Every object, the British artist Oliver Beer said as he introduced his Vessel Orchestra last Friday at the Met Breuer, makes a sound, different for each object but always the same sound, constant and unchanging: the thing sings forever at an unchanging pitch. In this installation, thirty-two objects drawn from around the museum, including a Miró vase from 1942 and a five-thousand-year-old ceramic jar from Iran, have been hooked up to tiny microphones and speakers. I don’t at all understand how this works, but when a certain note is played, you can hear the object whose note it is respond. The Vessel Orchestra will be on view at the Met Breuer until August 11, and every Friday, a different group of musicians and writers will, essentially, “play” it. The artists at the performance I attended were the band Mashrou’ Leila and the novelist Rabih Alameddine, who read a series of texts about robing and disrobing, veiling and unveiling. The experience was mysterious to me, the songs being sung mostly in a language I don’t understand, the vases and jars resonating via a process as inexplicable to me as the one that creates consciousness. But there was resonance, harmony, and it made me think that perhaps those are the things we should be seeking—trying not to change ourselves in whatever ways are fashionable but to tune ourselves, to find our own frequencies; trying not to make ourselves heard but just to find resonance with whatever out there is tuned the same. —Hasan Altaf Read More
Shortly after Apollo 11 put men on the moon and brought them safely back to earth, W. H. Auden, widely regarded as the greatest living English poet of the age, wrote a poem about it. It’s called “Moon Landing,” and from start to finish, it’s one long grumble.
Untouched by the sublime romance of the moon mission, Auden’s poem opens:
It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only
because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time
Auden’s prolific career is divided into Early Auden (his years in England) and Later Auden (his American years). “Moon Landing” falls in the latter category. But it works better as a funny, peevish, poignant example of an important subgroup: Grumpy Auden.
After making the lunar landing sound like American football—comically apt, given the balletic lightness of the astronauts’ bulky armor—he goes on to condemn the motives behind this “grand gesture” as “somewhat less than menschlich.” He complains about the pointlessness of it all, demanding, as we seem to still be wondering, fifty years later:
But what does it period?
What does it osse?
Moreover, he shrugs, it was bound to happen:
from the moment the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time.
Yes, it’s a shrug, but what an eloquent shrug, one that evokes with breathtaking economy the epic arc of human progress from man’s first tryst with fire to his bouncing among lunar craters a quarter of a million miles away. In other stanzas, too, admiration surfaces through the cynicism. “Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver than our Trio,” he writes, acknowledging the mythical dimension of their quest—but mostly he’s determined to be aggrieved.
Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers
about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.
Nothing in this poem is more petty, more comically wounding than that childish “Menh!” Untouched by the moon’s “lonely beauty”—to quote the otherwise unlyrical Neil Armstrong—Auden quotes instead his hero Dr. Johnson, who, when asked whether or not the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland was worth seeing, responded: “Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.” Auden perversely inverts the quote.
And yet it is striking that he compares, even if indirectly, the cratered moonscape to the Giant Causeway, another geological wonder comprising a vast volcanic expanse of thousands of interlocking hexagonal basalt columns. The invocation of that honeycombed wasteland, however backhanded, reminds us that even when he is being obstinately contrarian, Auden can illuminate a subject in ways few others can.
After dissing the whole enterprise and predicting that no good will come of it, Auden tells us that for him, his moon will remain her virginal self. Unsoiled by big fat boots and human hubris, she will continue to grace his Austrian cottage in the village of Kirchstetten. The poem ends:
Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.
“Moon Landing” is not considered to be one of Auden’s better poems; it is set aside as trite and artificial. And yet it is one of my favorites because it is so quintessentially Auden, showcasing his literary tics and touchstones. From the fond nursery description of the “Old Man” in the moon, which harks back to his beloved English boyhood, to his pedantic use of an obscure dictionary word (osse); from the gleeful use of yiddish (menschlich) that he had no doubt picked up from his Jewish lover Chester Kallman, and the ritual nods to his heroes, Homer and Johnson; from his pointed mention of his hatred of fascism (“von Brauns and their ilk” refers to the Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun) and the loving, if prosy, ode to his cottage at Kirchstetten, “Moon Landing” reads like a potted biography of Auden’s life. It is a joy to watch Auden recite it from memory in this video, sitting serenely in a faded old suit, his large face as lined and remote as the moon.
