrived in the Red River Valley by way of Cleveland.

" If the Vikings really had left their settlements up in Newfoundland and explored the continent by following the rivers and lakes westward, as the Kensington Runestone’s presence in Minnesota suggested, it was in a world completely different from the one we drove through. [Really? No shopping malls in fourteenth-century America?] I tried to imagine it, tuning out the sounds of the highway, the speed of the car, the concrete and the steel, but the place I then envisioned, a landscape untouched by man, was far too romantic to be true."   

Though Knausgaard is shy and doesn't like talking to strangers (not a good trait for a travel writer, I'm afraid) he finally connects with a long-lost cousin in North Dakota. From there it's a short jaunt down the freeway to Alexandria and the runestone museum.

He feels nothing in the presence of the stone itself, though he delivers the best line in the 20,000-word essay in response to it.

"I walked around it a few times, noticing that the inscription ran on, around one side. The runic inscriptions I had seen earlier, back home, were all short and pithy, whereas this was practically a novella."

But his response to the museum is entirely different.

The striking thing was how modest it all was, how insignificant the objects that were meant to represent the country’s entire momentous history turned out to be. How clumsily the paintings illustrating the various epochs were made. How awkward the overarching Viking theme was, from the winged helmet of the giant statue outside that beckoned to visitors, to the attempts to substantiate the theory that the Vikings actually came here, before any other Europeans, in the 14th century.
Yes, there was something homespun and makeshift and, frankly, childish about the whole thing.
And I loved it.
Knausgaard loved the museum because it cut America down to size. Though it was promoting a myth, it was a little one, and not the grand myth of America's exceptionalism. And it was promoting that little myth with domestic artifacts hardly different from the ones Knausgaard grew up amid.
It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about [America's] grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history.
Knausgaard had blundered on across America, taking baby steps and smoking cigarettes and looking out the window of a car he was reluctant to drive—because it had an automatic transmission! His observations are too often self-referential and almost invariably banal, but an element of defiant honesty somehow saves him in the end.

Last on his list of trifles that make up the life we live is "an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this."

*   *   *

Though I'm hardly an expert on Scandinavian-America travelogues, a few titles I've found illuminating over the years are On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America, by Don Lago; Knut Hamsun Remembers America: Essay and Stories; and The Unknown Swedes: a Book About Swedes and America, Past and Present by Vilhelm Moberg. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Apostle Island Ice Caves

Yes, we were among the 11,300 people who made their way out to the Apostle Islands caves last Saturday—but it isn't like you think.

It happened like this. One morning I saw a photo online somewhere of the blue ice that's been building up along the North Shore. I hadn't seen such a thing since the mid-70s, when two friends and I spent a few winter days in the vicinity of Grand Marais. It was an awesome, unearthly, unforgettable sight.
Hil and I hadn't been on a weekend getaway in several weeks, and I said, "Let's go see the blue ice on Lake Superior!"

Hilary said, "Maybe we can book the 'residence" in Bayfield?"

That wasn't the direction I was thinking about but it sounded like a good idea. It's one of our favorite spots—an entire house, with sauna, overlooking Chequamegon Bay and Madeleine Island.

I called Mike, the Seagull Motel proprietor. The "residence" was booked but he had a room with kitchen and similar view for $70 a night.

"And what's your cancellation policy again?"  I asked.

"If you wake up that morning and don't fell like coming, just call me," he said. "I'll have it booked again in half an hour."

Only later did I see a few posts about the ice caves. I wasn't sure how the crowds would fit into our quiet weekend getaway, and I was vaguely relieved when they closed the caves due to high winds on March 3.

They opened again a few days later.  To go, or not to go?

We got a late start Friday morning, took the freeway north to Duluth and across the harbor on the Bong Bridge. As we puttered through the stoplights in Superior I tried to assemble the scattered brick architectural relics we passed into a pleasing whole, and also to remember where the accordion museum was located.

A half hour down Highway 2 we stopped at the After Hours Ski Trails in Brule and skied a few loops before continuing to Bayfield. It was sunny, the temperature was 31 degrees. Parts of the trail took us through long stretches of poplar, maybe thirty years old. One of the trails closer to the Brule River was lined with mature white pines. Magnificent.

