Tuesday, April 26, 2011

the dusty attics of the internet present...

...a wonderful interior view of The Chapel of The Chimes, which I have mentioned here before, in all its magic and glory, courtesy of this amazingly weird video I had completely forgotten I made my junior year of high school until I googled myself today. (Googling oneself regularly is very useful sometimes, even if you are a relatively boring person as far internet fame goes...) The particular voice of the textual intertitles in the movie bear an eerie resemblance to the stories I wrote around the ages of maybe five to ten, in which a lot of tragic things happened to a lot of bee-yoo-tee-full princesses and unicorns...especially the last card, which has a really wonderful and probably completely unironic twist to it that seems totally typical of seven-year-old me.

The slight cringe factor of the video notwithstanding, I'm delighted that this exists, because simply image searching the Chapel turns up really disappointing results; it's almost impossible to get a feel for the intimate, mystical, reverent silence of the place, strange garden-labyrinth-library full of ashes that it is, unless you've been there, and I think the video does give it something of its peculiar and haunting shape.

Miguel Frasconi
The song that bookends the movie, "Desert Melody," is from an album full of wild music called Song + Distance by Miguel Frasconi -- whom I first heard, in fact, in the Chapel of the Chimes itself, playing an astonishing array of glass vessels, wineglasses and bowls at a summer solstice event held there each year called "The Garden of Memory," in which dozens of local musicians take over the nooks and crannies of the interlocking stone chapels to play wondrous midsummer music you can wander in and out of, lost as our poor princess in the transfiguring fairytale dream of it all. If you're in Oakland come this Midsummer Night, go...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Byzantine Bathhouse of Joseph Cornell

My project for this summer is to transform my entire house into a single, living, inhabitable work of art. Some of you know about the Night Garden, the miniature & mystical greenhouse-cathedral I have been slowly building in my livingroom; a while back it was decided (I hesitate to say that I decided; it felt more like I was the channel for a choice not entirely my own...) that in order to make one room a working, mythic whole the entire house would have to be cultivated in the same spirit. I've been working on the endless task of covering the cardboard bones of The Night Garden with papier mache, trying to get that space finished before moving on to the rest of the house -- but I've been going a little crazy, because it's so daunting to conjure this palatial construction out of the vague resonances of my heart into reality in the first place, and much more so when it takes hours of work with a bucket of wallpaper paste just to make it sturdy enough to start painting. Which it isn't yet, because I'm tired of papier mache! I want to do something fun! (As to why I'm papier macheing with a bucket of wallpaper paste, everything I know about how to make massive magical things for cheap was discovered by stumbling upon Kim Graham's Tree Troll project. She suggested it over that horrible flour-and-water pap.)

So I sat down and thought about a quick and satisfying shift I could make in the house, something I could see. And I thought -- hell, what about the bathroom? It's tiny, after all (barely four feet square, not counting the tub) and surely easily altered into some kind of aesthetic creation. So I went and sat in there with my notebook to think through it. Just perched on the potty and thought, first of all, about paint colors. I'd been vaguely contemplating a nice green, a big pot of ferns, you know, fresh and leafy, whatever. But as I stared at the walls it seemed more and more as if every color I brushed on them with my mind was as cheerfully bland as the next, and no scheme that came to mind could do anything to shift the room from mildly pleasant functionality to art.

Now, I've seen pictures of fabulous bathrooms with hammered gold (!) walls and giant painting, bathrooms in black velvet, graffiti showcases, sleek expanses of marble. But in my opinion there is a vast difference between a well-designed (or just a designed) bathroom and a bathroom that feels like a truly beautiful space in the way that other rooms and spaces often do, and as I sat there it occurred to me that I wasn't sure if I'd ever really seen a bathroom that was more than just decorated, that felt like someone had really put thought into how they wanted the space to shape them.

I think this is because bathrooms are the places where we are closest to our body and its functions: this is the room where we shower and poop and floss, after all, and we Westerners tend to view all rituals of cleansing as distasteful.  If we are not rich, we make our bathrooms pleasantly antiseptic and aesthetically hygienic -- think of all the neutral tones, cool colors, smooth surfaces, the utterly bland spaces, as vague as possible, gently whitewashing all the earthy, sensuous, gritty contact with our dirty (literally and figuratively) naked bodies! And if we are wealthy, we order them made so ostentatiously luxurious as to completely obscure, once again, the actual body itself, this time drowned out by teak and black granite or the aforementioned hammered gold, so immersed in the thick carpet and jacuzzi tub that the realities of dirt, the small, human, hard-working body once again are vanished.

