Today, for some reason, “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats came into my head. I was a mess in college, had trouble getting papers in, with far too many written by hand on paper with no lines. But the one on this poem did pretty well, and the last stanza stayed with me:
Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
It is compact, yet vast in scope, generating so many ideas, uniting so many opposite things: male, female; sun, moon; silver, gold; plucking an apple, reaching for the heavens. In fifty-four short, two dollar words, Yeats travels a very great distance, leaping from the physical world to a metaphysical plane.
Above all there is grace. The writing of Yeats is drenched with grace. He can’t help it; it’s in him, unmistakable. The poem is also about reaching for the the unobtainable, and about physically unrequited love.
Yeats great muse was Maud Gonne, an English-born Irish revolutionary, suffragette, and actress. He loved her perhaps as George Balanchine loved Suzanne Farrell: as a creature less of the world than the realm of art. It was there in the ballet studio and on the page that these great loves were consummated. Enshrined in art, they live on and inspire people today.
Yeats claimed he could not be happy without Gonne, but she replied: “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that.”* Maybe she was onto something. Suzanne Farrell must have feared the magic in the studio would vanish if she married Balanchine. She knew the fates of those who came before, including his wives Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil LeClercq. Wedded and bedded meant being replaced. And yet, in their wary way, muses respond.
As Farrell said in a 2003 article in BOMB Magazine: “I am behind him, and I put one hand over his eyes and with the other hand point him toward his destiny.”
“Destiny” being the key word, for muse love is a strange and wonderful thing, not easily understood by regular folk. Its highs lead to exhilaration and glorious art; its lows to fallowness and soul-wrenching despair. Sometimes it’s disguised and secretly nourished; other times out there, on display for all the world to see.
Love is what it is, wherever it falls: a magic that touches all people, occasionally lifting the stuff of life into the wonderous realm of art.
You don’t see walkers at many art events in Bushwick, but on the evening of June 6th, three of them clumped down Jefferson Street to Bizarre, the bar where anything can happen and usually does.
It was Open Studios weekend, and the launch of Meryl Meisler’s new book, Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City was underway. Meisler is known for her wonderful photographs, but she has other talents, not the least of which is figuring out what friends do well, and bringing them into her projects. This makes for a lively, unpredictable mix, and the evening of June 6th was no exception. Sassy ’70s features writing by Emanuel Xavier and Vanessa Mártir, and they gave dynamic readings, followed by a vajazzling slide show of 70′s-era porn by Judi Jupiter. Last was Amy Leffler’s reading on The Mystery Club, with three of its eminent members present.
Since this is a story of outer appearances and inner truths, a quick picture must be painted. The Mystery Club began long ago in the far off galaxy of Massapequa, New York, where Meisler’s parents bought a home in the early 60s. North Massapequa (known as “Matzoh Pizza” because of its many Jewish and Italian families) seemed a typical suburb, with lovely trees shading blocks and blocks of houses that looked very much the same. Most of the couples were young: starting families, buying homes for the first time. A lot of the men were veterans who’d left the city in search of safer, more affordable neighborhoods. They went to work each day, while the women stayed home to raise children. Life was pleasant, if a little predictable. But some people had needs that were not being met. Taking matters into their own hands, they formed The Mystery Club–a group for couples only.
If it sounds racy, it was–sometimes. Each month one couple planned a night out, the more outrageous the better (though not to exceed $25), with details kept secret till the day arrived. Some were silly (a haunted house), others were educational (a tour of Grumman Aircraft to see the lunar landing module before it went to the moon), and some were truly risqué like the trip to the Continental Baths where they sweated alongside beefy, near-naked men. There was also the visit (fully clothed) to a Jersey nudist colony, and to a recording studio where they cut an off-key cover of Frank Sinatra’s Strangers In the Night. Then they went home and checked on the kids.
