Sep 30, 2011


The GPAs:               Drive   3.8                       Moneyball  3.6

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan: Animal Attraction

Carey Mulligan Prepares Soup for Her Driver

It’s the weekend, so here are some infallible Banjo tips on movies. 

Don’t think of Drive as one more high-action shoot-em-up.  It is that, but it’s much more. There are holes in the plot a Hummer could drive through, yet the otherwise fresh writing (Hossein Amini) and inventive direction (Nicolas Refn) stopped me from caring too much about plausibility. There’s something going on here that’s bigger than plot.

That something is primarily Ryan Gosling’s unnamed, untamed protagonist in a fascinating study of character, or in a way, the lack of it. A stunt driver, getaway driver, and mechanic supreme, Gosling's character makes Gary Cooper look like a chatterbox. It’s likely that the controlling idea in the movie is the question of what goes on inside the skull and heart of a man who might as well never have learned to talk. Is he an animal? A saint? Can he love? Is this what love looks like, stripped of words to perfume it? Do all of us contain something of the driver's oddly honorable possibilities?

Gosling’s Driver-Mechanic might be every bit the psychopath that Hannibal Lector is, but probably not—if he's savage, he is so with a purpose. He cares deeply, even obsessively and sacrificially, for Carey Mulligan’s angelic, down-on-her-luck young mom, who might as well be single. Our nonverbal Driver-Mechanic is also a capable surrogate dad for Mulligan’s little boy. I’m not sure that’s convincing, but it’s appealing.

Ryan Gosling Looks Out for Bad Guys
Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks are excellent in supporting roles. I knew a bit about Cranston’s range, but I’d never have guessed that Brooks could be so convincing as a crime boss.  

Oscar Isaac, as Carey Mulligan’s convict husband, and Ron Perlman, as Brooks’ subordinate, animalistic thug, are chillingly effective. I’ve rarely been so convinced about the badness of the bad guys, the hollow in the middle of so many of them. And in the case of Isaac’s role as father, husband, and thief, I’ve rarely been made to imagine that I understand and sympathize with such a character, pawn and victim that he is, at least to a considerable extent. 
And Sure Enough, Here Come the Bad Guys
The violent scenes are fairly extreme, but they feel realistic and relevant to character and theme. Also, they are not constant; there's more to the movie than bone crunching and blood. 

Drive offers a fresh take on crime movies, without losing its intensity for the sake of its art.

Based on the true story of the 2002 Oakland A's baseball team, Moneyball is a more conventional movie. Brad Pitt is credible as Billy Beane, Oakland's hard-driving general manager, a man with a vision. Jonah Hill shows some range in his portrayal of Billy’s Number Two Man, a mathematics, economics, and baseball nerd who offers a new strategy for winning games without losing money.

Although I did not remember the fascinating story of these Oakland Athletics and only recently became aware of Billy Beane and real-life moneyball, I am something of sports fan—mostly football and baseball—and it’s hard for me to imagine a non-fan’s response to Moneyball. My best guess is that the characters and plot are more than interesting enough for viewers of all stripes. The movie is about the business end of baseball and its personal stories; it's not just one action shot after another—though there are plenty of those too.

In terms of characterization and ideas, this a story of driven men, the trials of all new kids on any professional block, people with ground-breaking ideas, the trenchant and macho sense of superiority in a circle of men who are not at all superior, and the infamous plantation mentality that hovers at the edges (or centers) of all big-time sports. This might quiet some of the shouting about the high salaries of athletes, who, in their short careers, are bought and sold like chairs, often at the whim of rich old men.

Brad Pitt does as well as he can, given his fame, to be somebody else, to present Billy Beane as a man we might be more tempted to judge than like. He has a cold side, sharp edges, and the question of whether he can rise above that creates much of the movie’s substance. (I thank the real Billy Beane for permitting this multidimensional portrait of him).

For those who are baseball fans, this is probably a must-see flick, even if you’ve read the book. I think anyone who follows sports wonders what goes on behind the scenes in The Show, whether it’s baseball, football, or curling. Moneyball offers a convincing portrait of locker rooms, front office deals, and on-field scenes. It’s a pleasant and educational two hours. 