Main bath, Bath, twilight
So I thought about the act of cleansing, and the places and the cultures that placed importance on the ritual and the ceremony of the bath. Like the Turkish hammam, for example -- listen, that's a place where the body just gets to be the body, steamed, dunked, and sweated out next to other bodies without shame or distaste or overwrought anxiety about spotless surfaces. The Romans built stunning bathhouses -- I've been to the baths in Bath, and it's strange to think that nothing like that kind of elegance and attentiveness to the needs of the body could really ever have been constructed in this country except by those emigrating from other places where the rituals of purification are still holy. We just don't do that here.

And I thought, too, about alchemy and its rituals of purification -- the old lead-into-gold adage you may be familiar with from silly stories is only a surface metaphor; the Great Work required purifying the self along with your materials, and comfort with the stages of corruption before you got to get along to the gold. And I thought about the tiny little room I was sitting in with its unseeing cream walls, and an image came to me: a hamsa, a charm you have probably seen, called variously a Hand of Fatima and a Hand of Miriam, an common and lovely amulet with a variety of meanings, my favorite being that (according to Wikipedia, and why not?) that  "many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God." (What the hell else do I do?) Except that I saw not a tiny amulet (and here are three beautiful amulets to look at, while I'm on the subject, and also one that serves as proof that anything, no matter how mystical, from bath house to sacred charm, can be made kitsch if that's what you really long for!) but rather a cabinet: maybe a foot and a half tall, made of antiqued copper, in the shape of the hand. In it, dozens of tiny glass bottles, like Cornell's pharmacy cabinet. Each one full of dung, or sweat, or dance. And strung on the wall opposite, chains of them, actually hand-sized this time, each one a frame for a poem, a picture, a painting of the body in one of its merry stages of dirtmaking and refreshment. And the walls themselves? Turquoise and terracotta, earth and water colors, rich and dark. A room in which to enjoy the magical transition from filthy to freshly cleansed is what I want, not an antiseptic box of tile echoing the lost shape of a space once richly laid with artful anticipation of a plunge into a hot or icy pool. A room that has not forgotten how to embrace the body, where there will be no evil eye to glare at your supposed imperfections, where the cycles of matter through growth and decay, cleanliness and filth, are treated properly with humor and reverence...

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Building Kaleidoscopes

Somewhere in me lives a certainty that creativity is desperately, excruciatingly important to living the kind of life that swells you full of gladness for having had a chance to live it, but why creativity matters has been eluding me....

My father writes:

I'm trying to get away from the fetish that there's a thing at the end of the creative process. Creativity isn't mere manufacturing, not at all. There doesn't have to be a thing at the end (difficult as that is to face in our capitalist universe). No, but I think every creative act does need to include something like this: I glimpse some aspect of the world and I try to imitate that aspect, with my body or my words or my music, or with extensions of my body like paint & paper. As if the essence of creativity is some kind of mimesis. If I'm Shakespeare, I have to walk like Prospero before I can write the speeches of Prospero. To paint a buffalo on a cave wall I have to be the buffalo. When I write a poem, I believe I have the whole poem wordless inside me; the act of creation is copying out the wordless into words, skillfully unfurling the unmanifest into the manifest.

So what's so great about being somebody different (the wordless muse, the buffalo, Prospero....)? Well there's this tremendous relief in transcending my one limited paltry existence. A kind of ecstasy in breaking out of the finite and into unlimited possibility. It's ecstasy, "standing out from oneself" in Greek. I see something that is or could be, and it's beautiful or powerful or different. I let myself embody it, become it; give up being me for a moment, give up being sure and defined. There's a taste of infinity in the process. And the thing that I make, in the creative process, the gesture or poem or circus poster or piece of music - if it really has the breath of the infinite in it, people will recognize that, and they'll be inspired with the beauty and the urge to create, all over again.