Three great Mystery Club ladies were present at Bizarre for Meisler’s book launch: Bess Bloomfield, Helen Roth, and Lilyan Gitnik. Still beautiful, dressed sharp, they held court at the center table, greeting fans and friends.
After the reading, as pictures of the Club scrolled on screen and Sinatra sang, his spell and theirs fell over the room. Years vanished, and Helen, Bess, and Lil were as they had been in the 60s and 70s: their children young, their lives stretching forward, untouched by infirmity and loss.
Strangers in the Night is a three act drama in less than three minutes that tells an old story that never really gets old, just told new ways. It’s a sensual encounter of real people at a real place in a real, not virtual, moment. There is no undo/redo, and the consequence of missing their chance is a lifetime of loneliness. It is about the fleeting nature of time and the eternal power of love and human connection.
The song is rooted in physical presence. There are “glances” as the lovers size each other up, a dance that is “warm and embracing,” that leads to a lifelong, soul-deep connection. It is not the virtual “liking” and “friending” of Facebook, or a casual hookup. It’s about chemistry and intuition, longing and love–yes, that kind, but something deeper too: souls coming together against improbable odds to create something special in an uncaring world.
Which applied to a lot of people that night at Bizarre. Writers had been published because they became friends with photographers. Photographers had begun new projects because they became friends with writers. Meisler’s own work came out of the basement because urban historian Adam Schwartz needed images and happened to come across her name. Life throws many curves, some bad, some good. You have to live and look and love. You have to take joy when it comes, endure when it doesn’t.
As Sinatra sang, labels and boundaries fell away, and Hipsters, Baby Boomers and nonagenarians became just people sitting together in a room. Generations mingled, and for the first time ever, there was a family-friendly vibe at Bizarre. The event wasn’t post-modern, ironic or deconstructed, just honest and deeply human.
Edgy? The girls passed through it long ago, enduring cancer, loss of spouses, and relocation from their homes as time marched on and the flesh slowly gave way. But the hearts of Lilyan Gitnik, Bess Bloomfield and Helen Roth never did, and on that night, moved us with their enduring humanity. They showed us the power of love and joy, and what was possible.
So did Meryl Meisler. A book is more than paper and cloth, it’s an experience. The best take you somewhere, changing the world and lives in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
At Bizarre, the hour grew late, wraps and walkers were gathered for the trip home. Goodbyes were said, and the golden girls were chauffeured off into the night.
If the moment had passed, the magic endured. Strangers had become friends, old friendships had been renewed, lives changed and enriched by the golden girls of the Mystery Club and the book that brought them all together.
[Meryl Meisler will have an exhibition of her vintage black-and-white prints from the 1970s at the Steven Kasher Gallery, 515 West 26th Street, February 25th – April 9th.]
Books are beautiful! So often we think of them as perfect objects with spectacular “concept” covers (à la Chip Kidd!) on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, but the old and imperfect have their charm. Recently I came across a small travel guide to Niagara Falls I purchased a few years back. Published in 1893 by the printing concern Knight, Leonard & Co. of Chicago, it has a lot of travel advertising, scenic views, and info on possible vacation spots, but doesn’t give us information about things as they are today.
But to leaf through its pages is to travel back to another time. The ornate typography of the cover with its generous swirling curves and strong knife-like verticals is not something you’ll find in a WordPress theme (no offense–I love WordPress!).
The printing isn’t great, and even the most basic self-published book today is technically superior. But it adds to these images, which seem rendered in a painterly, almost pointillist style.
The color isn’t full-scale, but it’s so pretty! So very green! Even the crumbling binding adds a layer of texture. I wonder if a company like Blurb or My Publisher should offer an “antiquing” option. There might be demand.
Have you ever seen such a classy ad for toilet paper?! A dollar for a 5-pack? Sounds pretty good, even by modern Costco standards.
Talk about not knowing the future… Krupp was the major armaments supplier for Nazi Germany. But in 1893, that dark chapter of history lay ahead.