Sep 29, 2011

Jane Hirshfield, "Tree," Red-bellied Woodpecker

Once again, the bird did it. I've been led to Jane Hirshfield's "Tree" by a woodpecker that caught my ear, then my eye, the other day. I searched for woodpecker poems at Poetry Foundation and found instead Hirshfield's poem with a redwood's tapping, rather than a woodpecker.

Tree by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation

Once again, this is my first experience with the poem I'm offering. So far I like it. I applaud its ambition in posing huge questions without becoming a pretentious tease.  How small can a poem be, or seem, when its subject is gigantic?  And how large or abstract can a poem's subject be before it wanders into the realm of philosophy rather than verse? How philosophical can a poem be without falling into fortune-cookie-think? How can we ask such questions and expect reasonable answers?  How can we fail to ask such questions?

In "Tree," I love the idea that a humongous idea or question can take the form of tapping. Literally, it's tree branches, but why not toss in a Red-bellied Woodpecker as well. Either can suggest something larger than itself and small as a human self. Tap tap.

Ironically, the last time I offered a Jane Hirshfield poem (January 15-16, 2011), it was also related to a woodpecker. In case you're interested:

Tree by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation

Sep 27, 2011

Robert Penn Warren, "Evening Hawk"

Evening Hawk- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

To my ear, eye, and mind, the last two stanzas of Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk” save the poem. I want to share Warren’s exuberant reverence for the bird—the soaring predator and his landscape—but Warren gets a bit grandiose for me. 

Here are just a few examples:  “the peak’s black angularity,”  “last tumultuous avalanche of/Light,”  “the guttural gorge,”  “His wing/Scythes down another day,”  “Look!  Look!  he is climbing the last light.”

And so forth. Any one of these images could be wonderful, a bold stroke; but as a whole, they feel well over the top to me. 

So does this: “The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.”  

Warren thinks this line is grand enough to be its own stanza (I’m tempted to say its own religious text).

I too find hawks thrilling, perhaps because I don’t see many of them, perhaps because of their size and grace, or because of their vision, or because of their skill at killing, or the height of their perspective and the ideas we have about height. But to see them as some kind of celestial judge or marker of time (make that Time, capitalized) strikes me as a bit loud, excessive. 

In the last two stanzas, however, I yield. Even if I think the images and ideas might be grandiose, they are so thought-provoking and original that I cannot resist them. Behold:  

“The last thrush is still,” the last bat flies in “sharp hieroglyphics” and in “ancient wisdom.”  The star is “like Plato, over the mountain.” 

And then, finally, there we are, we small humans: "If there were no wind we might, we think, hear . . ."

But there is wind, so we don’t hear. What we think is wrong or irrelevant, for we hear little or nothing of what we need to absorb. Maybe because it’s too large to seem relevant, or too frightening to accept, we fail to hear

     The earth grind on its axis, or history
     Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.
I’m awed that Warren has had not only the perceptiveness and creativity to see hawk, earth, and humans in these unusual ways, but also the courage to say so.  Or is it just arrogance? In any case, he had to know that when it comes to elegant restraint, he was pushing the limit, if not pulverizing it. Apparently he feels he must—must—go on and say what he’s seen, what he believes, and everything in between.


Sep 23, 2011

Meghan O'Rourke, "Inventing a Horse": Imagination and Creativity Re-Examined

 Inventing a Horse by Meghan O'Rourke : The Poetry Foundation

                                                     From the first line to the last of “Inventing a Horse,” Meghan O’Rourke is hinting at something larger than mammalian horses. She offers no rationale for inventing a horse; the act arrives out of the blue, suddenly and mysteriously. We could pass it off as a child’s fantasy—“Buy me a pony, Daddy”—but it’s also in the first line, from the get-go, that we we’re talking about pretending in larger terms. We’re not buying a pony, but inventing a horse, and that “is not easy.”