The other reason I like this poem is that Auden’s peevishness comes as a surprise. Auden was scarcely antiscience. On the contrary, this son of a doctor grew up fascinated by mines, machinery, and microbes, often stating how grateful he was that he had grown up in a home where science and religion flourished in harmony. He grew up listening to his father tell him stories of Norse myths and the great Nordic explorers. He was inordinately proud of his Scandinavian heritage and deeply drawn to Iceland. One would think he would have been enthralled by the moon mission.
But he wasn’t. To him the act was hubristic, an irreverent invasion of his “Mother, Virgin, Muse,” as he addressed the moon in an earlier poem. In another poem, “This Lunar Beauty,” he hailed the moon as an entity that “Has no history.” Now it had a flag on it and had been exploited for television. Perhaps one can put his hostility down to his general mood at the time. In 1969, Auden was sixty-two years old, which is not old at all, but his reliance on Benzedrine had gone up, his drinking had become heavier, he had begun to feel terribly lonely, and had got into the habit of repeating his witticisms—among them, “The moon is a desert. I have seen deserts.” The grim new frontier Auden was contemplating was not the moon, but death. With Chester spending more and more time in Europe, Auden was afraid of the prospect of dying alone in his squalid New York apartment and lying undiscovered for days. In a poem he wrote at about this same time, he described himself as, “An American? No, a New Yorker who opens his Times at the obit page.”
Because perhaps that’s what the moon landing stirs in all of us: a reminder of how small we all are, and how mortal.
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist who writes on literature, history, and food.
In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
I have unusually clear memories of early childhood, including one about the bright-white lines of a tennis court when I could only just crawl and one about learning to walk. I can recall being so small that the lower confines of the kitchen assumed the grand scale of a castle, the floor textural and crumb-scattered; its landmarks included a drawer of copper jelly molds and another of potatoes with hairy black eyes. As an older child, I had seemingly endless Big Wheel range of our suburban neighborhood, and my memories are of the rooms created by the undersides of shrubbery, of my painstaking collection of wet stones (which all dried disappointingly gray), of the delicate plant “surgeries” I performed on beds of glistening aloe. It seems impossible, but I recall that my thoughts at this age were mostly metaphysical; I would hide along the foundations of our house imagining infinity or seeing how many steps of “I’m thinking about thinking about thinking … ” I could grasp. Someone had told me that children forgot early childhood, so I swung in our hammock and tried to imprint the feeling of its abrasive fibers on my skin, for recollection when I got old.
Nothing has ever returned me to that childhood feeling like the work of Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish Jew born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire who lived his entire life in the provincial village of Drohobych (now part of Ukraine). Schulz was a funny little man, poor and unassuming, who taught art in a boys’ school and privately made semierotic drawings of cruel ladies in high-heeled shoes. His literary output was minuscule—two books of short stories in nine years—and his life was tragically cut short by the Holocaust. A devoted biographer, the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski, may have saved him from obscurity, and admirers such as John Updike and Philip Roth helped introduce Schulz’s work to the West.
The admiration could not be more deserved. Schulz is inimitable in both his prose and his metaphysics. (A note on the prose—it’s so spectacular it’s almost untranslatable, and having read two translations side by side, I much prefer the older Celina Wieniewska to the newer Madeline Levine.) His stories create what Ficowski calls a “Schulzian mythologic,” where the events of the writer’s life, the people and houses and town around him, the surrounding countryside, the sky, the sun, the groceries from the market, a friend’s stamp collection or the Emperor Franz Josef—all of it lifts off like a Chagall painting, is impregnated with new language and unmoored from time. What’s revealed is not a flight of fancy but the indwelling qualities of everything. Read More
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Sarah Kay is on the line.
I am writing to you for some clarity or company. At thirty, I have found myself in some kind of threshold state. I’m grappling with the tragic loss of a person I loved, mourning a future that got lost in the past, and also celebrating the births of so many of my peers’ new babies. I have been at the hospital witnessing—or on the other side of the phone hearing about—these big ends and big beginnings. I feel like I’m spinning: a compass who doesn’t know whether to point toward the exits or the entrances. Are the exits and entrances are the same? Babies come out of the holes in our bodies, surgical or anatomical, and loss feels the same way: I feel like she was torn from my body somehow, leaving an emptiness, a wound. I guess I don’t really have a question, except to say, does this seem familiar to you? Are you spinning, too?