He wrote this to me, and I thought: yes. But there's more to it than that, I think. I wrote back to him:

What I struggle with most is a sense that all my creativity is inwards, making of me a kind of hermetic museum inside of which all is dancing and alive but what good is that if I can't return it to the outer world that brought it into being? Only by bringing forth that energy can I feel the world around me to be as miraculous as it is within me. And the great conflict is the certain knowledge that I am full of a sense of powerful and living magic, and the utter fear that it will stay locked in me forever. So this is my great and only work: to make real the essence within me, to know absolutely that the outer world and the inner world flow together, a fountain of cupped hands in the glorious gladness of the rain --

A staircase in the kaleidoscopic Sagrada Familia
And then I went away and thought about it some more, and wondered about that creativity locked away inside me, the thousands and thousands of tissue-fine layers of images and fragments and snatches of daydream: city streets, moonlit gardens of quiet fountains and freesias, the round stone room I built in my head when I was a kid full of cabinets of dolls, spice markets, rain on the roof of a kitchen with stone floors and wood beams and herbs in blue pots in the windows...minarets, mouths on my breasts, my lover's body transformed into a stream full of sunlight, teacups I have never seen. There are worlds inside me that have never known a home beyond the chambers of my heart. The outer world, this world I'm plunged like a fish born underwater, seeps into me, sometimes tears me open and shouts into me, sometimes shines in like the sun in the morning. And it gives me the language, in colors and scents and sometimes in words, of the worlds within me: though they are all made within, I can only dream of the fragrance of unknown streets because of the streets I have seen, shaped by words in my mind or in my eyes by the light, the cardamom and ginger that has been put on my tongue, the knowledge of color, of warmth, of a winding alley, all born inwards on the wings of the senses.

And this inner life, in turn, can find ways to spill back out -- wants to spill back out, wants to become part of the world. The worlds within me are luminous, shivering, iridescent, marvelous. How to let them out? How to make manifest the unmanifest, how to give back to the world around me the shining shadows it has taught me how to weave behind my eyes? I think the answer to this is art -- but not only the simple act of making. Creativity, in the spiritual sense I am giving it, is not about creating a thing but rather about living in the strange swirling space at the boundary of the self and the universe, where the world pouring into me meets up with the worlds that surge and foam only in my understanding. I mean I want to live like a kaleidoscope.

A kaleidoscope is literally an "observer of beautiful forms," from the Greek kalos "beautiful" + eidos "shape" + skopion, from skopein "to look at, examine" -- except that it is not, in fact, a passive observer at all. A kaleidoscope takes in the world and tumbles it through mirrors and glass and remakes it in intricate, magical, chaotically ordered patterns that shift with your breath like light on the water. One half world-as-is, one half the changing assortment of things-in-the-viewer, the result is a kind of living mystic vision. What I am afraid of is living with either the world or the glass beads fixed in place, of seeing only the outer or the inner and not the transcendent dance between them. The ecstasy of breaking out of the finite.

There are acts that are particularly good at reminding us just how thin the borders of the body really are: I would call them eating, dancing, sex. They are not creative acts in the sense of a thing being made. They can easily be boring. But putting onto your tongue something truly delicious, whether flavored by star anise and honey or salted by hunger, especially shared among friends or else prepared lovingly, thoughtfully for oneself -- dancing because the music pouring down into your bones has made it impossible for your hips not to move -- your body moving into another, taking up one another's space, blending in warmth-- in moments like these inside and outside tend to flow completely together, and this we call joy. And here is a poem about that:

By the time I decide to write love poems it's Spring

and the stalks in their green have bloomed to fire and gold
and their fibers are in a language of joy,
and a woman, with hair like the back of a honeybee’s jacket
combs, the comb moves in a language of joy.
There is a gardener, who's thought a fool for tending to dirt,
and his trowel was forged in a language of joy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

dream nests

Here, dear friends, are a handful of the houses where I could happily live out my life in a glory, a wealth, an abundance of sex 'n' art 'n' sunshine. I mean, who doesn't dream of treehouses and hobbit-holes who dreams of warmth and comfort and a sense of home? Almost nobody actually goes out and lives in one, it's true. But this magical spiral-ceilinged cottage was built by ordinary people who say fiercely and with great certainty: you, too, can have this -- and for almost nothing in comparison to a "real" house. They built this marvel for three thousand pounds, apparently -- that's a little under four months of rent on the apartment I have now. The land is borrowed, but with savings like that, why, I could almost buy a couple acres...