Immediately, the inventor (the dreamer? the creator?) finds that there would be many additional duties, all of which imply something much more adult and weighty than a child’s desire to ride. We could pass it all off as the parent reminding the child that caring for an animal takes time and effort. But in that case, would he make ominous statements such as ”live with humans like you?”  Or “accustom him to the harness?” And would even the most formal, distant father speak these lines to a daughter about the horse she desires? 

            and not to grow thin in the city,
   where at some point you will have to live;

and one must imagine the absence of money.
Most of all though: the living weight,
the sound of his feet on the needles,
and, since he is heavy, and real . . .
No, I think Meghan O’Rourke is very skillfully playing a rhetorical game. She gives us a whiff of the specifics that might concern a father, but from the first line, the poet has loaded the situation with overtones that are dark, difficult, pragmatic, economic, philosophical, psychoanalytic.

O’Rourke is having her cake and eating it too, playing at a childhood situation while driving at something adult and complex. So, by the time we get to the more obviously daunting questions, we’ve been prepared for them:

and, since he is heavy, and real,

. . .  one must imagine love
in the mind that does not know love,

an animal mind, a love that does not depend
on your image of it,
your understanding of it;

    I find those lines chilling, haunting, almost Gothic, the creation of a Frankenstein—or is it Hannibal Lector whose mind "does not know love?" 

    So what is this scary metaphor for or symbol of a horse? I suspect it’s poetry—or art in general.  Once “invented,” art, like a half-pretend, half-material horse, is full of considerations that are, if I may quote myself, dark, difficult, pragmatic, economic, philosophical, psychoanalytic. 

Like O’Rourke’s symbolic horse, a poem or painting is indifferent to the nutrients for a literal horse, because the work of art is an invention, not a palpable, hungry, breathing, and above all, not a loving presence. So it is:

indifferent to all that it lacks:

a muzzle and two black eyes
looking the day away, a field empty
of everything but witch grass, fluent trees,
and some piles of hay.
Like the Mona Lisa of the 1950s song, this invented horse is just a cold and lonely, lovely piece of art. Yet I do not mean to diminish the scope or sophistication of the poem by comparing it to something in pop culture as well as a child's imagining.  By offering this notion of a poem, Meghan O'Rourke is able to conjure all the romance, gallantry, nobility, and simply all the pleasure of a horse. In a modern culture where horses are not a primary or practical means of transportation or labor, all those characteristics amount to a child's enjoyment of riding; it’s a fanciful, pretend world. So O’Rourke tries to give us the weightier aspects of invention as well.

s  She has taken an enormous chance here—the chance of sounding foolish. A poem as a child’s horse might even seem to degrade, or at least challenge, every traditional, loftier notion we have about the nature of artistic creation. But Meghan O’Rourke sees that the experience of writing is all that—a child’s infatuation, a romantic gambol, but also a gallop into awareness of darker matters.  She makes every piece of the puzzle fit, and gives us a fresh consideration of creativity. It's an intriguing, provocative ride. 

Inventing a Horse by Meghan O'Rourke : The Poetry Foundation

Sep 19, 2011

Cedar Waxwings, "Psyche and Eros in Florida" by Debora Greger

Saturday I caught this cedar waxwing in a treetop. I didn’t know what it was—maybe “just another” cardinal, I thought--a female. But with digital photography, your chances cost nothing, so I fired away, without much hope. I’m especially happy to have caught her with crest raised. (Why “her”? I guess it's the lingering notion of female cardinal. Otherwise, I have no idea.).

At the same site a week earlier, I tried to catch some cedar waxwings, casual but flitting among berries. They seemed to be posing, and I thought I had at least a couple of fine shots. But here, sadly, is the best of them:

I looked for a poem specifically about cedar waxwings and found this one by Debora Greger, who has published eight books of poetry. She is the life partner of poet and critic William Logan, who’s been discussed here a few times in the last few months. Both writers teach at the University of Florida.

Psyche and Eros in Florida by Debora Greger : Poetry Magazine

Once again, this is my first experience with a poem, and I'm not sure how all the parts fit together. However, I like some of it very much:

They devour the fruit no local bird wants.
Unswerving, they swerve through clotheslines.
Let their whispery cries be mine.
Their whisper of wings is yours.

