Brancusi’s Golden Bird

It’s perhaps my favorite scene in D. A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back.  Pennebaker has setup this narrative as Dylan tours England in 1965, introduced with shots of British music newspapers touting the teen-aged Donovan as Dylan’s rival. My well-remembered scene is shot in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room, where boffins can pick out various UK music figures sitting about and talking. In the background, there’s Donovan himself, tuning an acoustic guitar as Dylan asks if there’s anyone in the British Isles that is a poet like unto Allen Ginsberg. Dominic Behan is offered. Dylan says nah. Donovan has tuned up and launches into his “I’ll Sing a Song for You.”

“That’s a good song” Dylan chimes in as Donovan sings, and though eyes behind Ray-Ban shades he still seems to be paying respectful attention. Someone says “He plays like Jack man,” not a slur, but referring to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the legendary folkie and predecessor to Dylan in the Woody-Guthrie-continuation field.

Dylan takes the guitar from Donovan and launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”  The guitar has gathered a capo and Dylan has lost the shades. Donovan lights another filter cigarette and chews on his nails, figures how to be cool.

Now, “rating” Dylan songs is subjective and subject to mood, even for any one person. For this one person, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”  gets a lot of respect: a song about love using politics as a metaphor or a song about politics using love as a metaphor? The best metaphors are like that, the thing and the representation can flip places.

So besides the people-watching and the music in a movie about a songwriter that actually has little music in it,* the gist that’s often drawn from this scene is an unhelpful but crucial tip: if you’re ever in a song pull, don’t sing your song just before 1965-vintage Bob Dylan if you can help it.

OK, so I’ve already drifted back to 1965, let’s keep drifting backwards to 1922, and you’re a Modernist poet, not a singer-songwriter. You’re about to be published in The Dial,  the sort-of-successor to the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist house organ, now publishing the cream of Modernism in art and literature. Let’s get specific, the “you” you’re playing as you travel back in time is Mina Loy, a woman who’s au fait with the avant garde and whose poetry remains strikingly original even today. Yes, the Modernist movement is going to have its problems with women as artists, but Loy seems fierce.

Brancusis own photo of The Golden Bird

There are lovely color pictures of Brâncuși’s sculpture, but this is the artist’s own photo, which has a certain monochromatic mystery to it

 

And the Mina Loy poem that goes into that issue of The Dial is a glorious ode to a visual Modernist: one of Constantin Brâncuși’s series of bird sculptures “The Golden Bird.”  Loy’s poem has something the pre-WWI Modernists often had, a joy at the new way of looking and expression.**

The lesson of the Dylan’s Savoy Hotel room is true but unhelpful here. The November 1922 issue of the Dial leads off with a new publication of a poem called The Waste Land”  by T. S. Eliot. You might have heard of it.

The Dial November 1922
Antiquities dealers ask for more than $1,000 for this back issue

 

Art of course isn’t a competition. “Rating” art is a silly pastime that gets sillier the thinner you try to slice it. The emotional/intellectual transfer happens between art and audience or it doesn’t. Still the unhelpful rule would hold that if you’re trying to make an impression as a Modernist poet, holding up your “read me” sign next to what gets rated a masterpiece isn’t the way to go.

Now, almost a hundred years later, readers and critics are starting to look again at Loy, whose entire career was overshadowed compared to others she worked beside. How successful was her art? There’s no fixed record, because that assay happens every time it’s read or listened to. I think this tribute to Brâncuși stands up, even though it no longer benefits from the early 20th century shock of the new.***

Musically, today’s performance marks my annual tribute on the anniversary of the unfortunate death of the American musician and composer Jimi Hendrix. Each year for September 18th I plug in a Stratocaster electric guitar and try to channel a little of Hendrix’s bird in flight. Hendrix was enormously interested in the electric guitar’s timbral possibilities, so I tried to make my guitar part reflective, chirping with bird song, and gong-like in turn. You might easily think: this is my Savoy hotel room moment. You could be right, but I persist. My performance of Loy’s piece praising Brâncuși’s sculpture is available with the player below.  The text of her poem is here if you want to follow along.

If you ever find yourself, regardless of the unhelpful rule and your careful plans, as a Donovan next to someone as a Bob Dylan, one choice is: go ahead anyway. I’m glad Loy did.

 

 

 

 

*Yup, it’s true. The movie is forever showing Dylan about to go on stage and then it cuts to another backstage scene. This may have been necessary for music-rights issues, but the movie Pennebaker got was all the more unique because of this.

