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{Sun 13 June 2010}   Alone Together
Alone Together

There’s something so poignant about the phrase, “alone together”. It stuck in my head after I saw this CNN video about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir on YouTube. I presume that most readers of this blog have seen it too. I wonder whether the same phrase at the end of John Vennavally-Rao’s report has also intrigued, delighted and troubled you?

I’m putting down here some random thoughts that haven’t fully coalesced yet into a coherent philosophy, but I’m chasing something/ some things that are hard to see.

The haunting beauty of the choral sound and the inclusive arc of differently coloured faces and backgrounds on the red-curtained stage of cyberspace pleased me deeply. I smiled. I watched it again. I forwarded it to a few friends. I watched it again. I studied a few of the faces — each singing peacefully and unselfconsciously as one can only do in one’s own private space. I felt glad and privileged to have access to those private moments mixed together in an enormous public display that reached and continues to reach across continents and across time. It was/is something precious. I googled Eric Whitacre. I was pleased to read that he’s working on more pieces for the Virtual Choir, perhaps some original work…

And yet, why does it haunt me so? The sense of longing, of reaching out for connection that is communicated to me, the viewer-hearer, is largely a function of the strangeness of the presentation, not of each individual’s communication. Most of the singers look extraordinarily serene, like people absent from the world because they’re in “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).  People who are physically together when singing together, no matter with how much joy or harmony, don’t wear exactly the same expression as an individual in private rapture. Or didn’t, anyway. As we reach out for connection in this new way, are we inviting others to steal a part of our soul that previously only revealed itself to the walls or landscapes of our private spaces?

Even as I delight in the confluence of digital media that make possible this self-revelatory joining of humans who know nothing of each other besides that all (all of those who are featured, anyway) can sing, I cannot help but be conscious of all those intervening media, “the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data”. They make the fragile meaning that could not exist if the electricity failed.

But isn’t this just a logical 21st century extension of the artistic process? Artists have always used materials and techniques to transform base material into something else. It’s what artists do. Why does this seem different to me?

Partly, it’s the ephemerality of it — the is-and-notness that flickers on and off at the whim of the switch. Also, it’s the way the human sources are both enhanced by and subsumed in the media. Their “togetherness” is something that the media help us (and them) to imagine. We imagine willingly, but the compulsive clarity of video entices us to go further — to believe, despite ourselves. This mixture of the not-real and the real is disturbing. The putative “togetherness” (not-real) painfully emphasizes the aloneness (real) of the participants. We see each person’s aloneness clearly, multiplied a hundred times in an instant. Usually, we would suspect it only by extension from our own aloneness, when we can risk being conscious of that, and only one-by-one, from the occasional glimpses provided by circumstance.

On the other hand, we also see some elements that inspire us to seek togetherness… that give us hope. Despite our different countries, languages, cultures, genders and body types, we can all sing; we all aspire to make beautiful sounds; we can participate and cooperate to harmonious effect (albeit with the help of a strong guiding and editing hand); we all seek out private time or space to connect with ourselves, we can all be receptive; we can all be gentle. We also all enjoy and depend on similar electronic equipment for our communication and pleasure, so we are patient with each other as we struggle with its vagaries.

As the days passed, my thoughts turned to the creator/conductor/guide/editor — the uber-artist who put it all together. The reach of the work in terms of participants and, even more, of audience, and the fact that the harmony is created in his own private space by one over/above/outside the private spaces of those making the sounds, made me think of him in godlike terms. He is a small god, but with incredibly long digital arms. And now we can all be like him. We “little kings” are no longer held in check by the limitations of our physical resources. We are let loose with the power to make our megalomaniac dreams come true — in a sense — but we pay with the constant awareness of our aloneness.

This aloneness has always been the human condition, but before these digital joinings in eternally-preserved and universally accessible public spaces, we only dipped in and out of this awareness occasionally. Well, there is no way back, unless we have a Butlerian Jihad in our future. Until then, humanity is working out the Zen of our growth into full and constant consciousness of how we really are — just google the phrase “alone together” to see how much this concept exercises us in the current age.