The drop of wax that fell on your bare shoulder.
Why didn’t you want me to see you? 

what of the traitorous, languorous body?
It lies down. It begs.


Sep 16, 2011

Henry Reed and Yusef Komunyakaa on War

Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” is an excellent companion to the Henry Reed war poems discussed here Sept. 6 and 8.  Here are all three poems:

Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa : The Poetry Foundation
In the literal, primary, temporal moment of "Facing It," the speaker is a black Vietnam vet standing at the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial wall in Washington, D.C.  But his images morph as he becomes more and more involved in the names and memories he sees etched in stone. The mind of Komunyakaa’s speaker slides in and out of past and present settings, in and out of reality, whatever that might be--there are mirages.

This shape-shifting forces us out of the comfort of our own selves, out of our of linear rationality, and into the consciousness of the speaker. We experience his psyche as it absorbs scenes and images, without clear, neat transitions. Staying tuned to that channel, or mix of channels, might require at least a second reading, but of course that’s true of any poem that’s worth much. 
In each of Henry Reed’s poems, there are actual changes of speakers, without clear notation by word or punctuation; but I think most readers will see what’s going on if they give it a second, slower effort. Even though the young speakers are not presently under fire, Reed’s two recruits are stunned, dazed, and more or less brutalized by the mechanization in military thinking. 

Both of Reed’s poems present training for war as the enemy of beauty, sensitivity, sensuousness, love, and a sense of belonging. Flowers, bees, and human sexuality are presented as the opposites of war—and they are war’s victims, before a shot is ever fired. The drill sergeant’s instructions might be clear; they might even seem rational compared to the recruit’s daydreaming. But the sergeants' words are also as cold and hard as the machinery they describe.

Similarly, Komunyakaa’s speaker is adrift, mesmerized by the surreal contrast between a cold, stone monument and the human flesh, the life stories, the monument tries to honor. So it’s fitting that we readers are dragged into the speaker’s daze if we are to move even an inch toward understanding his experience with the monument. Komunyakaa makes us participate in a state of mind that is perhaps beyond our capacity for empathy. 
The three poems present complex psychological situations, so it makes sense that confusion might be part of our reading experience. Preparing for or participating in combat, or trying to make sense of a connection between actual war and a stone memorial—those are complex experiences that we should hope to understand as much as any bystander can.  

Sep 13, 2011

"Messengers" by Louise Glück : Trouble in Paradise

Messengers by Louise Glück : The Poetry Foundation

Sometimes I’ve found Louise Gluck's poems to be prosy and didactic, belaboring the obvious.  However, when I looked for a poem about deer (so I could post my latest photo "captures"),  the trustworthy Poetry Foundation offered Gluck's "Messengers." I don't recall ever seeing the poem, and I like it a lot. It might begin in, or near, the mindset of a typical pastoral idyll. Beautiful Nature’s gorgeous messengers will find us; we “have only to wait.”  Everything is serenely sublime and sublimely serene.
Unless the little clause, “they will find you,” has ominous possibilities as well as comfort. Maybe we need to think harder about who “they” might be. And what about that “black water”?  Black isn’t necessarily inaccurate or impossible as a choice of color for water, but in an idyll, why choose black if the “messengers” are happy critters bearing only good news and sanguine feelings? 

In the second stanza, the deer are noteworthy for their (predictable) beauty, including the “drift” of their nimble, graceful bodies in “bronze panels” of sunlight. Might that bronzing imply statues and immortality?  Of course, that also means death. We only have immortality because we have mortality. Also, what creates “panels” of sunlight if not boundaries of darkness and limitation? If you're picturing ideal worlds, why bring up—if only glancingly—the less happy note of other bodies that do impede the animal that wears them? Are we thinking of the human animal? 

    So by the time we get to the third stanza, where “. . . their cages rust,/the shrubs shiver in the wind,/squat and leafless,”  we’ve been prepared, perhaps unconsciously, for a portrait of nature that is not simple-mindedly, childishly, one-dimensionally wonderful.  Things rust and shiver; things are squat and leafless. Time and mortality are here after all; they were here all along, from the first stanza, even though the deer were pretty.