So this tiny book that doesn’t have informational value today was able, through typography, images, and ads, to take us back to an earlier time. Would we have gotten the same from an e-reader? Probably not. The message is also in the medium, and the medium here is physical print, paper and cloth, which continue to enlighten and endure.
He came to see Bettie, not me. Everyone did. The poster of 50′s pinup Bettie Page and her male counterpart drew a lot of people to our booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Unlike the little old lady who went on about the size and shape of male thighs, Tim McLoughlin didn’t seem to be a lost soul. He mentioned a link to Akashic Books, but I was setting up and didn’t pay attention. Till he said he was behind the Noir mystery series.
That was huge. I love anything noir; it’s practically a religion with me. Tall silent men and slinky dames, dark plots that unfold in gritty urban settings where shadows lurk and doom waits around every corner. Think fate was just for Oedipus and the ancient Greeks? Check out the death-by-phone-wire scene in Detour, or watch Kathie Moffat glide Out of the Past back into Jeff Bailey’s life. If that doesn’t do it, there’s always Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark in a thrilling debut) pushing a wheelchair-bound cripple down stairs in Kiss of Death. Noir is a dark street on the wrong side of town where people, backed against the wall, confront the worst of human nature.
Though the film cycle died out in the early 60s, elements linger on in American culture like mutant spores. When McLoughlin returned bearing his novel, Heart of the Old Country, I assumed there would be traces, and there are. But like West Side Story and On the Waterfront, it’s really a poignant coming of age tale set in the rough environs of New York.
Like the divided blocks of the Jets and Sharks, and the docks and tenements that mark the outer limits of Terry Malloy’s world, the low-rent, thug-rich sections of south Brooklyn play a major role in the story. The turf is small and specific: the back streets of Coney Island and rundown parts of Bay Ridge where the trains don’t go, but car service does.
At the start, the main character, Mikey, is living at home with his widowed dad, trying to sort out his future. He’s not quite sold on the education he’s getting at NYU, nor is his father who finds him a job at the local car service.
Big Lou’s isn’t the high tech, hail-with-an-app realm of Uber. Run from a storefront, it survives on three dollar jobs: seniors traveling to medical appointments and numbers men hopping from bar to bar. The drivers are two-bit losers who crack dirty and wile away time playing cards. Two things matter: money and the “little…triangle” (lady parts, not Euclid). It’s a world so small and flat if you drive to the edge you might fall off, and Mikey very nearly does.
He’s slow to grasp the soul-destroying web of Lou’s illicit courier service, thinking that easy money comes with no strings and he can play Lou’s game on his own terms. He can’t. Like the 50′s classic, Kiss Me Deadly, there’s a mysterious sought-after box that keeps the reader guessing till the very end. Mikey snags it, though he should know better, having seen the rough justice dished out to local flunky, Nicky Shades.
Like Tony and Maria, Terry and Edie, Mikey knows more about what he’s running from than what he’s running to. He yearns for a different place with opportunity and choice, but can’t quite picture it. Yet slowly, as he threads his way through illicit jobs and rigid social expectations, it comes into focus and he begins to find the pieces of his true self.
As the world of Bay Ridge shrinks, a new one begins to form around his NYU classmate, Kathy Popovich. Neither brilliant nor wildly beautiful, she’s a decent girl with creative leanings not from the neighborhood, which is part of her charm. If it is not quite the mythic, forever after love of Tony and Maria, it opens a door to a place where relationships are based more on similar interests than shared geography.
With Kathy, Mikey experiences a sense of freedom and possibility, not the entrapment he feels with Gina, the girl he grew up with and is expected to marry. With Gina, the future is laid out and very similar to the past: shopping trips on Fifth Avenue (Brooklyn, not Manhattan), visits to relatives on Staten Island (“fun as a root canal”), with career options for Mikey that include Sanitation. In her mother’s house, an apartment waits for the couple like a cell.