Published simultaneously on www.transliteracy.com.



{Sun 18 April 2010}   Spring Poetry
Spring Poetry

“Spring Transformations” was the original theme for Saturday’s reading. I was a little worried that we might end up with a round of sickly sweet “positive” poems, but as it turned out, none of us brought poems specifically to do with change and renewal. These ideas are always associated with spring, along with youth, innocence, idealism and hope, but most of us found poems with “a shadow over them” as the poets looked back with a mixture of pleasure and regret on past springs. Perhaps, as none of us are exactly “spring things” ourselves, we are attracted to poems that have a more complex view of this season.

My favourite amongst those shared was the gorgeous Nocturne of Remembered Spring by Conrad Aiken. This is a bittersweet poem, capturing all of the above themes, but from the perspective of one looking back on the promise and potential of a path not taken.

Other poems shared included:

  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98, From you have I been absent in the spring, a poem of longing where the lover declares that despite the spring all about, winter remains for him while he is separated from his lover.
  • Men ask the way to Cold Mountain (scroll down to read stanzas 6-8) by Han Shan. This does not seem to be a spring poem, but perhaps a reluctant spring is implicit – the reader spoke of a resonance with the feeling of deep-seated cold when the summer is not able to break the ice of winter.
  • Spring (8 Haiku) by Ben Gieske, a whimsical, funny and tender poem that is also of remembrance, of one or several springs.
  • A series of Spring Haiku by different poets, accompanied by photographs, curated by Ray Rasmussen. The Haiku poems sparked quite a discussion about Haiku and even inspired some sharing of poems written by the various participants.

We rounded off the evening by watching Michael Radford’s Il Postino, a funny and touching delight that was good to revisit as I’d last seen it many years ago. I was quite surprised to discover that in fact this story about Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s friendship with, and inspiration of, a humble postman on a remote Italian island is fictional… I suppose I believe so much in the power of poetry that it seemed to me perfectly plausible.

(Update 19/04/10: ) The Haiku shared included this one that I loved and which I can share now with the permission of the poet:

Drowning the day’s sorrow
Back and forth
The swimming pool

© Nitzan Marinov, Spring 2007



{Sun 7 December 2008}   Home

Another recent creative writing exercise for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media) was also based on a popular trAce project, now archived at http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/home/

It asks several questions about the meaning of home … here are the questions and my responses.

Q. What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

“Home” conjures images of open spaces, blue skies, trees, grass, animals; freedom to walk barefoot when and wherever I wanted to, room and time to run, play, think and read, read, read – this is not my present home, but one of those that I believe I knew and for which I yearn. There was also much, much aloneness, but I did not call it loneliness then.

Q. Please describe the home of your childhood.

I lived in South Africa until I was thirty. There were many homes, but one stands out in my memory, particularly from the period before I went to boarding school at the age of eleven. We moved to Bryanston, Sandton, when I was eight. It was a three-acre property with a lovely farm-style house that my mother had inherited from my grandmother. As a younger child, I had visited her there a few times before her death, and had even stayed with her for a week. Then, I had found the house strange and cool, musty and lonely, because grandmother herself was strange to me. However, once we had moved in, it very quickly became our house.

I remember the whole property as beautiful, and I remember the additional delight that each new beautification brought to all of us, but especially to my mother, who energised each change – the extension to the lounge that brought light in everywhere, the oregon pine floors that I proudly helped my father to lay, the enormous new main bedroom with built-in cupboards lining its entire length on one side, big enough to hide a built-in sewing station and to give access through a cupboard door to a magical en suite bathroom with a huge picture window.