The next morning, tired of over-thinking the issue of crowds and spectacles, we headed north through the Red Cliff reservation and arrived at Mawikwe Road at 7:10. By that time there were perhaps twenty cars lined up alongside the highway. We pulled over and took our place at the end of the line.

It was a 1.4 mile walk down the road to the lake, and I began to wonder if it might have been a better idea to continue on to Meyers Beach Road. But who could say how many cars were already parked there? Mawikwe Road made for a pleasant stroll through the woods and fields, downhill all the way, and the minute we stepped out onto the ice I was glad we'd come.

Snow-covered ice stretched off to the horizon. Small groups of people were passing by further out on the lake, heading to the caves from the Meyers Beach parking lot.

"The caves start right over there," someone said, pointing to reddish cliffs we could see maybe a half-mile to the east.

The sky was clear, the cliffs were in shadow, and the sunlight was streaking across the treetops, sending blue shadows hundreds of feet out across the snowy lake. A week earlier the ice had been bare and park officials were recommending ice cleats or crampons, but it had snowed since then and walking was easy. We'd brought along our ski poles but didn't need them.

The expansiveness of the sky and lake was exhilarating. Blue sky and white snow as far as the eye could see, with Eagle Island floating like an island of greenery in the distance, maybe two miles away and a mile off shore.

If I never make a trip to the arctic, a few half-hour treks like this will have to do.

There wasn't much congestion, except at the entrance to one or two of the caves. In fact, the people added to the fun. I heard one group of young men discussing when they needed to turn around and head home. I don't know where they came in from, but it was four hours away.

Another couple found it impossible to secure a reservation within a hundred miles and ended up driving up from home. They left at 2 a.m.

As for the caves themselves? I wouldn't say they were beautiful. For the most part, the ice was oozing out the sides of the cliffs in grotesque patterns, ribbons, and shapes. The red rock was beautiful, the trees above the face of the cliffs were gorgeous, and the entire ensemble—trees, stone, ice, snow, sky—was sublime. But considered in themselves, the "ice caves" were less than dazzling.

By 10 a.m. we were sitting in Ehrens General Store in Cornucopia eating hot chili out of cardboard cups. On the way back to Bayfield I measured the line of cars parked along the road by Meyers Beach. It was four miles from one end to the other.

That afternoon we drove out across the ice bridge to Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island, where we found one car in the parking lot and open water as far as the eye could see. During our hike along the cliffs through the hemlocks we came upon some of that famous blue ice that had drawn us north in the first place. Ecstasy once again.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Wasted Day

There are days when the time slips by, events take place, this and that, the sun is out and little things get done at random.

Like Saturday, which started for me at dawn on the ski trails at Wirth Park. I'd retrieved my skis from Hoigaard's on Friday afternoon, having brought them in the get the tail-tips reglued. The ski expert took a look at the skis, held them together, noted the fading camber, and said, "Are these still working for you?"

"I just keep shuffling along," I replied.

Which is true. If he saw me in my choppers and felt balaclava, with the pattern of the cotton fishnet long underwear showing through my jeans, he'd understand, and be reminded that having a good kick and glide is of secondary importance. The main thing is getting out on the trails on a regular basis.

Not that I'm a Luddite. When my leather ski boots (right) finally lost a lacing hook, I took the plunge and ordered a new pair of boots from Rossignol (left) and they're fantastic. Felt insoles, no-lace boots, Velcro strap. But in general I endorse the remark Henry David Thoreau once made: You should never take up a sport that requires a new set of clothes. In other words, don't worry about the equipment.

But back to the skiing. That morning I skipped the backwoods trail at Wirth, where the drifted natural snow wasn't deep enough to be groomed and looked pretty icy. I stuck to the loops that have artificial snow a foot deep and, as usual, were groomed before I got there at 7:45.

Back home, I ate a hard-boiled egg sandwich and worked for a bit on the layout of the spring newsletter for nearby Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. That was refreshing. While I was at it, I put a CD called Piano Circus onto the stereo. It was perfect for the morning: a collection of  minimalist neoclassical twenty-first-century compositions for five pianos by various young composers. I'd gotten the recording at the library for a dollar, and I started wondering what might be waiting for me at the library de-acquisition shop at that moment!? Otherwise put, I felt like getting out of the house.