Though the book flies, its sense of time is gritty and real; there will be no quick fix. The hero’s journey will be an extended one, marked by small, hard-won understandings rather than a single mind-blowing epiphany. True to life and literary form, it ends not with false promise, but on a small note of possibility. Alone in his car, trying to find Nicky Shades’ girl to do a good deed, Mikey reaches for a pen and pad. Supposedly he’s checking a list, but it’s tempting, knowing the author’s story, to imagine that one day he will use that pen for a more creative purpose.
Tim McLoughlin was born in Sunset Park, and like his hero grew up in Bay Ridge. But with good choices and a sense of purpose, he slipped away from the old country which is as much a state of mind as actual place. The small-time world of South Brooklyn found its way into his work, but never defined him. He is a man of his own destiny, and talking with him, you get the sense of a life well-lived and deeply enjoyed.
Early on, McLoughlin cycled through jobs that included stints as a driver, Barnes & Noble clerk (main branch), and patrolman at the transit yards in East New York and Coney Island. After long nights and strange hours, he leapt at the chance to become a court officer, which turned into a long-term gig. The work was good and he made some smart investments along the way, but in his heart wanted something more.
He had always read widely and voraciously, his love of literature kindled not by two years spent at NYU, but by the Jesuit teachers at Xavier High. Slowly and secretly he began to write. His early goals were small: to get a few short stories published in a literary magazine. Good writing meant sounding like the New Yorker; he had not yet plumbed his inner landscape or found his own voice. That took time and a “drill sergeant” teacher, Kaylie Jones. McLoughlin signed up for her class at the West Side Y, sensing that the other instructors were too “warm and fuzzy” to be any good. He auditioned with a sci-fi piece, learning later he was accepted mainly to balance the otherwise female group. It worked out well: one of the students, a “cute blonde,” became his wife.
On the page he struggled, unwilling to ditch his high brow illusions. But at some point sense and his natural voice prevailed, and out popped a couple of stories that ultimately became part of Heart of the Old Country. Jones’ response: “where the fuck has this been?”
Inside, all along. They went out for beer at an Irish bar. She gave encouragement, and the work bloomed. Sections were published in ConfrontationMagazine, and the manuscript was bought by Johnny Temple for Akashic. The Italian rights sold fast, and in 2003, that very old country gave McLoughlin its Premio Penne award.
Which brings us back to the Noir series which was conceived as a way to get Johnny Temple off his case. They were walking around BEA, with the publisher pressing him about a second novel. McLoughlin countered with the idea for an anthology of original stories. They settled on the concept of noir, press-ganged Pete Hamill into writing a piece, and never looked back.
The series features greats like Dennis Lehane (Boston Noir), as well as talented unknowns, and has spread from New York to exotic locales like Manila and Mumbai. There is always a keen sense of place combined with plots that honor the dark essence of noir.
With those going strong, maybe it’s time to ask again about that second book. (Note to Johnny: start nagging and this time don’t stop.)
On a haunted, wind-swept plain two sisters meet and embrace, a huge incandescent orb rising ominously behind them. This is no ordinary place and these are not ordinary women.
Thus began the recent production of Sophocles’ Antigone at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw it in September with my friend and colleague, Anne Bartoc, and her design students from Pratt. Their assignment was to see the play, then create a poster and other items (web banner, T shirt, or key chain) based on the production. I thought it would be interesting so see how each interpreted the play, maybe learning something about how literature and drama affects each of us in similar, yet different ways.
I visited their class a week ago, and was not disappointed. The students are a terrific bunch, and it was clear a lot of time, effort and imagination had gone into their work. Each one was moved by a different aspect of the production, yet each managed to capture something of the play’s essence. Here are their wonderful designs, with some of their thoughts and mine.
Lee saw the play as “the shame of Creon,” and wanted to bring that character into the artwork along with Antigone. By featuring both, he captures the sense of shared tragedy and fate. In the giant glowing sun, he also conveys the Greek sense of man as small and insignificant in relation to the gods and natural world. Note the dominating red-orange color. You will see it again.