As it turns out, the most beautiful houses are also often the most environmentally friendly -- for example, the woodland home above is made of dead wood and straw bales, and straw bales make up most of this exquisite little cob house, which is so unbelievably beautiful and warm and welcoming that it makes me feel a little weepy. And all this for once more almost nothing -- the figure I read said about $6,000. That's less than a hundredth of what a family friend sold his one-bedroom in San Francisco for five years ago, and what you get is not only a home but a singular, handcrafted work of art. Imagine raising kids in these homes (the folks who built the cottage above have two kids who were delighted to help with the building): they would grow up bathed in the radiance of  craftsmanship; environmental responsibility would be taken for granted; and above all, they'd have total faith in the peculiar and dangerous possibility of making a life wholly and truly according to your own spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic values. Yikes. (And just in case you weren't already totally in love, here's a video!)

And who doesn't daydream of a treehouse? I found this beautiful thing somewhere in the depths of the internet; I have no idea who built it or where it is, but I want it desperately. For all I know it isn't even real, just somebody's digital daydream -- but whoever has reveries like that can be my friend, no questions asked. To live in a house that is a manifestation of a joyous and inhabitable creativity is just about the greatest and most potent hunger of my life. I've been dreaming of magical dwellings since the age of eight or nine, when I first discovered Julia Morgan (I've already rhapsodized here on one of her buildings, the Chapel of the Chimes). This summer's project is to build my little downtown apartment into one lovely beehive of the marvelous, the first step to claiming this embodiment. Anyone else who is working on making inhabitable art, sacred spaces, magical nests or dream gardens, talk to me. I'd like to add your reveries to my language of the imaginable.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Miraculous thistles

...that is, the artichoke: so fierce is its capacity for "taste perversion" that in my family we gave our own name to the imagined molecule that grants all food eaten after an artichoke its greenly sweet and fragrant flavor. Artichokine, alchemical transmutation if the tastebuds, turning even water to a milky golden honey on the tongue, a blessed savoring like a kind of salt for sweetness. So wholly mystical is the power of the artichoke upon me that it was not until last week that I discovered not everyone is set in gentle raptures by its flavor; its peculiar science is such that only some of us are sweet-struck by the spiky purple blossom. For some, an artichoke is a pleasant green beginning to a meal, soaked in butter and sopped up with happy gusto, but besides the fine flavor of the thing there is no special magic; a few, poor souls, find it makes things bitter to the taste. But surely Pablo Neruda's mouth was melted into divine and mellow alteration by its burnished leaves: his 'Ode to the Artichoke' almost makes me weep, so purely does he love the soul of this proud plant. (My favorite translation is by Stephen Mitchell; I can't find it online, but it's from the book Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon and there is nothing I can say but that I, too, love to 'eat/the peaceful flesh/of its green heart'...) Like me, he finds the artichoke a strange and mythic beast, gentle under its close-spiraled crown of thorns...

Whatever your spiritual inclinations to the flower, if you like artichokes at all, for any reason, on a cold night when you are contemplating loneliness something almost as good as a stew and much more simple is this warm and tender recipe:

Artichoke Soul Pasta

All you need is a handful of mushrooms, a few cloves of garlic, plenty of butter and a can of artichokes -- whole, quartered, whatever, it doesn't matter as long as they're not marinated -- and a pot of the pasta of your choosing. Something pleasantly chunky like farfalle works best, so the sauce can seep into all the cracks and you can take nice satisfying heavy forkfuls of it without any silly twirling... 

While the water (well salted and dashed with olive oil) boils for the pasta, melt a lump of butter, maybe a couple of tablespoons, and chop the mushrooms into little bits and throw them in. Salt and pepper liberally. Mince the garlic, toss it in too, and give it a good stir; put the pot on medium low and leave it there.

Drain the artichokes -- not into the sink, however, for the juices, saved for later, make a wonderful delicate broth for all tomorrow's soups -- and chop as many as you like, perhaps a heaped cupped handful. I can never resist eating a couple right out of the tin tube of the can, just to feel the singing on my tongue as the marvelous chemicals get down to their alchemical dance...

