Jun 28, 2013


Mirrors to Look Into
Before Midnight, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is the third movie in a trilogy about the 20-year love affair and not-quite-marriage of Jesse, a successful American novelist, and Celine, a French bureaucrat and liberal activist. Even in the somewhat saccharine opening scenes, revealing two or more articulate, progressive, quick-witted people, we’re likely to notice that he tends toward arrogance, she toward hysteria (if that's too grand a word, think Drama Queen).  I predict that some viewers will hate him or her, or both, or the whole movie, but I predict those witnesses will end up in long and useful discussions about what they’ve seen.

We begin at the end of a summer in the southern Peloponnese, a romantic site where things begin sweetly, but where, almost three millennia  ago, a helluva series of wars occurred, and even now, on a much smaller domestic scale, the seeds of conflict are sewn. At a bucolic dinner for eight intelligent friends, comments pretending affection are also filled with menace.

I’ve attended such dinners, and I found this one disturbingly real. No one is willing to fire a cannon, so pellets of mustard gas drop discreetly under the table. The characters, experienced at this gamesmanship, are able to smile and hold their noses all at once. 

Branch That Bends

What made me most uncomfortable and what I might have liked most about the movie was that alternation between frontal attack and guerilla warfare in a long-term, transatlantic relationship, including three children, Jesse’s ex-wife and son in Chicago, the twin girls he and Celine have together, and Celine’s former romances and escapades.

Jesse and Celine both want their way, but both hope to play by some set of rules. Sometimes they do. But in almost every exchange they push each other’s buttons in destructive ways that are at least half-deliberate. Then they quickly retreat into euphemism or wit or intellectual digressions.

Tag, you’re it. No, I’m not. Yes, you are. We ought to be more mature. But we’re not. That’s right. Well, I am. No, you’re not. We’re too modern and sophisticated for this. Apparently we’re not. 


Play long enough and the wounds grow deep, not to mention the fatigue. Chances are, if we’re honest, we know we’ve all played—if not domestically, then professionally or politically or morally. More subconsciously than unconsciously, we try to get away with self-serving maneuvers, and it’s a complex game of deception, a mean beast with tentacles. Before Midnight wore me out, but I felt gratitude that these filmmakers were treating the subject of contemporary marriage with realism, exhausting and uncertain as it is.

Faux Greek
Throughout the movie, the gorgeous Greek setting might act as a palliative against the tensions among the characters. The color and the prettiness help to prevent another Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Before Midnight is that complex without being as bleak; its characters are not as cannibalistic or as removed from Western social norms as Albee’s grim academic foursome.

By the way, I saw the first two Jesse and Celine movies, liked them, forgot them. I don’t think that will happen this time, and, by the way, those two forerunners are in no way a requirement for understanding this film. 


Jun 14, 2013


Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to shorten my posts, but one thing or another about a good poem teases me into holding the podium. In Sidney Wade’s “Birding at the Dairy,” the lure was the unlikely sum of three references to birds that are in some way “headed,” culminating in a “many-headed” flock. A yellow-headed blackbird, a brown-headed cowbird, and a “many-headed” “congress” of starlings--so much “headed”-ness is surely no accident in a poem as intelligent, faithful in detail and rich in metaphor as “Birding at the Dairy.”  Wade’s witnessing of starlings hooked the minor league birder in me, word count be damned. So, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets website, here it is:


Wade’s speaker is surprised by the birds, maybe a thousand, as they take flight, more or less in unison and in shifting patterns. In the lexicon of birders, a flock of starlings is called a “murmuration," and anyone who’s seen even a small murmuration of starlings rising and then waltzing in the air might agree that they seem a “congress / of wings.” That includes both the chummy accord and the corruption we might hear in the word “congress.” “Commingles,” “Maneuvering,” and “schooling” are also unromantic words that might not smell entirely wonderful; they might even feel close to something sinister in a poem that’s almost mystically positive about the starlings, for the most part. Remember this slight ambivalence as we continue to marvel at the birds' harmony in large waves that “undulate” and “turn liquid” as they rise. 

In fact, when we hear “undulate,” we might think of snakes.  Among birds, starlings (which in the U.S. are invaders from Europe) have a lousy reputation, and surely there’s something spooky about any many-headed animal.


