Glanum? Ambrussum? Vaison-la-Romaine? Somewhere in Provence, in any case. RT has a distant but distinct memory of seeing an ancient Greek city while on vacation back in the mid-1970s. The site was small and gorgeous, oval-shaped ruins of marble sited among pine trees, not far from the sea. What made the experience especially memorable was the guide’s report of the city’s population, as high as one or two thousand people, if RT recalls correctly. And all of them sheltered in a space about half the size of a football field.
Now, RT, car-less as he often has been in his life, is doing a great deal of walking these days. It takes him about 45 minutes to walk into town by the legal but indirect route. He is actually fairly lucky, since a bike path constitutes part of the trek. At least on this section, he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car. Still, there is something distinctly humbling about walking along the path, which lacks shade trees, park benches, and water fountains, while cars zoom past on the other side of the grass border. His almost daily excursions make him wonder what life would be like if we still lived in pre-industrial communities. Or, to put it another way, could we get rid of cars?
Here are some facts: ancient Rome at its height (population 1 million) occupied about 5 and ½ sq. miles; Manhattan could hold six cities that size. Nearly all Romans lived in concrete and brick apartment buildings (called insulae), some of them nine stories high; apartments of 1,000 sq. ft. (about the size of a modern 1-bedroom apartment) housed families of five or six people. Most of these apartments offered running water. Romans went to great lengths (pardon the pun) via their aqueducts to ensure water quality—and their diet in many ways appears superior to ours. Those who survived into their teens (infant and child mortality were very high), often lived to be 60.
So far, things sound pretty good. Now back to walking: horses were expensive, and carriages for the rich. Though vehicles could be hired for transport (some featuring primitive odometers), nearly everyone walked everywhere.
RT will let readers draw their own conclusions. What remains with him is the memory of a beautiful city in Provence, built to human scale; human-powered; and healthy, communal, and intimate in a way hard to imagine in our own lives. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk to the store.
Status Update: RT’s mom is doing fairly well as she continues to struggle with lung disease. Living in a nursing home is always difficult, but his mom has more or a less adjusted to the challenges. During his most recent visit with her, she told him, “Write another book!”
RT is of course struggling with his own issues as the drama of his mother’s health plays out. Recently, he was looking over the Wikipedia entry on the five stages of grief and was struck by how much they resemble the emotions we experience as we fall in love. RT has been vouchsafed few moments of insight over the last several months, so he felt he should share his flash in the pan:
The Five Stages of Falling in Love
Denial: “Are you kidding me? I’m not in love with them! I don’t know their name. We’ve never met. They’re not even a blip on the radar.”
Anger: “Who are you? How can you tell me we’re in love? I don’t like anything about you. In fact, I can’t stand the way you look, the way you smell, your personal habits. Go away! Get out!”
Bargaining: “I know we shouldn’t have kissed. It’s my fault. I smiled and made small talk and then, well, we got romantic for a moment. Look, the whole thing is a mistake, so let’s forget about it. We’ll wipe the slate clean and start over as friends.”
Depression: “Oh my god, we just slept together. We’re really in love. We can’t get out of it. We’re stuck!”
Acceptance: “OK, so we’re in love. Now what do we do?”
Love is like gravity; it is universal and its action continuous. People are always falling in love. There’s no way to stop it. When I recently shared my insight with a friend, they suggested that it applies only to inappropriate relationships. But all love relationships are inappropriate at some level. Nobody is ever really prepared for love or its consequences. At the same time, love is the force that makes us get out of bed in the morning. But now RT is waxing philosophical…
Photo: Tala Birell-Edmund Lowe in Let’s Fall in Love. Publicity still, 1933. WikiCmns; Dr. Macro. Public Domain.
RT doesn’t talk much about the four years he spent in Paris as a teenager. It’s kind of like talking about what it’s like being a poet; you know you’re damn lucky to be one and that any mention of it brings out a surreptitious feeling in your interlocutor, “My life isn’t as rich as that!” Unless of course he or she happens to be a poet–and has admitted it to themselves. And the resentment that talking about Paris or poetry stirs up in people who have never had close encounters with either makes it very hard to describe the equivocal position of us makers (or makaris, as the Scots call us): we are in exile from the Great City as we are in exile from the deepest source of ourselves, the beauty in our voices. The sense of beauty is always with us, but it is not easy to actually go back to the places we acquired it and re-experience it directly.
Or maybe this is just a complicated way of saying none of us can go back to our youths.
Anyway, our sleepy poet has had yet another YouTube epiphany, this one just a few minutes ago as he listened to Joni Mitchell‘s “Edith and the Kingpin” from her amazing and difficult 1975 album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. God, this thing is gorgeous!
The song summoned feelings that RT usually leaves where he felt them forty or so years ago, memories of the intense beauty of Paris and the various thunderbolts of panic thrown at him by the muses as they awakened him to the transparency and mystery of the world. RT had a rather dramatic time in the City of Lights, but one that he kept to himself (and for some years after).
Or maybe this is just a roundabout reminder that poetry and Paris aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. What, after all, is wrong with being a commodities trader in Chicago, a teacher in Arizona, or a secretary in Boston? Lives like these are full of possibilities that creative folk in general don’t participate in.