**RaulDukeBlog has sagely commented here about the gloomy-gus nature of so much of 20th century High Modernism. T. S. Eliot’s poem helped turn it that way, even if it was a personal expiation to break out of that. Two World Wars and surrounding atrocities certainly didn’t help cheer up the arts, and our present state is damp with sodden things that can only be dried with some fire that joy sparks. Another reason to go back earlier in Modernism, and to look at the kindling of artists like Loy and their pure enthusiasm for breaking out of entrenched tropes.

***A famous anecdote about Brâncuși’s work has it that at one point when the statue was being transported to the U.S. the customs officials refused to believe the abstract form was a sculpture at all, and it was instead classified as a metal ingot.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

New Year’s is a time to look at where one’s been and to look anew, to make resolutions and changes. So, let’s look anew at a 110-year-old work by Rainer Maria Rilke.

That’s appropriate, because Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”  is about looking at something old, something that many others have looked at. And Rilke’s poem too has been read and listened to by many, both in it’s original German and in several translations into English. Each translation differs from the others as there are several problems of understanding and reconstruction into a new language that each translator had to solve. So I started by doing my own English translation, working with Rilke’s German words and trying to understand what he’s getting at.

What’s the over-riding observation about the statue that is Rilke’s subject? That it’s broken and incomplete. This is past obvious, but because Rilke spends some time in this brief poem talking about how drawn he is to it, I think it’s possible to misunderstand this point. He says wonder-filled things about it, and this leads many translators and readers to believe that he’s making a case that it’s artistically perfect in some talismanic way.

Torso of Apollo

Worst New Year’s party ever. Woke up without head, arms, legs…

My reading is that he’s making a contrasting case. This is a legless and headless statue. Rilke makes us see right off that the head is missing. Describing that missing head Rilke uses the German word “unerhörtes,” unheard—which we take in the sense of “unheard of.” Translators have translated it into “fabulous”, “legendary”, and so on. There are certainly good German words for those things, but Rilke chose otherwise. Does he want the double meaning that this statue of the Greek god of poetry and music is missing its ability to hear?

What do I make of the remarkable, surrealist-sounding image near the start of the poem that the missing head is surmised to have eyes ripened like apples? Everyone is struck by the audacity of it, but what does it mean? I don’t think Rilke means this in a René Magritte way, as even a small apple is too large for an eye socket. My wife had a suggestion: ripened apples eventually fall and rot, just as the head has been harvested or fallen from neglect.

Magritte Son of Man

Eyes ripened like apples, René Magritte’s way.

Another hard to translate line is the poems eighth, which dips down to the naked statue’s beltline and makes reference to genitals that should be there if we were to continue in the path of the gaze. I suspect the statue has been fractured above them. My translation breaks with most others on the following “beast’s pelt” reference. Some translate that fur as a wonderous quality of the entire remaining stone torso, which seems to make no sense imaginative or otherwise when referring to Greek statues of Apollo*. My translation reads the German as saying that the wild beast’s pelt is missing, that is to say that the statue ends above the pubic hair. So blind, deaf, headless, and also without his sex organs.**

What’s left after these amputations, this incompleteness? First, Rilke is drawn to this torso. He is a poet, and Apollo’s the god of poetry. He’s also spent a couple years working as a young assistant to the great French sculptor Rodin, so statuary is an interest. I think what he sees as still there is the soul, the heart, the essence, which he portrays as that mysterious flame-like glow in the marble and the remaining curves that smile at the damage.

Which brings us to the poem’s notable surprise ending, which I won’t spoil in my explanatory text if you don’t know it already. I think Rilke is drawn to this torso because he senses this soul, that which eternally remains, that which is without borders and broken places, can heal or transcend this: the lack of fulfilled desire, vision, mind, and music. Perhaps he is drawn to this broken statue so intensely because he feels he and his art are broken and incomplete too.

To hear my performance of a new translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,”  with its conclusion that many readers/listeners find unexpected, use the player gadget below. And to all the brave readers and flexible listeners here: an exploring and improving New Year!

*Rilke may not have known it, but something else was missing on that statue. We have become accustomed to viewing classical Greek statues as glowing white marble, aesthetically we may have even absorbed the idea that this monochromatic paleness is the timeless ideal. However, the Greeks painted their statues, even the nudes got skin tones and hair color. Oh, and they were Southeast Mediterranean people with interchange with Africa and the Middle East, those skin tones weren’t pasty white, as examination of pigment remnants on classical Greek statues reveal.

**Of course, I must be modest. My knowledge of German (like my knowledge of French and classical Chinese which I’ve also translated here) is lacking, which can lead to translation errors. The only skill I can bring to this is that I read, perform and write poetry.