Mythology supports a feeling we're likely to have about polycephaly (having two or more heads), perhaps because we humans find that our single heads are often more than we can cope with. In any case, having multiple heads is natural as a nightmare trope, in real-life as well as literature and art.

It's no surprise, then, that Wade’s many-headed bird tribe also alludes to ancient monsters.  Wikipedia tells us that antiquity offered different portraits of Cerberus, the dog that guards the gates of Hell to prevent the damned from escaping:   “The most notable difference is the number of its heads:  Most sources describe or depict three heads; others show it with two or even just one; a smaller number of sources show (sic) a variable number, sometimes as many as 50 or even 100.”

Another image from the Ancients is the Hydra monster:  “In Greek mythology, the Lernaean Hydra (Ancient Greek:Λερναία δρα) was an ancient serpent-like chthonic water beast, with reptilian traits (as its name evinces), that possessed many heads — the poets mention more heads than the vase-painters could paint, and for each head cut off it grew two more — and poisonous breath and blood so virulent even its tracks were deadly.[1] The Hydra of Lerna was killed by Hercules as the second of his Twelve Labours.” Surely Sidney Wade's undulating body of starlings suggests serpents, and in their sheer numbers and magical formations, perhaps the Hydra in particular. 

For more headed-ness, here’s Wikipedia on the yellow-headed blackbird, a very handsome creature. “They often migrate in huge flocks with other species of birds,” which is a behavior noted in the poem. Also, “They nest in colonies, often sharing their habitat closely with the Red-winged Blackbird.”  

Compared to monsters and magic, the "Dairy" in the poem’s title seems all milk and cheese, a wholesome base for birders. However, in checking up on yellow-headed blackbirds (again, in Wikipedia as well as The Cornell Lab of Ornithology), I learned that they breed as far east and north as Wisconsin, where dairy is king.  Still, it's more reasonable to think of them as a predominantly western and southwestern bird, and thus a bird that seems out of place, or at least unexpected, near a dairy. 

Also, note that it's a marsh bird that (paradoxically?) favors hot, dry climates, but the immediate connotation of “dairy” suggests Midwestern or Northeastern greenness.  So the poem’s title info, “Birding at the Dairy,” might set up a contrast--yellow-headed blackbirds from the high plains and desert appear in the creamy Midwest. Landscape, birds, and relative humidity are all somewhat surprising or twofold in the poem’s world. Is this yen and yang, or a duality that implies conflict? Whatever the answer, surprise, if not unease, is an important feature. 

brown-headed cowbird
As for the brown-headed cowbird, its reputation is almost as bad as the starling’s:  the cowbird “is a brood parasite: it lays its eggs in the nests of other small passerines (perching birds).”  That’s also from Wikipedia, where the information about cowbirds and the other, hosting species is fascinating. I urge readers to spend a few minutes on Wikipedia's discussion of the cowbird’s peculiar, if not evil habits.

The cowbirds make a life-and-death mess of things for the other birds that host them, but they’re also just doing what they’re wired to do. Considering the implications of that for humans is another topic, and true, we are not birds. Still, go ahead and consider it. Such exploration is one of the main benefits of poetry. 

Birders seek out new or rare birds—or birds with singular beauty or singular behavior, such as starlings, which really do “swarm” and “undulate.” (See the video below).  Some species carry the brand of scoundrel, yet their appearance and some of their behaviors are stunning. In addition to undulating, and convening as a “congress,” and “murmur”ing as a collective, look what else Sidney Wade’s starlings do. They are a:

            wave that veers

            and wheels, a fleet
            and schooling swarm 

            in synchronous alarm,
            a bloom radiating 

            in ribbons, in sheets,
            in waterfall,

            a murmuration
            of birds

            that turns
            liquid in air . . . .

It’s a visual symphony. If you doubt it, see the video in the link below. (In fact, please see it, period). Why should we be surprised that such an image suddenly rhymes at the end, as the word “prayer” echoes “air”?

But it’s a  “seething” prayer, which calls up feelings of fury and aggression—appropriate for many-headed animal-monsters, one of whom guards the River Styx at the boundary of Hell. And neither starling nor yellow-headed blackbird nor brown-headed cowbird has a pleasant song. What they issue is closer to a growl, glug and screech than a lullaby, yet Wade calls it a prayer. She catches the paradox or duality or dichotomy—whatever it is—at the heart of so much beauty. 