    This tension between perfect beauty and realistic earthly limits intensifies in the fourth and fifth stanzas, until the lovely messengers are bearing a message entirely different from what we wanted to and tried to expect at the beginning. The lovely geese, deer, and other creatures come before us in the end “like dead things, saddled with flesh.” And we humans are positioned “above them, wounded and dominant.”  Why?  How?

    I’m not confident about this, but I think stanza four’s mysterious cry, which is, or which says, “release” means that we are releasing ourselves from delusions of immortality or perfection on earth and in time.  Our attempt to find earthly creatures and scenes more beautiful and more graceful than ourselves is futile. In some kind of epiphany, we are released into that awareness, or even acceptance, of time and transience. We are released from seeking impossible permanence.

    Of course, such a backward-feeling release would feel like a great gut “wrenching.”  The moon—our romantic sphere of light and a symbol of love (as well as lunacy)—is ripped from the earth we know and rises in a circle of arrows. Literally, the “circle of arrows” is, for me, an impenetrable image.  But figuratively, it's probably an allusion to the virginal Diana with her quiver of arrows, Roman goddess of the hunt, the woodlands, and the moon.

    So the animals we hunt (as well as romanticize) are in the end merely creatures “saddled with flesh.”  In “saddled” there is the suggestion that they are ridden. They are beasts of burden, and we, the hunters, stand “above them, wounded and dominant.”  We are “wounded” by our knowledge of mortality and imperfection, which we cannot escape or avoid even if we try; our illusory moon of delusions is “wrenched” from us. (Clearly, I like that word, “wrenched”).  We are left once again, where we always were, on and of the earth.

    Louise Gluck has written a poem that is very impressive in playing an idealized world against the reality we all know, at some level, we must return to. We are buffeted by the conflict between what we wish were true and what we know to be true. In our knowledge, we are dominant, but our knowledge and dominance have wounded us with sadness.


Sep 8, 2011

Henry Reed, "Judging Distances"

Here is Henry Reed's companion poem to "Naming of Parts," which was posted last time. Once again there are two speakers, but the changes between Speaker A and Speaker B are not as regular as they were in "Naming of Parts." And once again, the requirements for the military way of seeing--of judging distance--is necessarily different from what the recruit is used to.

"Judging Distances" by Henry Reed

Is it fair to paraphrase that in order to destroy efficiently humans and their buildings, one must measure distance differently?  

Sep 6, 2011

Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts" and the Importance of Bees

"Naming of Parts" by Henry Reed

Yesterday I came across some bees. It happened because they were sluggish.  Or dying. They were barely moving on these flowers that camouflaged them so well. What do I know about bees? Maybe they just sit, barely moving, on a flower, for some reason only naturalists know. Maybe this is the bees’ lazy cycle. Nap time for bees. Other animals do it.  

So I googled some phrase like “lazy bees”—actually, I think it was “bees in September”—which took me to the link you find here.  I’d heard about bees being in trouble a couple of years ago, then it slipped from my attention.

Bees Dying at Alarming Rates - CBS News Video

Another question arises. What do bees have to do with poetry? Then I remembered “Naming of Parts,” by Henry Reed (British, 1914-1986).  I’ve been away from the poem for several years, but I still find it brutally subtle (oxymoron intended), at least compared to most anti-war poems, which lay the message on thick. Less really is More, most of the time.

In the fog of memory, I think “Naming of Parts” worked well at showing students how kinds of language can be so different, can convey character and different ways of being in the world.

Here are two speakers, a military instructor and a newbie at some stage of rifle training. His thoughts drift in response to the spoken words of the instructor, who apparently has no sense that his words are numbingly rote and cold at the denotative level, but also vaguely sexual in their connotations. 

If this poem doesn’t illustrate that how we say things is as important as what we say, then maybe we’ll never get beyond shouts versus whispers. I guess I’d describe the difference as the cold, mechanical language of business, war, and old-fashioned, lecture-based classrooms. On the other hand, we hear the recruit’s lyrical, sumptuous language of daydreams, poetry, love, and longing.  Each language embodies and conveys a way of being in the world, and the two ways are anathema to each other. 