An hour later I was back with a bag of eight CDs: the Cantatas of J.S. Bach, volumes 34, 48, 51, 28, 33, 63, 59, and 39. I already own volume 32 in the same series.

You may point out that if you've heard one cantata, you've heard them all.

I guess I''ll find out.

I also snagged The New American Cookbook by Joan Nathan (whom I've never heard of) and a book called Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend.

Checking my emails, I discovered that the results had arrived from the DNA sample I'd sent in on a whim to months ago. There weren't any tremendous anomalies, I'm afraid. Not a drop of Native American, Jewish, Neanderthal, or Japanese blood anywhere amid my 700,000 genetic units.

According to the report, I'm 55% Scandinavian, which isn't surprising considering my dad's parents came from Sweden. I'm 17% Irish, which goes with my mother's McIlvenna heritage. Great Britain accounts for 8%—shooting back into the past through my crazy maternal great-grandmother Galligan, I suppose. Then we have 14% Western European (i.e. German and French, which are indistinguishable genetically), 3% Iberian, 2% from the Caucasus (which explains why I loved the film Jason and the Argonauts), and 1% Finland/ N.W. Russia.

Taking a closer look at the vague regions outlined on the website maps accompanying the data, I noted that my "Iberian" genes could well be from Perigord, and my 5% excess of Scandinavian genes might have come from Scotland. (The name McIlvenna ultimately derives from the Scottish clan Macbeth.)

I next set to work for a few hours on the layout and cover for a book of nature poems. Haiku, in fact. I called a handyman as a first step toward fixing our kitchen cabinets, which appear to be falling off the wall.

Nothing interesting came in the mail, but UPS delivered a package at mid-afternoon inside of which were Hilary's binoculars. We'd sent them to the Nikon factory in Los Angeles weeks ago to get an eyepiece repaired. (Lifetime warranty.) When I glanced at the return address on Wilshire Boulevard, I felt warmer.

The afternoon sun was streaming into the back part of the house by that time, and it occurred to me that it was time to log off and start cleaning up the kitchen, which begins to look pretty crummy at this time of day.

There was no need to cook anything. I'd made a poor man's cassoulet the previous day with leeks, chicken, bacon, carrots, yellow squash, and three kinds of beans. I added some powdered ancho chili, cayenne, cumin, and dried thyme in lieu of the chili paste mentioned in the recipe.

When Hilary got home from work we ate.

After dinner we "dressed up"—good shoes, sport coat ... but no tie—and headed downtown to take in one of the GREAT compositions of all time, Verdi's Requiem. We arrived early enough to listen in as the conductor, Roberto Abbado, was interviewed in Orchestra Hall's new Atrium. This beautiful space has a high ceiling and glass walls looking out across Peavey Plaza toward Nicollet Mall. Buses pass in the dark, the lights of Caribou Coffee beam in the distance, and you know that people are enjoying a fine dinner at Vincent or Brit's Pub not far from where you stand.

I found Abbado's comments on the current opera scene especially interesting. The gist of it was: we don't have the great opera singers we once did. There are still great singers, but the field is much thinner. He thought it was worth pointing out that Jonas Kaufman, a German, was recruited to sing the tenor role in a recent opera production in Rome. "Kaufman is great, yes, but thirty years ago that would not have happened."

We ran into a former client of mine on the way down the aisle before the performance and he told us a few jokes in his unmistakable Hungarian accent before we found our seats.  
As for the music itself, I couldn't begin to describe its force or beauty. Others have. (Read a fine description of it here.) I have no idea which section is the "Dies Irae" and which is the "Tuba Mirum." But I do know that the cavalcade of musical thrills is virtually nonstop.

We were sitting in the seventh row and had a very good look at the four solo vocalists. I've heard the piece live several times before but had forgotten how consistently involved these soloists are in the ninety-minute tour de force, singing solos, duets, and trios right and left—unlike Brahms' German Requiem, in which the solos figure less prominently.