Monday, November 20, 2006

The repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets

Back in August, I wrote about my need to set out for something new. The something, it turns out, is graduate school in public policy or public administration, and then moving overseas for the foreseeable future, working on reconstruction, peacebuilding and development in conflict or post-conflict situations. Three to five years from now, I want to be in Beirut or Basra or Kabul, partnering with religious and tribal leaders to rebuild streets, redesign sewer systems, or create jobs: whatever is most needed and wanted by the people I'm working with. Why this, why me, why grad school first, and what it all means aren't subjects I want to dissect in a post. Suffice it to say that I'm going through a time of transition, with attendant rough edges and general edginess. I can't focus on anything other than the details of moving forward: school choices, essays, recommendations, transcripts... But when this passage from Isaiah was read on Sunday morning, I stopped and listened. Here was the prophet talking about exactly what I want to do-- repair breaches, restore streets and gardens-- and making it clear that this fast is chosen and blessed by God. I don't need to look outside its bounds for a calling or a spiritual life. I can pursue that kneeling in a church or pacing around a beaten-up, burnt-down office, with people arguing, weapons being waved, and chaos around every corner. As long as I am focused on making a space for the possibility of shalom, I think I'll be doing what I'm supposed to do.

Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and the Lord will say, 'Here I am.' If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Restoration of Bagh-e-Babur, Kabul, 2005

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Parable of the Old Men and the Young (Wilfred Owen)

The Parable of the Old Men and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

- Wilfred Owen

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Sun Rising (John Donne)

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys, and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me
Whether both the'Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear: "All here in one bed lay."

She'is all states, and all princes I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar'd to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy'as we,
In that the world's contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

- John Donne

Photo is a San Francisco morning from Andrew Sullivan's series "The View from Your Window." Can't figure out how to make line indents show up in Blogger, hence the odd formatting of this poem.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Feast in Candlelight (Fadhil Al-Azzawi)

Feast in Candlelight

Here is the twentieth century
in its long, dim hall
with murderers and conjurers
sitting at its table
in the flickering candlelight
of their victory,
waiting for their meal.
The waiters come out
one by one
from their hidden corners,
balancing dishes of darkness
on their heads
to serve their guests.

They will all drink from the same bottle
and watch the evening fall among the trees.
Parades of drunken soldiers
wave their bloody flags
and march down the street.

Through the window
the moon will soon shine.

When they finish their feast,

we will sit at that same table
and drink the same wine

- Fadhil Al-Azzawi

Monday, September 11, 2006

On a grey, rainy 11 September

A poem that I love for its ambiguity-- I've seen it used as a statement of faith in the face of everything, but today it strikes me as bleak and terrible.


with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks that use us we are saying thank you

with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank thank you

with the animals dying around us

our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.

- W.S. Merwin

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Resurrexit (Anselm Kiefer)

The gallery card accompanying this painting says that the title, Resurrexit, is a melding of "resurrection" and "exit". The word is, of course, also Latin: "Christus resurrexit," we sing on Easter. But this painting doesn't fit into a morning of incense, lilies, and bells. Here, a snake slithers over flame-colored leaves, down an alley of bare trees toward a smoky sky. The stairs leading up and out are tacked onto the top, the transition from forest to indoors unclear. They resemble the stairs to the attic Kiefer was using for a studio at the time. Do exit and resurrection take place through art? Or is the painting saying that the way to resurrection/exit-- like any death, despite our hope for rebirth-- is narrow and difficult, with the end result unclear?

It's a rather bizarre juxtaposition of two quite different artists, but looking at this, I'm reminded of Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Lame Shall Enter First," in which a widowed father anxious to pursue good works does so at the expense of a relationship with his own son. The boy takes to reading the Bible and studying the stars from an attic room, and believes he has seen his dead mother in the heavens. One evening, his father has a moment of radical clarity and realizes he's neglected the one person he loves the most. He rushes up the stairs to him, throwing open the door to find the "image of his salvation" has hung himself, an act O'Connor calls his "flight into space". Who knows what kind of resurrection/exit lurks behind the door to Kiefer's attic?

The Drowned and the Saved (Primo Levi)

Primo Levi's first book was published in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz, and everywhere else under the title If This Is a Man. (It's absolutely infuriating--this flattening and simplifying of titles for the U.S. market. For example, the film Regeneration based on Pat Barker's excellent novel of the same name is called here Behind the Lines. And Levi's second book The Truce was called here The Reawakening. Can Americans not comprehend ambiguous or allusive titles? Must we have optimism smiling up from every bookcover?)

If This Is a Man is the perfect title for Levi's account of his imprisonment in Auschwitz. He describes the stripping away of anything that resembles humanity, telling his story and those of others in spare words whose muted intensity makes them all the more compelling. He ends the book with the arrival of the Russians at Auschwitz, told in one sentence between a description of emptying the latrines and carrying out a man who had died in the night. No light at the end of the tunnel, no sense that survival was preordained in any way. It's the immediacy of the book that stands out the most for me: in his preface, Levi describes his motivation in writing as "interior liberation" and notes that the chapters were written in order of urgency, not necessarily of chronology. His direct prose reflects his need to provide a precise, honest accounting of what happened.