Caught in A twirl
Dear Caught in A Twirl,
So much of your letter does indeed sound familiar. During a bout of despair I once asked my mother whether growing older was just one wound piled upon another until we are just a collection of hurt, and she answered, unironically, “No, sometimes someone gets married or has a baby!” At the time I probably rolled my eyes or laughed at her stubborn optimism, but I have since grown to take her answer quite genuinely. My best friends are also having babies or getting married, big beginnings I am grateful to witness. And at thirty we are both already starting to encounter some big endings, too. I am very sorry for your loss. I want to share with you Robin Beth Schaer’s poem “Holdfast” which begins,
In his new monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all.
Have you ever met a person who’s been on the moon? There are only four of them left. Within a decade or so, the last will be dead and that astonishing feat will pass from living memory into history, which, sooner or later, is always questioned and turned into fable. It will not be exactly like the moment the last conquistador died, but will lean in that direction. The story of the moon landing will become a little harder to believe.
I’ve met three of the twelve men who walked on the moon. They had one important thing in common when I looked into their eyes: they were all bonkers. Buzz Aldrin, who was the second off the ladder during the first landing on July 20, 1969, almost exactly fifty years ago—he must have stared with envy at Neil Armstrong’s crinkly space-suit ass all the way down—has run hot from the moment he returned to earth. When questioned about the reality of the landing—he was asked to swear to it on a Bible—he slugged the questioner. When I sat down with Edgar Mitchell, who made his landing in the winter of 1971, he had that same look in his eyes. I asked about the space program, but he talked only about UFOs. He said he’d been wrapped in a warm consciousness his entire time in space. Many astronauts came back with a belief in alien life.
Maybe it was simply the truth: maybe they had been touched by something. Or maybe the experience of going to the moon—standing and walking and driving that buggy and hitting that weightless golf ball—would make anyone crazy. It’s a radical shift in perspective, to see the earth from the outside, fragile and small, a rock in a sea of nothing. It wasn’t just the astronauts: everyone who saw the images and watched the broadcast got a little dizzy.
July 20 1969, 3:17 P.M. E.S.T. The moment is an unacknowledged hinge in human history, unacknowledged because it seemed to lead nowhere. Where are the moon hotels and moon amusement parks and moon shuttles we grew up expecting? But it did lead to something: a new kind of mind. It’s not the birth of the space age we should be acknowledging on this fiftieth anniversary, but the birth of the paranoia that defines us. Because a man on the moon was too fantastic to accept, some people just didn’t accept it, or deal with its implications—that sea of darkness. Instead, they tried to prove it never happened, convince themselves it had all been faked. Having learned the habit of conspiracy spotting, these same people came to question everything else, too. History itself began to read like a fraud, a book filled with lies. To understand America, you can start with Apollo 11 and all that is counterfactual that’s grown around it; that’s when the culture of conspiracy, which is the culture of Donald Trump and fake news, was born.
I’m a crier by nature, but as I have aged, my reasons for tearing up have become more elusive, even to me. Where once I could predict a crying spell, like spotting an East Texas thunderstorm moving across the landscape, now they arrive fast and sharp, like hail in New England on a March day. More and more frequently, I find myself wiping away tears while asking with plaintive frustration, “Wait, why am I crying right now?”
I had one of those spells this morning while I holding a very old book in the rare books room of the Health Sciences Library at the University of Pittsburgh. Our group of visiting scholars had been warned not to lick or cough or sneeze on the old books, a warning that I had impressed on my soul, as I do with all advice from all librarians. Thus, the arrival of unexpected tears—one moment I was paging carefully through the book, scanning, not terribly attentive, the next I was sobbing—mostly triggered my consternation at producing forbidden fluid.
“I didn’t know I was going to cry!” I wanted to yell, as I grabbed a tissue from the librarian’s desk, keeping my face averted from anything old. “I did not deliberately get bodily fluids on your books!”
Of course, no one was paying me the least bit of attention, intent as they all were on their own research in their own old books. The librarian didn’t notice me either, thankfully, as she passed around cloth gloves to scholars who wanted to touch very, very old books. So I wiped away my tears, resanitized my hands, and went back to the book I had been looking at to figure out what had made me cry.