In the recruit's way of being, the widespread death of bees would matter, on aesthetic grounds, long before the bee apocalypse affected his food supply. One could almost wonder if seeing and preserving beauty are matters of survival.

Bees Dying at Alarming Rates - CBS News Video


Sep 1, 2011


The photos: Lake Huron from the little town of St. Ignace, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge. So, yes, I'm looking east at sunset, which doesn't quite amount to a tragic choice, does it?

I’ve often told students that there are only three works in Western culture that live up to Aristotle’s description of tragedy:  King Lear, The Great Gatsby, and the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Although my primary purpose was to provoke discussion, I think I believed it then and I think I still do.

The key is the issue of tragic greatness. The tragic hero must begin at, or rise to, a height of magnificence from which to fall.  It is not enough that the character fit other ingredients laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics—such as being a fundamentally virtuous  person in spite of the tragic  flaw, which causes terrible mistakes. Many characters in literature (and now film) go through falls from grace or good fortune, and for many we can locate Aristotelian elements, such as a point of reversal or recognition. But the character’s enduring those experiences does not define him as tragic.  He and his situation might be sad. He and his mistakes might cause the destruction of innocent bystanders (tragic waste). He can be more good than not, and he might be important in sociopolitical terms. But if he lacks greatness, his story is merely sad or pathetic, not tragic.

Somewhere along the line, I came to understand tragic greatness as largeness of character, a magnitude of personality, as trivializing as the word “personality” might sound.  A protagonist achieves the status of tragedy because he is extraordinary, qualitatively different from the other characters, some of whom might have been more virtuous, but none of whom is as grand. When the hero is on stage, others are dwarfed, even if they’re nice folks.

So who’s in the competition? Macbeth? That eloquent, hen-pecked sociopath? Hamlet? One more speechifier who thinks himself out of action? Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire?  The narcissistic phony, who contaminates everything she touches?  None of these.  

Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman?  His flaw and his sins are obvious, but where is his virtue, much less his greatness?  No. Loud, clueless, self-centered, manipulative, self-pitying Willie Loman is, at best, a pathetic Low-Man.

More interesting cases are Alan Strang (not Strange, or is he?) and his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, in Peter Shaffer’s riveting  play, Equus. Can a pair of characters become one tragic hero? That’s a problem. Also, Alan might have the great passion of a tragic character, but I stumble at the prospect that pathological lust, rage, and mutilation amount to a tragic greatness of passion.  His doctor, Martin Dysart, is a candidate for tragic status, but isn’t he merely sad, as he stands there, contemplating and half-envying Alan’s great passion?  Is it evasive for me to offer that the play presents a tragedy, even though it lacks a tragic hero?

Troy Maxon in August Wilson’s Fences is another modern candidate for tragic status, but it’s difficult to accept Troy‘s bluster and rationalizations as noble passion. Like Macbeth and Hamlet, perhaps, his brand of verbal eloquence creates heat, not light; it poisons and confines Troy rather liberating him or his son.

As a genuine victim of American racism, Troy is perhaps more sympathetic than Willie Loman or Blanche DuBois, but  he’s closer to their kind of plight than Lear’s or Gatsby’s. He wants to limit his son to a cage of anger like his own, rather than freeing him, sending him through newly, slightly opened doors on a path away from American racism. I’d also argue that his wife, Rose, surpasses him in both virtue and greatness, but she is decidedly a supporting character, not a protagonist.

That’s more than enough for now. In responding to all this, please don’t feel limited to the works I’ve mentioned. Think of a literary or film character who falls from a greatness defined by his own largeness of personality, as well as his having the famous “tragic flaw” and thus producing mistakes as large and grand as he is. He’s also a character who experiences a point of recognition (think “epiphany”; think Aha moment—“That's where I blew it!”) before he falls—not necessarily dying, but falling from his original greatness, beauty,  and magnitude, his stage-seizing  presence.  


Lovers' Lane