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Posts Tagged ‘death’

The Lion Cage

December 4, 2014 | by

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Leonid Pasternak, Rilke in Moscow (detail), 1928.

Rainer Maria Rilke was born on this day in 1875. The below is excerpted from “The Lion Cage,” one in a series of Rilke translations by Stephen Mitchell in our Summer 1989 issue.

She paces back and forth around him, the lion, who is sick. Being sick doesn’t concern him and doesn’t diminish him; it just hems him in. The way he lies, his soft bent paws intentionless, his proud face heaped with a worn-out mane, his eyes no longer loaded, how is erected upon himself as a monument to his own sadness, just as he once (always beyond himself) was the exaggeration of his strength.

[…] But he just lets things happen, because the end hasn’t yet come, and he no longer exerts any energy and no longer takes part. Only far off, as though held away from himself, he paints with the soft paintbrush of his tail, again and again, a small, semicircular gesture of indescribable disdain. And this takes place so significantly that the lioness stops and looks over: troubled, aroused, expectant.

But then she begins her pacing again, the desperate, ridiculous pacing of the sentinel, which falls back into the same tracks, again and again. She paces and paces, and sometimes her distracted mask appears, round and full, crossed out by the bars.

She moves the way clocks move. And on her face, as on a clock dial which someone shines a light onto at night, a strange, briefly shown hour stands: a terrifying hour, in which someone dies.

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Mark Strand, 1934–2014

November 29, 2014 | by

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A manuscript page from “A Piece of the Storm,” a poem from Blizzard of One.

When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger … in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive … —Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, 1998

Mark Strand died today at eighty, we were sorry to learn. When Wallace Shawn interviewed him for The Paris Review in 1998—a year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Blizzard of One—Strand described his relation to death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.”

And death was arguably Strand’s great theme—few poets have written more acutely or more movingly about the chasm at the end of life. Which is not to say that he was excessively dour or bleak; the sense of isolation in his work is often leavened by light and feeling. Strand saw poetry as a humanizing influence in an increasingly inhumane world. He told Inscape a few years ago: Read More »

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When Art Got Expensive, and Other News

November 25, 2014 | by

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Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja (detail), 1650.

  • Finally available, after forty-one years: Gravity’s Rainbow, the audiobook. It comprises thirty CDs and is performed by a superhumanly patient soul named George Guidall. “How on earth, I wondered as I stripped the wrapper, is poor Mr. Guidall going to render the sudden outbreaks of crazed capitals, or librettos in which stoners with guitars pastiche Rossini, the instructions helpfully stating ‘(bubububoo[oo] oo [sung to opening of Beethoven 5th, with full band])’? He turns out to do it in a slow and deep-voiced manner, beneath whose calm avuncularity you can detect anxiety, even mania, bubbling but never quite erupting.”
  • New York has fewer used bookstores than ever before, and yet the Strand continues to thrive. How? It’s certainly cheerier than it used to be, which doesn’t hurt—before it was renovated in 2003, it was pretty bleak. “Like a lot of businesses that had hung on through the FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD years, it looked broken-down and patched-up. The bathroom was even dirtier than the one in the Astor Place subway. You got the feeling that a lot of books had been on the shelves for years. The ceiling was dark with the exhalations from a million Chesterfields. There were mice. People arriving with review copies to sell received an escort to the basement after a guard’s bellow: ‘Books to go down!’ ”
  • Meghan Daum on suffering: “ ‘The culture is obsessed with the idea that if you go through a crisis, you’re going to come out of it a better person,’ Daum says, explaining her frustration with ‘the pressure we put on people ... to have epiphanies where suddenly it all makes sense.’ This ‘redemption pressure’ is sentimentality’s aggressive shadow, a way of forcing people in terrible situations to make us feel better about what they’ve been through. But as she demonstrates in her essays, ‘sometimes you don’t learn anything. It is what it is, and there is no closure.’ ”
  • On November 27, 1970, Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja became the first painting to sell for more than a million pounds. “It was finally knocked down for a staggering £2,310,000, almost tripling the previous world auction record for a painting. Even the most hardened dealers sitting in the audience breathed gasps of disbelief. Then there was a spontaneous burst of applause. The auctioneer left his rostrum, the painting was hastily removed, and sheer pandemonium broke out.”
  • A new service, Deathswitch, allows you to communicate from beyond the grave: “Subscribers are prompted periodically via email to make sure they’re still alive. When they fail to respond, Deathswitch starts firing off their predrafted notes to loved ones. The company now has thousands of users and effectively runs itself. Among the perks of a premium Deathswitch account is the ability to schedule emails for delivery far in the future: to wish your wife a happy fiftieth wedding anniversary, for example, thirty years after you left her a widow.”