I loved my father’s study. It was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that he had built himself from golden pine. The lines of books were broken with staggered double volume frames that gave space for lamps and objets d’art, so the small room was never oppressive, even with its thousands of books. There were good science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and bad science fiction from Andre Norton, good romances from Georgette Heyer and bad romances from Barbara Cartland, good westerns from Zane Grey and bad westerns from Louis L’Amour, good thrillers from Graham Greene and less good thrillers from Ian Fleming; there were adventure stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, encyclopaedias and dictionaries and Greek myths and fantasy novels and children’s stories, including the complete series of Biggles, Just William, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton. All of these, and more, he and I devoured. From that study, I took my heroes out to the garden to become them there. I was Tarzan (my brothers were the apes), I was Lord Greystoke, I was John Carter of Mars, I was Hiawatha, I was Robinson Crusoe, I was Peter Pan… I was never a girl, because they were seldom heroes, although Georgina from the Famous Five was alright, because she was a tomboy and could climb trees, like me.

The garden was not manicured like those of our neighbours, but it was a wonderful wild space for me and my younger brothers. Pretty Jacaranda trees lined the boundary with the busy main road. There were also two huge Acacia Elata trees, with dark brown bark and dark green leaves, that were easy to climb all the way to the top. Unlike our neighbours, we had no wall or fence along that road, although my parents had created inside the line of trees a row of grassy hills from building rubble and soil to act as a sound barrier. I loved to sit at the top of the tallest tree, alternately playing my recorder and singing my heart out, sometimes for hours. Inside the main garden, there were a syringa and a willow and a yellowwood, and many other trees. My favourites were the small Chinese oak that turned brilliant shades of red and orange in Autumn and the huge tree down the slope from the patio which my brother called the helicopter tree because of its winged seeds. From its huge branches hung our car-tyre swing and the birdhouse for the twenty or so white doves that my mother had installed on a determined whim. As they were not caged, the population, inevitably, did not remain pure white, but we loved to see them coming and going about their bird business.

The other animals were our beloved dogs, including Juno the boxer who had been with us ever since I could remember, and a succession of others – Buster, a black pointer, who ran away, a bulldog called Belinda who bit my father, at least two gorgeous Bouviers, Casper and Gigi, from whom my mom bred a few litters. Watchdog duties were performed by the geese. I also always had a cat – Mischief, Peculiar, Malkat (mad cat) and then Afterthought, a pure white, blue-eyed, deaf albino who always came late for everything. For my eleventh Christmas, my best Christmas ever, my parents gave me a cremello-coloured, sweet-tempered gelding called Butterscotch. My younger brother, Ian, received a cheeky cross-Welsh pony called Prince, who was black with a white blaze. We would ride them for hours, bareback, in the garden, or saddled, through the surrounding countryside. They lived in the stables and paddock that my father and my uncle had built and fenced in the acre to the rear of the house. Every so often, we would wash the horses with apple-scented shampoo and set them free in the garden to graze on the greener grass in front of the house as a reward for their good behaviour under the hose.

Q. Please describe the scent, taste or feel of home.

As I look into that word-picture, I smell new-mown grass, wet dog, apple-scented horses, brown bread baking, my mother’s Lanvin perfume, and the fresh air that I took absolutely for granted then.

Q. Which object most evokes home for you?

A purring cat.

Q. Where do you feel you ‘properly belong’ now?

I do not know.

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{Sat 6 December 2008}   Dawn-Noon-Midnight Quilt

One creative writing exercise we were set for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media), a few weeks ago, was to experiment with the Noon Quilt idea.

Prof. Sue Thomas, who sets the exercises, told us that this was originally a trAce writing project which assembled 100-word patches from writers around the world to create “a quilt of noon-time impressions”. Apparently, trAce was later commissioned by the British Council to make two similar quilts—The Dawn Quilt for South Asia and The Road Quilt for Russia and Eastern Europe. Our exercise was: “Look out of a window on three occasions during the week, at Dawn, Noon, and Midnight, and describe exactly what you can see. If you find a story there, feel free to tell it. ”

Living in London, I’m never usually up at either dawn or midnight, (or I don’t notice when I am because there’s usually not much clue from the sky!) but for the sake of this exercise I made a special effort, even going so far as to get the exact rising and setting times for the Sun from http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy.html?n=136.