The Drowned and the Saved, Levi's last book, is a series of essays examining aspects of the Holocaust forty years later. While he uses himself as an example at times, Levi's concern is with the univers concentrationnaire and all its inhabitants, living and dead. He begins with the problem of memory, truth, and the many ways in which they are simultaneously unearthed and obscured: through denial and mendacity to be sure, but also through the more natural stylizing of memories on the part of those who have done things which they do not care to remember, and those who cannot bear to remember the events they have lived through.

Levi recreates step by painstaking step the stratification of the Lager and the useless violence that the camp's authorities employed, violence that seemed to serve no point but to inflict pain, "occasionally having a purpose, yet always redundant, always disproportionate to the purpose itself." Yet it seems that inflicting such extreme pain and degradation served a purpose after all: dehumanizing the victims to the point where the murderer's job is easy. And the masters of the univers concentrationnaire managed to dehumanize and murder their victims while keeping their hands clean. The acts of beating and controlling prisoners was delegated to Kapos selected from among their ranks, and gassing was carried out by special details of prisoners, Sonderkommandos, in order to underscore just how subhuman the victims were. Levi states baldly the ultimate effect this useless/useful violence has, an effect other Holocaust writers sometimes seem to ignore: ''It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system sanctifies its victims: on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.''

Levi examines the inner workings of degraded victims: Chaim Rumkowski (head of the Judenrat in the Łódź ghetto), the prisoners who served as barracks heads, clerks, Kapos-- all people we might like to condemn for accepting favor or power from their oppressors. He probes their decisions, actions, and excuses calmly and thoroughly-- not justifying or absolving them, but allowing these men and women their unavoidable humanity. We can still judge them-- and in some cases, Levi does--but we cannot refuse to understand them. Witness his words on Rumkowski:

His folly is that of presumptuous and mortal Man as he is described by Isabella in Measure for Measure, the Man who,

Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.

Levi writes about the past, but he is writing for the present and future. The book ends with a call for the wisdom and action needed to end current violence and the threat of nuclear annihilation, dangers whose genealogy Levi traces back to the violence of Hitler's Germany in a fascinating passage (pp. 200-201.) Interestingly, this makes the book feel more dated, not less, perhaps because the threat of nuclear war and world war has faded. The world seems as much on the brink as ever, but there are many brinks and many prescriptions for action (and many blind eyes), making his language of "we" and "our" and "men of goodwill" seem like what it is, an exhortation from a different era.

In writing The Drowned and the Saved, Levi is trying to erect a dike against the trend of simplification and stereotype and the widening gap between "things as they were 'down there' and things as they are represented by the current imagination, fed by approximate books, films and myths." Levi's tone and his method of inquiry serve his efforts well: scrupulous, precise, analytical, but (and some of his critics miss this) also full of passion, compassion, and condemnation. This clear-eyed vision is what remains with the reader long after Levi’s book is put aside.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth at the Hirshhorn is awesome, in the way the word is meant to be used. The exhibition is dominated by Kiefer's enormous canvases, with paint caked on and built up; lead and wire elements hanging from them; nuclear submarines, sunflowers, cages, window frames, skis attached. Kiefer's usual palette of blacks, browns, and greys sets a consistently somber tone, as do the now-expected lines (furrows, railroad tracks) that draw the eye up to high, dark horizons. The paintings are complemented by similarly imposing, mysterious sculptures-- a massive book with wings that's rooted to the ground, a bookshelf with its volumes crushed by meteorites, books made of lead whose pages are as tall as a man.

The show spans several decades of Kiefer's output and fits a vast array of sub-themes under its broad heading. An exhibit of Kiefer's star paintings and would be enough to delve into for hours, but they are broken up among paintings of his studio, representations of odd Godheads, palettes superimposed over landscapes, sunflowers displayed in books and ruined halls. There's so much on offer, and yet it's an incomplete picture of his art: the recurring images of charred, cracked and riven earth refer back to his earlier works on the Holocaust and post-Holocaust Germany, which are barely touched on. How does one get from the suffocating earth pictures to the evocative but mysterious heaven pictures? When did Kiefer make the leap and begin discussing the cosmos, and why? What is it exactly that he's saying about heaven? His heaven is even darker and more distant than his earth-- there is little escape there, and a lot of doom. The exhibition guide says that Kiefer's images "intertwine a complex range of sources, including alchemical treatises; Nordic, Greek, Egyptian and early Christian mythology; and mystical Jewish texts, often relating these subjects to modern history." So much is clear. But how and why he's moved from recent German history to the sweep of human history and beyond remains a mystery.

The final room has more light and buoyancy than the rest of the exhibition put together: in "Leviathan", a model of a nuclear submarine crests a purple wave on a sunny day; in "Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo", golden metal sunflowers emerge from red, white, and lead books, on which the white crests against the red clay like waves breaking over rocks. While the sea is a turbulent, destructive force in some of the other works, here one thinks of the early days of creation and the forming of the earth from the void. And yet there is no commentary on what appears to be a new mood from Kiefer. I don't mind the artist and the art being a mystery, but I do mind the curators not bothering to tease it out a bit.

All that said, I loved the chance to see all these Kiefers in one place together, as I'd seen mostly prints and those a couple at a time. I went with an artist friend, and hearing her explain his techniques and delight in them added a whole new dimension to the experience. The Hirshhorn puts on some of the best exhibitions in town: the 2002-2003 Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera is still one of my all-time favorites, the 2003 Gerhard Richter show had an intriguingly different feel from its stop at MoMa, and Gyroscope, the exhibition of pieces from the permanent collection was just a hoot.