RT knows that in fact his first encounters with poetry took place before his family’s posting in France, but not with the kind of urgency that neatly separates a teenager from the prospects of a normal life. Sorry, but you’re too busy struggling with your inner voice to be bothered with keeping a schedule…
And then there were encounters with the voice and images of Joni Mitchell to remind RT of what transcendent reality might look like. And come to think of it, it was in Paris that RT first acquired an interest in things ancient and Middle Eastern (not least from JM’s album Hejira). RT confesses himself plain puzzled by the relative obscurity that JM has slipped into, but trusts that genius will out and receive its due, even if the process takes a few more decades.
All of this is by way of introduction to one of RT’s recent poetic efforts and a link to Edith and the Kingpin. Here is the poem:
star plunges down the sky:
the impact shrivels a hill,
leaves the glowing nugget
to cool in a dusty, windy
and they come dancing,
singing for the rain, the
bolts that burst upon them:
thorny canes, fierce blossoms.
they cut a blade, free an axe
from the hard starfall,
shape lesser stone for walls
the waters are rising
& they people the cube
with Betelgeuese, Deneb,
Fomalhaut: seal the door.
they will make landfall.
Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree
&, with thanks to JM for the inspiration, here is “Edith and the Kingpin”
* * *
a wonderful essay on working with older folks… RT
(reposted from Melonie’s Poetic Life)
RT will confess, right at the get-go, that he doesn’t know much about Southern art. For reasons he’s never bothered to figure out, his art education has focused on the achievements of New York City’s art culture. NYC, art capital of the nation? Well, certainly by volume of output, anyway.
Part of the problem, now that he thinks about it, is that the type of art produced in the United States varies (along with so much else) by geographic location: artists in the north have tended to produce minimalist and conceptual work; artists in the south, representational work. And of course there are plenty of exceptions to what might be called RT’s 12:03 am Rule. But RT’s limited impression tells him that a certain longing for old-fashioned sensuousness and bright colors characterizes the work of those who feel the influence of the Gulf of Mexico’s tropical waters.
For instance, meet George E. Ohr–the self-styled “mad potter of Biloxi.” Harbinger of avant-garde sculpture, seeker of new and more ravishing glazes, superb technician (he seems to have been all three), Ohr (1857-1918) was indisputably one of the most creative souls America has produced so far. His pottery broke with the prevailing standards of the time by experimenting with form in a way that had never been attempted before. Fun is certainly one of Ohr’s themes. But his spontaneity and sheer joy in experimentation is tempered by technical skill and finesse–attempts to recreate his glazes have not met with success. And you have to admire Ohr’s brio; by the standards of his time, the crushed and oddly shaped ceramic objects he produced went way beyond “flaky.” The mad potter was pursuing a new kind of beauty, even (getting mathematical per RT’s recent post), exploring space.
Here’s another southern artist to take seriously: Walter Anderson (1903-1965), a multi-talented individual who lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Anderson was a writer, painter, and naturalist who studied at the NY School of Fine and Applied Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before working as a designer at the family pottery, Shearwater Pottery, Anderson executed several large-scale works during the 1930s before suffering a nervous breakdown in 1938 followed by psychotic episodes. Whether this was caused by malaria and undulant fever or an underlying psychiatric condition has never been determined. Despite his hospitalizations, he managed to visit China in 1948. Anderson’s paintings are inviting, leave a dream-like, colorful impression, and deal with a wide range of subject matter–they reflect his encounters with the sublime.
Last but not least is Georgia O’Keefe. Yes, she was born in Wisconsin, yes she lived in New York City and Taos, New Mexico, but she also spent three summers at the University of Virginia. where, influenced by the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow, she began to paint again after a hiatus of four years. Her time as head of the Art Department at West Texas A&M University in 1916-1918 was another important influence on her work. Despite the many other sources of O’Keefe’s work acquired while she traveled across the United States (including Hawaii), her mature painting retains the quality of lucidity that seems to characterize southern art.
The crashiest of crash courses? Maybe, but RT hopes that reading about these three artists will inspire readers to explore southern art in greater depth. RT
RT’s Related Posts: The Vogels: Collecting Art as if Your Life Depended on It.
You read it here first, folks: the Rag Tree has crossed the 50,000-hit mark!!! Add to that 2,200 social media followers and RT doesn’t mind saying he is just plain proud of himself! But he will also add something he learned soon after starting his blog: blogging is mainly about the relationships it generates, that is, the amazing people that you get to know–and RT has met many in his nearly 3 years of blogging. & that reminds him of something he realized long before he began The Rag Tree: writing isn’t about getting published; writing is about community.
That being said, there is no doubt that publishing this blog has given RT a stronger sense of being a writer: of writing everyday (or so) for an audience. And that may have something to do with his continuing progress on Gilgamesh and improvements in other aspects of his life.
At 53+ and still kicking, RT has had a few recent reminders of his place on the timeline: a floater that appeared in his right eye and after several days vanished; a strained muscle in the right hip region (now better), the painless loss of a single tooth. His mother, on the other hand, seems to be doing better with her macular degeneration (she recently received freebies via federal program such as a powerful magnifying glass and a telephone with big numerals…she’s even been reading a bit!).
this is life… RT
Painting: Emma Zorn Lasande (1887); Anders Zorn. WikiCmns; Public Domain.