Toss them in the pot, stirring occasionally until the pasta is done. Mix it all together in your favorite bowl, the one that is most satisfyingly heavy, solid, reassuring. If you are an artichoke dreamer, do not put cheese on it. Just have a glass of water to sip dreamily, and a book from your childhood to read...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Joy is One Big Fuck You to Oppression

Emily O'Neill once quoted me as saying that every moment of joy in the face of oppression is an act of revolution; I will die believing that, and I don't know about you, brothers and sisters, but I think revolution's what we need right now, and bad. These last few weeks have been scaring the holy hell out of me: every day it seems like some new horrific thing is happening in this country, and I mean scarier than usual, big big scary, rights being stripped from women, an eleven-year-old implicated by a New York Times writer in her own gang rape, the travesty of justice in Wisconsin, the peculiar happenings I just don't understand around shutting down the government, and last's night's last straw -- the right to declare martial law in Michigan on the whim of its governor, who may then appoint anyone he likes as "administrator" of each town, accompanied by the right to shut down school boards, fire elected officials, sell off public property, and call in security forces. I've had a bad morning. I've had a bad month. Right now it's either write a goddamned manifesto or break down in tears. So here it is, folks, the articles of my revolution:

This country is two countries splitting every moment down the center. It is the private property of a scant handful of fanatics in the grip of a fear and greed I think so far unequaled in the chronicles of humankind, the natural heirs to the country's history of violence and oppression, the moral great-grandchildren of those who slaughtered the native peoples of this place and called it their own by right of conquest.  And it is also a place where now queer folk can marry and Dear Abby columns hold advice about the etiquette of threesomes, where slowly but surely the right to live outside the restrictions of an archaic "norm" is flowering, a country where people still allow themselves to dream.

Each news story I hear about some small and shrunken soul trying to wrest our rights away from us makes me cry out in anger because I believe in this country, in the magnificent artists and the dedicated peace workers, the healers and the thinkers, the farmers raising happy chickens and the musicians in love with the glory of a chord progression, the poets and the storytellers, the teachers, the true spiritual leaders, every person in this country who remembers what gratitude feels like, who knows what it means to give thanks for what you have instead of thinking that there is not enough happiness or food or love or money unless you take it away from someone else.

I believe that anger is a force for justice, and I believe in the power of protest, the strength of voices; but I also know that lashing out builds nothing, and you cannot break the stranglehold upon your dream by flailing against the fingers on its throat; the only way to break its grip is to make your dream bigger, to swell it, to make it grow and open and unfold like a tree damn well exploding full-fledged from an acorn. If you have got the shakes like I do, if your tongue lies heavy in your mouth with horror, if you want to lie down and cry or break everything in sight and yell this is not the world I believe in,  well, it is up to us. So make love. write music. paint something so gorgeous it makes you want to weep. go out and dance. cook for someone. make one stark raving lovely moment just to say: right now, this country is beautiful. right now, you cannot have my joy. Because they will take everything from you, from me, and they will have nothing when they're done as they had nothing when they begun, and this is the heartbreak of it all: it would be so nice to call them evil, to think they will be satisfied when the world is in shards around them. But they will be just as bewildered and impotent and lonely then, just as afraid of dying, just as frightened and completely empty. And all that taking and taking and taking will have been for nothing, you understand, for nothing.

So become a fountain, a spring, an underground river of creation. Go put some joy into the world. Go dance and thumb your nose at them, pity them, for they can make nothing, for they are starving and you have this great big beautiful soul to make the world larger, to fill it so full of fresh bread and and blessings it can't be eaten up. Go sing hallelujah and praise God if you have one, praise the skies, praise your mother, praise the page you write on, praise the pen and the tongue and the body and its blisses and its strangenesses, go praise the mysteries, praise your teachers, praise memory and longing, praise the smell of the air after rain. The one thing that is incomprehensible to those who seek to take is the act of giving. If you fill yourself up with bitterness, choke on your fury, get up from your garden to go throw stones and curses, they will just smile: already they've stopped you from making things, from giving thanks, from bringing joy. Remember this. They can squash your rebellion, they can silence your protests, they can gag your cries for help. They can't shut you up if you know how to sing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Museum of Joy: an etymology

One day I will build a museum that is the delighted child of every collection of the marvelous, a gracious bow to the old cabinets of curiosity in how they strove to show the great harmony of being, a grand new dance of entrancingexhibition...but in the meantime, a selection of some other magical locations in which the dust of fascination sinks slowly through the dark:

The Main Street Museum, White River Junction, VT

The closest I have ever been to this fantastic idea is its website, but my friend Sarah assures me it is as bizarre and wonderful as it appears: full of peculiar taxidermies and objects in assorted wonderous categories such as "Carbon; Color as a Hysterical Reaction; Cute Things; Flocking; Objects Chewed by Pets; Teeth, More Teeth, Things with Nail-holes; 'Things Made from Animals or Parts of Animals,'" etc... (from their Wiki)

The Museum Of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles, CA

Now, I have been here, and it was one of the two times in my waking life I have ever felt like I was entering into the space of my dreams. The exhibits range from Napoleon-inspired collages to alchemical clock experiments to superstition boxes; on the left, please examine a lovely mosaic made entirely from butterfly scales arranged with a boar's hair, viewable only under microscope. The place itself seems at first glance to be a small and shabby warehouse, but like all good dream places it is far larger on the inside, and the dark halls carry the uncanny sense that you had better look at everything, because even if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the same room a second time there is no guarantee that it will be the same...

The Museum of Love, now accessible only via the gardens of nostalgia and the internet

My father built this for his 40th birthday. It probably explains a lot about me. If pictures survive, I'm still too young to see them. This will be true at least until my deathbed. This most excellent image, however, called The Museum of Love and Mystery, by the equally excellent Jim Woodring, will suffice to show the spirit of the party. (In fact, if the "Dutch Uncle of Dreamland" wasn't there, it was just because the merry-go-round had other plans for him that night.)

This is probably the time to explain that my father taught me most everything I know about how to love the truly weird and beautiful. He also has a wonderful recipe for absinthe, a copy of which I was promised upon my 21st birthday, but the 2nd anniversary of that grand holiday is fast approaching and so far no dice. (It is, of course, a closely guarded secret.) A semi-thwarted alchemist, my dad had to content himself with growing wormwood in a hidden El Cerrito backyard and consulting books on alembics for proper distallation techniques. I did my bit by testing for methanol content, i.e. drinking a lot.

The Museum at Purgatory, a book by Nick Bantock

This is not the Museum at Purgatory, but rather a 15th century
illumination: 'Souls Released From Purgatory' from the 
'Hours of Catherine of Cleves' at the Morgan Library &
Museum, borrowed from the Wall Street Journal's website.  

I was not highly taken by Griffin and Sabine, although as a lover of artist books, arcane letters, collage, inventiveness and the macabre I have been told that my feelings on the matter are nonsensical and I'm just jealous I didn't think of it. This is not true in the least; I'm jealous I didn't think of The Museum at Purgatory, which is not only a cabinet of curiosity in the form of a book but also takes place in an ever-shifting city that I thought I had invented, at the age of sixteen, in a short story called The Man in the Orange Silk Shirt. Apparently there are multiple gateways to that marvelous and melancholy metropolis, as it seems evident that Bantock's Purgatory is the same bloody place as my unnamed citadel...(I will find the story somewhere and present quotes from the two texts side by side, but it will have to wait until after my laptop's quite done self-destructing and I can find my files again.) Anyway, this book gave me shivers of delight: instead of letters, it displays wonderful invented artifacts, from an imaginary geneology of spinning tops to a set of archaic altar boxes. It takes to the luscious extreme the longing inherent in books written on collections, from the section on The Collector in Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project to the cabinets in Bruce Chatwin's Utz: the reader's desire to see the magnificent object in all its strange and holy order.

The WebMuseum: Joseph Cornell

Here you may see collected images of the work of Joseph Cornell. Their physical forms are all over the place; there is no Cornell museum, although Robert Coover's The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) and Charles Simic's Dime Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell are essentially hybrid museums in themselves, prose poems displaying Cornell's essence as surely as the bottles in the Pharmacy (left) display their mystic contents, the books themselves like the careful, crafted cabinets...

There are those you don't discover until you find that you have been following their spirit's leavings for the last two hazy decades. I did not know Cornell existed until I was already making things he might have loved. But without his starry influence, silent and spidery, would it has passed into my blood, this love for old encyclopedias, small krakens, tiny bottles, amulets and charms...?