I found that doing it all in one day made for stronger links between the patches;a sense of a continuous narrative.

So this was the day:

Date: 4 Dec 2008
Sunrise:
07:48  Sunset: 15:53
Length of day: 8h 04m 53s  Difference from the day before: − 1m 46s
Solar noon: 11:51  Altitude: 16.2°  Distance (10E6 km): 147.428

07:48

Through rain-spotted glass I see, no, feel, a grey sky. I see the white-rimmed eyes of human habitation staring across grim gardens. Here and there, a few glow with manufactured morning warmth. The sun is a secret. Inexplicably, the cloudy canvas lightens slightly. Stark winter trees stand against the grey, shivering in the meaningless wind. The flesh sags from my cheekbones as I imagine the cold wetness of the bark. I look back to the rows of neighbouring windows, but now all are dark and empty. The people inside have also become secrets.

11:51

The rain-spots have dried into dusty acid traces on the window panes. Beyond them, the dawn-dark trees are now shades of green, an eerie moss climbing high over their bare limbs. The day is undecided. Bemused grey clouds scud eastward in ragged retreat, like an army desperate for refuge. Between their broken ranks, blue sky flashes. Sunlight reaches through to caress our creamy walls, but will not stay to be touched. Cayenne chrysanthemums leap with the wind, but the evergreen jasmine next to them clings to the wall, stubbornly still.

23:59

All is still now. With little light behind it to highlight imperfections, the glass seems clear now. Peering through it, I see a calm sky, its starless blackness softened by the urban glow that horizons our silent mews. Nightlights gently bathe the courtyard’s high cream walls and peaceful plants. Some shadows linger, but they do not dart about or threaten. That invisible city beyond our nestling house seems benevolent tonight. It has vanquished the rain. The secret people have lit some lights again. Their warm windows tell me of throbbing hearts and Christmas hearths. Tonight, I can sleep.

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{Tue 13 February 2007}   Psalm 42 Revisited
Psalm 42 Revisited

“As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.”

My soul writhes
over dust-dry land,
sucking promises
from air long dead;
desert-crazed,
visionary,
dazed
with longing,
longing.

My thirst bursts
through aching earth,
batters
desperate
banks.

Desolation wilts
as desire swirls
into nostrils
and ears,
sweeps me aside
into eddies of abandon,
plucks me back
into the choking
swim.

The dormant soil burns
my groping skin,
flows
through claws that gasp
for your eluding
jugular.

I am drowning
in the lack of you.
Your great
otherwhereness
engulfs me,
twists my grasping tongue
till blood flows;
I swallow
my own life-stream
which mirages yours,
O image-maker of whom no image can satisfy.

The above poem responds to: Psalm 42



{Thu 8 February 2007}   Eye Storm
Eye Storm

Autumn thickens till the hanging days
Are changing past my window like a scream.
This winter thought too early paralyses
My aching eye gazing green gold gone.
The glazed day whips into strangeness
And lunar laughter rises suddenly
As tears of light fade behind this skyline,
Mocking the blush on another hemisphere.

At last, rain churns across the glowing rim,
Tripping and falling on silver rooves,
Dappling darkness; moon blues under cloud.
Under cover of cloud, night writhes,
Pierced by a star, and dies, weeping,
Into grass new-strewn with beauty quivering.



{Wed 29 November 2006}   Escalator
Escalator

Lonely in London,
people float upward above me,
headless dreamers
on an earthbound Jacob’s ladder.

Denying gravity,
their sheer mass hovers
undefiant,
static in my airspace.

Our chariot screams, heaving
in metallic anguish, straining
its indifferent load to the spewing
forth, the spattering

of conscious flesh
upon the unconscious pavements
of this ancient present.



et cetera