Beauty wins, but in the wonder of it, it's also foreign and at least vaguely threatening. It's a beauty that is fleeting yet timeless, "fluid" yet suggestive of perfection and eternity, especially if we allow for the role of memory, which preserves our experiences with the gorgeous and the stunning. 
cardinal, snow, ambivalence

In the face of magnificence, we are diminished, dwarfed, threatened by an image so alien and large, so much better than we are. It might even be divine; in the end, the starling's murmuration is 

            the breath

            of a great
            seething prayer.

Surely this sounds like an epiphany, including the original religious overtones of the word. Yet we’re ambivalent about it—its appetites! The glory we witness might overtake us—or it already has. So we are humbled, and we pray. Maybe the starlings are the form of our prayer, and maybe, like them, we are so fervent that we seethe, croak and gurgle as we become our own prayer, in both shape and content.

Is it because the starlings follow each other—I almost said “blindly”—in such majestic patterns of flight that they become a prayer? Whatever the answers, there’s no doubt that these birds are a gathering of disparate beings, and I suggest that this includes not only the individual birds in the murmuration but also all birds and all of nature in a coming together with humanity. Whoever offers that prayer and whoever is that prayer, in all its visual drama, the sound of it is a murmur.

cardinal, snow, humility
To appreciate how spectacular a murmuration of starlings can be, and to read more about them, click below. Oh, please click below and watch the two-minute video. I know it takes time, but it’s a pleasure, and you’ll be a better person afterward.

My thanks to the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day for making me aware of the poem.


Jun 8, 2013

Bird and Tree Identification: A Little Help, Please?

Can anyone help with some bird identification (in a less than perfect photo)? At first I thought this was an Eastern Phoebe, but upon looking at and listening to similar birds (at Cornell Lab of Ornithology), others seemed at least as likely.  (My photos:  Stage Nature Center, Troy, Michigan). 


Eastern Wood-Pewee

Great Crested Flycatcher   (medium size, suburban and deciduous treetop hunter)

I’d love to say I “captured” a Great Crested Flycatcher--I hear Great White Shark there. Or Lavender Grizzly. But I’m not sure my guy’s belly is that colorful. So I’m guessing he's an Eastern Wood-Pewee, which is a pretty cool name as well--less dignified, yet better than an eastern pee pee. (Pee Wee Reese?  Pee Wee Herman?).

The Peewee’s song is the best fit, and my guy’s belly seems a bit more colorful than the Eastern Phoebe, though my photos don’t show it well.


Regarding metaphor: At first, I was also considering the Eastern Kingbird, but one site says that his belly is so white, and in such contrast to his dark grey back, that he looks as if he's wearing a charcoal business suit and white shirt. My guy was somewhat brownish, maybe with a touch of olive, and some faded color on the underside. Also, the Kingbird is larger). 

While we're at it, does anyone know what tree that is in the first photo, the one with the very, very pale green leaves?  Here it is again, against a darker green. 

I appreciate any help.

Jun 6, 2013


Sarah Polley’s new movie, Stories We Tell, is excellent in revealing character after character from her childhood as she seeks to know her mother more completely. The film entertains while raising big questions about our ability to apprehend reality through memory.
It’s a subject that invites didacticism and pretentiousness, but Polley has found a way to show rather than tell, to enact important, interesting experiences rather than summarizing or lecturing about them, even when her overall purpose is as philosophical—as epistemological—as it is personal.  

Her strategy involves a question of authorial honesty: do the ends justify the means? But I can’t delve into that without spoiling the movie experience for others. I’ll just say this: your take on the movie won’t be complete unless you’ve paid careful attention to the closing credits.

A film about the nature of memory and reality might sound too heavy for a summer’s evening, but Polley’s characters and plot keep moving right along in this 1960s home movie camera’s characterization of Sarah Polley’s mother, Diane, and some significant people in her life. That movement is both entertaining and intellectually engaging, as people and events are alternately revealed and concealed.  

I think most viewers will be pulled into the Polley story and care about some or all of these people—the lively, charismatic, lovable Diane and, more importantly, two generations of her inner circle as they react to Diane.