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In Which André Malraux Kills Death

November 3, 2014 | by

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An engraving by Fernand Léger.

André Malraux was born today in 1901, and his first novel, Paper Moons (Lunes en papier), was published when he was only twenty. If that provokes pangs of jealousy, bear in mind that the print run was limited to 112 copies. The National Library of the Netherlands has a terrific post about the first edition, which was published by Éditions de la Galerie Simon, one of the most forward-thinking publishers of its day.

As that small print-run indicates, Simon wasn’t a major operation. Malraux’s publisher, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had a shrewd and prescient eye for writers and artists. He was also an art dealer, one of the first to find merit in the work of the Cubists, who were largely written off as pretentious pranksters at the time. As a publisher, he sought work that “accomplished in words what the Cubists did with paint”; accordingly, he published early work by Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Pierre Reverdy, and Antonin Artaud, among others, often with artwork from his friends. In the case of Lunes en papier he called on Fernand Léger to contribute several wood engravings. This was not, it must be said, a popular or canny decision at the time:

Léger [had] caused a sensation at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 with his Nude in the Woods (Nus dans la forêt). Kahnweiler was immediately intrigued and attempted to contact its creator, who had previously made a living as a draughtsman for an architectural firm. Léger was mockingly called “tubiste” because of his tube-like presentations: he felt isolated and unappreciated.

As for the novel itself:

Lunes en papier continually subverts the reader’s expectations, starting with the cryptic subtitle and the warning in the front of the book: “There is nothing symbolical in this book.” The three stories are absurdist in nature, with strange plot turns and metaphors, airy, sometimes humorous in tone, while still dealing with seemingly serious matters, and ending with the death of Death … Malraux would later qualify his first effort as a “gloire de café.” But it suited the Surrealist and Dadaist ideas of its time extremely well.

There’s a translated excerpt from Cipher Journal that includes the bit where Death dies. More specifically, Death—a woman in a dinner jacket that makes her look like an insect—receives a visit from a dubious physician, who informs her that she may be going bald. He prepares her a bath of nitric acid. She slides on in and begins to corrode; by the time her servant intervenes, it’s too late, and Death has resigned herself to dying. Read More »

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Very Trustworthy Witnesses

October 17, 2014 | by

The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.

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A portrait of Bierce by John Herbert Evelyn Partington.

Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flare outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.

This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.

More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves. Read More »

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Carolyn Kizer, 1924–2014

October 13, 2014 | by

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I’ve been enormously fortunate. People say, How do you feel about your reputation? My real belief is that I have exactly the reputation I deserve … on the whole I feel comfortable with myself. You know I’ve always always loved that line from Chaucer’s Criseyde, “I am meyne own woman wel at ease.” That’s the way I feel. Of course, there are always disasters looming, both cosmic and domestic. But even if it should all end tomorrow I would just hope I’ve burned enough bad drafts and old love letters!
—Carolyn Kizer, the Art of Poetry No. 81, Spring 2000

Carolyn Kizer died last Thursday at eighty-nine, the New York Times reports. Her poems are immaculately crafted and very smart, often with a steely feminism; she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her collection Yin. As the Times says, “She was writing as early as the 1950s about the conflict for women between the creative imperative and social expectations—but it was far different in character from that of her contemporary Adrienne Rich. Where the poems of Ms. Rich, who died in 2012, landed like bombs flung from the barricades, those of Ms. Kizer felt more like a stiletto slipped between the ribs.”

Ursula K. Le Guin called Kizer’s poetry “intensely, splendidly oral, wanting to be read aloud, best of all to be read or roared by the lion herself.” Kizer, born in Washington, was known for her long, careful periods of revision, as evidenced in the manuscript above. (She was an honest self-critic, too; note that “Re-write this LOUSY couplet” scrawled in the margin.) She took more than thirty years to edit the sequence “Pro Femina,” which contains one of her most famous lines: “We are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.”

In addition to her Writers at Work interview, The Paris Review published many of Kizer’s poems, including “Twelve O’Clock,” in our Winter 1990 issue; and “Gerda,” which opens with an old Swedish children’s prayer, from Spring 1987. To celebrate her life, we’ve made them both available online. Read More »

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