Friday, January 14, 2011

the night garden

Salammbô, 1896

Flirt advertisement, 
circa 1895-1900
There is a city sleeping in my house right now, a labyrinth, a dream of fronds and pebbles glossy underwater, a reverie, a columbarium, a living room. Think of that: a room that is alive, that could breathe life into us, a room we could inhabit like the two cupped hands of a garden. I have not built it yet. But it is there, peaceful, waiting for me to draw it from the realms of the unmanifest into the manifest. It is a room without windows, a funny little cave blown open by the gust from the front door, and therefore it must be a night garden, full of the wondrous damp plants that love the dark and exude like jade perfume the earthy smell of moss and root and wet soil. I woke up the other morning and the whole room was in my head, a splendid hothouse Parisian cafe dream of longing for lands of sun and minaret among the mist and iron lampposts.

Two panels from Les Heures du Jour, 1899: 
Repos de la nuit & Éveil du matin. 

Imagine if the Art Nouveau paintings were a place, if the unfurling struts of Alphonse Mucha's artwork were delicately folded into a doorway. For his paintings have no ordinary backgrounds, seem glimpsed instead through scrollwork, a tracery of leaves, more kaleidoscope than landscape and yet inviting and warm as the door to some grand salon swung briefly open to reveal a burst of light and laughter, the smell of blossoms, fragrance, smooth bare shoulders fresh as peaches in the winter night. Though they now exist on everything from necklaces to iPad cases, when has a room ever been built that allows you to step into the brocaded intricacies of his imagination?

Victor Horta, later Baron Horta, came perhaps the closest with the Hôtel Tassel --and why is it that I can only find pictures of this bloody stairwell? Here are three different views of it, all of them lovely, if perhaps a bit maddening in their insistence; of course other pictures do exist, but they all seem rather barren compared to the living curves and fernlike profusion here at the turning of the steps. I have yet to see a room by Horta that seems as alive and sinuous as this movement between floors....

Another marvelous place my living room has its roots well folded into is the Chapel of the Chimes, a columbarium built by Julia Morgan in Oakland, California. This place seems more holy library than repository of death, a labyrinth full of exquite vaulted chapels full of open stonework windows, so that from afar you may see one room full of a sacred light but when you try to reach it you find yourself inexplicably elsewhere, in a mossy garden echoing the sound of water, or a hallway like the spine of a magical beast...

Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1874
And I am influenced, of course, by the tattooed work of the great Gustave Moreau, whose Salome Dancing Before Herod helped shift the river not only of art but also of ten centuries' worth of dance...but that's another story. For now, his mystic space, o ye spirits, how he sees light...everything bathed in a kind of moonlight, the spray of a fountain, the silvering of stars at twilight.  His paintings are draped with dreamers, sleepers, visionaries...as if he undsterstood before anyone what Baudelaire meant by La Chambre Double. An Orientalist, to be sure, but one interested in the realm of reverie; his Salome, dancing, is not a lewd seductress but a mystic, in a trance state...later artists (including Mucha) painted her increasingly as a scheming strumpet, but Moreau allowed her a kind of dignity (with the exception of a peculiar watercolor of such a completely different style I feel brazenly entitled to overlook it entirely. This not being an art criticism lecture but a sheerly personal imagining, I will simply pretend it doesn't exist...)

And finally, there is my own last, lost, living room, an ode to Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, Gaston Bachelard, Lewis Carroll and Louis Aragon. Here, a glimpse of its celestial ceiling, a miniature cathedral in the making. I don't miss it; I hadn't learned how to make a sacred space a living one. It was magical, oh yes, but not alive...(Do you see the moss that creeps into Cleopatra's room? How wonderful -- not the usual violent female Pharoah up to her elbows in blood and rose petals, but a woman caught between two worlds, the earth coming to speak to her in the splendor of her chambers...)

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

a recipe for several kinds of warmth

The foods of the soul are many, but on the first truly cold night of autumn my favorite recipe is this:

Invite to your house a dear friend, maybe two. The ones I like best for this are those who will bring over books or journals, colored pencils, quiet, dreamy projects, and can spend the evening moving unselfconsciously from conversation into a reverie of work and back again.

Quiet music is all right, if you like it.

A bottle of apple cider, bought fresh and warmed in a pan with cinnamon sticks and afterwards poured over a little bit of whiskey in the mug, is a nice thing, and so is tea. Make sure you have something big enough to warm your hands -- not because it's cold, but so you can wrap it in your palms when you are lost in thought mid-conversation.