The memories and versions of Diane are slightly or dramatically different from each other. It’s like that parlor game called Telephone, or Truth, where the story that was whispered by Benny to Betty becomes altered significantly as it’s passed on in whispers to and from a half dozen or so other friends. In Polley’s movie, the stakes are higher; the story is much more than a parlor game. But who has it right?

The characters are articulate, interesting Canadians who have done interesting things—especially in the world of theater. And the stage, of course, presents its own questions about reality. Why might we weep for King Lear but not the old crank across the street? 

If Lear’s daughter Goneril and his loyal servant Kent gave their separate, personal accounts of what has happened to the father and king, we might think we were hearing about two different people. Of course, honesty in the telling would be an issue, too.

The evil Goneril and the impossibly loyal Kent would also be narrating what they need to believe. On top of being genuinely mistaken about the actual Lear, they might knowingly deceive their audience here and there in order to win them over. By the end of the story, we might throw up our hands and wonder if we can know the old guy even existed.

Can a movie that moves and sounds as natural and realistic as Stories We Tell raise legitimate epistemological questions? Can it stir us to wondering (again, I hope) how we can or cannot know what we think we know? Yes, I think so. For pleasure and for more careful thinking about the past, see this film. Then wonder, till the cows come home, whether the popcorn was real. Either way, it’s a richer two hours than anything else you’d have done.

Jun 4, 2013


Robert Bly’s “The Resemblance between Your Life and a Dog” might, in its accessibility, make Billy Collins and others proud. That is not a criticism; there are various ways for a poem to make an impact, to have staying power. Poems that wear everyday clothing might entice more people to stroll along with them, and during those casual walks, some surprising turns can happen, events that are more challenging and magical than first glances indicate.

Ovenbird? Thrush?

Comparing a human life to a stray dog—not just the cliché of a dog’s life, but the dog itself—probably qualifies as a poetic “conceit”—a metaphor or simile that is extremely far-fetched. In any case, Bly establishes his conceit immediately, and I was interested to follow his opening surprise. How does that wagging coexist with the life he “never intended to have?” Where will he go with this mutt that cannot articulate much, but wags—not just its tail, it seems, but its whole self?

The answers, both literal and richly connotative, are:  a boy’s bedroom mirror, a clear river,
mountain wind, a sparrow in winter (which somehow ends up in the same poetic line as the boy’s teachers—explain that), and finally, a return to the stray dog, which is not exactly the lovable pooch of cliché country, but a dog that “Doesn’t particularly like you.”

Winter Sparrow

Yet you must live with him, and vice versa, wondering all the while who owns whom. Especially for those who don’t like poems with bookends, I’ll argue that that’s a remarkable and wonderful circling back to the opening line:  “I never intended to have this life.”

Whether we inhabit a life or it inhabits us, and how much control we have over our lives—those questions crop up periodically (or is it daily?).  Maybe they are merely new phrasings about fatalism, destiny, and such, but Bly shakes it up in a more substantial way, I think. He offers this seemingly small, comfortable chat—dog, farm, wagging, sparrow, river, wind—until we realize we’re facing a big question: Who can say he intended to have this life? Who chose the life he’s had? Who among us can say confidently and honestly how he’d have reacted, at age ten or twenty, if he’d been told what lay ahead in his life? Even the most comfortable among us might have been stronger, waggier, than we’d ever have thought possible.


I’ve known a couple of people who confess that they read the last few pages of a novel before they start Page One. That’s always struck me as not merely odd, but wrongheaded, somewhere between eccentricity and neurosis. Then again, I’m the guy who rarely finishes novels, period.

Although Bly’s poem seems to be well known, I only stumbled across it for the first time this morning in an anthology I’ve long meant to recommend, though it’s a bit pricey (my used copy was $18 at Amazon):  Contemporary American Poetry, eds. A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters. The contents vary somewhat according to the edition; I’ve been very satisfied with the 6th and 8th editions.

By the way, after Bly’s poem, The Writer’s Almanac notes on the novelist Richard Ford are pretty interesting. I still haven’t gotten to Ford’s The Sportswriter; maybe this new bit of info will be the kick in the pants I need.

Lovers' Lane