Misra was impressed by the moon, and “embossed” the powerful actress playing Antigone (Juliette Binoche) upon it. In this design, the moon floats in a void, symbolizing how Antigone’s disobedience (and courage) have cut her off from society. The image also suggests the sonogram of an unborn child, not inappropriate for the young heroine who laments that she will never marry and bear children. Her life is short; in a sense, she also is unborn. As in many of the posters, the color red plays a strong role.
Frigura’s design joins the mask of classic Greek theater with a distorted, doll-like face, suggesting both horror and youth. It is bold and pared down, much like Greek tragedy where action is stripped to the bone, language is stark, and the audience knows where it’s going and gets there fast. The face is looking up as if asking “why?” of the gods who in the Greek universe were always in control of individual fates. The red-orange part of the spectrum is utilized, the tones also suggesting Greek red-figure pottery. This design seems almost too big and bold for the computer screen, and would pop off the wall as any good poster should.
Holoman present the funeral materials in a dark void, the flower petals falling like drops of blood. He spoke of wanting to convey “that ominous glow you felt all over the play,” and achieved a beautiful sense of mystery and solemnity that makes the viewer stop and wonder, then take a closer look. The red orange colors suggest human blood and the fire used in the funeral rites, as well as the fire in Antigone’s heart.
While Soojin Joo said she “couldn’t 100% understand the play,” she captured a sense of classical tragedy in the white, mask-like face, and dark hillside from which it emerges which suggests Antigone’s entombment. This is almost an “after” take on the play, with the shadows not solid but made of ashes, the heroine, at peace, gone from the troubled land to join her family in Hades.
Inspired by the production’s first scene in which Antigone moves from darkness into light, Slater used a strongly lit image of Juliette Binoche in motion. The vertical rule on the right (red again!), symbolizes the rigid forces thwarting Antigone, the hard line between what society sees as right and what it judges to be wrong. The figure’s movement is mirrored in the fluid type which to Slater “had an organic feeling,” as well as a sense of femininity.
This poster and the idea behind it haunts me. Chu said that she was “struck by the emotion of the opening,” and wanted to capture it in her art. But she removed Ismene, leaving Antigone embracing a void. As she does on her journey to death. This stark concept is offset by type that suggests ancient Greek lettering, but with a modern look.
In Min Gi Ha’s work we see movement and speed, suggesting perhaps the heroine’s short life. Antigone, almost out of the frame, is running, but pursued by a dark tornado-like shape (the Furies?) which has wrapped itself around her neck, foreshadowing her manner of death. Humans go about their lives, oblivious to the fates that will descend upon them. Though it is hers, Antigone never sees it coming. Again, red plays a big part; its presence in the type fading away as does her human existence.
Apparitions of the Death & Co.is a black and white film noir photo series by Jackie Neale documenting the pre-prohibition cocktail resurgence in New York City, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia. These large, grainy, ethereal fiber print photographs capture the intense sincerity of the nuevo-cocktail movement in it’s beginning stages. Consisting of a small but affected set of sincere friends and comrades in a cut throat culinary industry, you will see bar tenders tending with seriousness to their craft and to their loyal customer base. The cocktail boom has made this movement universal, but Neale’s images captured the brief but unique period when bar tenders pushed for its place among the culinary elite.
The NY Book Society had a table at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, and it was great! We were even mentioned in Brooklyn Paper (with a lovely picture by Alexa Telano). We sold a bunch of books and made a lot of new friends, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Best of all, many people who stopped by said we had an awesome table, and we did. Huge thanks to Meryl Meisler, Jackie Neale, Oriana Leckert, Petra Mason, Fredda Gordon, Anna Fox, Diane Smook, and Dallas Athent for making it so.
The NY Book Society will be at Table #321 at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, 9/20! There are some great photo and art books. The text is pretty good too. Friends will be stopping by. We hope you will also.