And at some point, probably the beginning so the fine smell of it will permeate the house as you sit pleasantly together, make some of this:

¼ cup shortening
¼ cup sugar
spices: how much? oh, plenty of cinnamon and a dash of ground cloves, or something like ten whole ones; I like a good grating of nutmeg too.
ginger -- fresh ginger is a must. I use a big nubbin and grate it in, making sure to squeeze the hairy useless nub over the pan before I toss it to get out all the good juices. half a cup of finely chopped candied ginger in addition is delicious.
1 ¼ cups flour
½ cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda plus ¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup boiling water
1 beaten egg
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Cream the shortening and sugar together. Sift the sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, flour and baking powder together. Beat the ½ teaspoon soda into the molasses until it is light and fluffy, and add to the shortening and sugar. Add the ¼ teaspoon soda to the boiling water, and then add it alternately with the sifted dry ingredients. Fold in the beaten egg when all is well mixed. The mixture will seem too thin to make a cake but do not increase the quantity of flour.

Pour into a greased and floured pan and bake...how long? if you use a loaf pan, almost an hour, sometimes more, depending on such strange vagaires as all good recipes depend on. You can use cake pans, but there is nothing so satisfying as the loaf, unless you pour it into muffin tins and make it like that instead...I find the muffins often come out oddly peaked, but no less delicious.

To be eaten with applesauce, somewhat dreamily.

Try to make extra and put it in the fridge; if anything, it is more heavenly the next day, thinly sliced and cold and buttered! MFK Fisher says so, and she's right.

This will stay the soul well against the coming winter.

Friday, October 15, 2010

haikus and small cthulhus

a haiku by Buson:

      The lights are going out
in the doll shops --
      spring rain.

My whole childhood is held in these words. There is the antique shop somewhere in Britain where my grandfather bought me my first china doll, named Marigold, a little doll with a sober face and brown silk ribbons on her dress, on an afternoon I remember as being gray and grim, and the dollshouse shops with tiny baskets full of flowers hanging from minute wrought iron curliques and four-poster beds resplendent in glass boxes. There is A Little Princess, the movie of which I never saw and so kept my own gray-golden gaslight impression of a London forever in the rain untouched, and the delicate and sentimental illustrations of The Story of Holly and Ivy  (though oddly enough Google Books presents me with a book called "Wall Street and the Security Markets" when I search for it, which almost makes sense on an allegorical level -- the one viciously spiked, the other dangerously inclined to take things over and choke them slowly to death? -- but sadly lacks the dainty post-Victorian aesthetic.) And a thousand other faint and luminous layers of half-dreamed images, falling away inside me to be fitted tenderly into the case of my heart.

all the tools work...

I spent a lot of time alone when I was young. I liked it that way; I like it that way now. I like haiku for its relationship to solitude, its intense evocativeness. (And why is evocative only an adjective, evoke only an active verb, and no noun exists to characterize the evocative essence of things, that which evokes?) It opens little doorways into worlds, one small painter's box of words containing a beautifully unbounded space inside, a mutable universe.  

A haiku is what my father once called a toy: "Every toy is a microcosm, a miniature model of the universe. Like the great cosmos, the toy has a spark of life or motion that acts from inside out. But it's a toy because it's small and comprehensible, a thing we can grasp, a thing so trivial it can be handed to a child. The toy gives me the world in a form I can hold." My other words for this are trinket, amulet.

Those vast worlds held close in amulaic things -- small bottles, boxes, certain words and talismans, a stone, a spice -- share for me certain colors. Those of my my childhood seems steeped in a way of seeing that takes the light directly from Impressionism but fills it with a sadder rain. (Even John Singer Sargent, who should have known better, being British, fills his paintings with such dappled warmth...) James Tissot's portraits, though, especially of women, come somewhere near the rainy, lamp-lit and delightful melancholy of my youngest reveries....

And so too, uncomfortably enough, does Thomas Kinkade:

My childhood was not all treacle, though, and there is this wonderful painting to counteract the manufactured syrup of The Painter of Light (TM):

Ah yes, Cthulhu. Insipid landscape painters beware.At this size on my screen, a couple inches square, this too becomes a talisman: what is more wonderful than a very tiny monster?