Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Treacherous Beauty

When we hear the helicopters and sirens on the weekend, we know that someone has ignored the signs on the cliffs which say NO HIKING OR CLIMBING. We can usually tell whether the sirens are headed for Devil's Slide, where someone has driven too fast, or to Three Bells, where the old folks sometimes pass away, or to the ocean where no local would dare to swim.

Yesterday the helicopters were flying low and the sirens were in the beach area. Since it was a weekday, we thought maybe they were having a rescue practice. But when the evening news came on, we learned that a mother and her five-year-old daughter had been caught in the rip tide at the beach and drowned.

I vividly remembered arguing with my grandson, who wanted to walk too far out into the water a few years ago. He did not believe in rip tides and sleeper waves. I remembered getting caught by a sleeper wave in one of the shallow caves on the south part of the beach. Fortunately, the children with me and I only got wet and were able to scramble out over the rocks as soon as the water receded.

The ocean is beautiful and mysterious, but here on the northern California coast, you cannot trust it to be pacific.

(Watercolor of Montara Beach by CEC)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Midsummer Fires

Sir James Frazer's book, The Golden Bough, will tell you more about midsummer fires than you really wanted to know. Lit anywhere from the summer solstice to St. John's Day, today, the fires of midsummer in all parts of Europe were documented for centuries, associated with all sorts of things ranging from successful harvests to painless childbirth.

In Greece, where I saw my first midsummer fires, the old folks would only say that the fires should be made from the dried-out May wreath and that they were good for getting rid of fleas and for bringing good luck.

Last summer in Athens, I asked a friend if people still lit midsummer fires and she said that she never heard of such a thing and was quite sure it wasn't done, probably never had been done. However, the English-language Kathemerini, which comes with the International Herald Tribune, had a little article under "Fifty Years Ago Today" titled "The Fires of Ai-Yannis". And the terrible fires which destroyed acres of orchard and farmland in Greece last year began around the time of midsummer.

The article in the Herald Tribune said:

"Tonight, on the eve of the feast of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos (St. John Forerunner), the custom of lighting fires in front of houses using reeds or old palm leaves will once again be revived and children will be competing as to who can jump over the biggest fire. The shouts accompanying the leaps, exorcising 'bed bugs and fleas', bear witness to the fact that both young and old hope to cast into the flames the enemies of a good night's sleep...

"There is also the belief that on that particular day, the sun 'shakes and is blinding'.

"The fire-leaping customs of June 24 are not restricted to Greece but are found among all the peoples of Europe, from Scandinavia and Ireland to Russia. Similarities lie in the tiniest of details, which can only be explained by the fact that the custom dates from our common Indo-European origins."

The sun was not shaking and blinding here on the Coast, which is wrapped in a deep blanket of fog. However, I did take the dried May wreath and burn it. As usual, I'll put the ashes back into the garden. It's not that I'm superstitious; it's just that I think some rituals from the ancient past are worth preserving.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hot Lyric Imagination

Hot Lyric Imagination is what one colorful translator attributed to the modern Greek poet Varnalis. I was looking for an English translation for a friend who wanted to know the subtleties of "The Fated Ones", a Varnalis poem set to music by the composer Mikis Theodorakis.

The poem itself is a kind of "Aman" or "Alas" lyric, as highly favored by Greek musicians as by American bluegrass singers (imagine George Clooney lip-syncing "I am a man of constant sorrow" in the film "Oh Brother Where Art Thou).

One of my favorite Greek songs in the old days went
"I was born to pain and tyranny.
I curse the burden I have suffered": Very satisfying to sing when you're washing dishes. (My mother used to sing something called the Prisoner's Song when she was washing dishes: "If I had the wings of an angel, Over these prison walls I would fly.")

The comment on the Varnalis poem was a poem in itself: "His work is written in the demotic and has well taken care of form and plasticity in the expression. It is characterized by hot lyric imagination and satirical disposal with interest for the modern person. His poetry, particularly, is characterized from intense playful disposal and deep musical feeling that is combined excellently with the satyr."

I didn't find any satyr in Varnalis' lyrics, but I did find a wonderful kind of description which almost transcends language. With a rudimentary grasp of demotic Greek, one can visualize the setting and the intent of "The Fated Ones". It is guys in a bar, but there is a hurdy-gurdy churning out strange tinny music which accompanies a kind of Greek chorus. It might be one of the great dramatic tragedies from centuries ago, or it might be a smoky scene from modern times.

Not many poems manage to evoke a scene this vividly. Robert Bly spoke about "leaping poetry", poetry whose imagery could leap off the page and take the reader on a journey. Bly was particularly good at doing this, especially in his collection "Loving a Woman in Two Worlds".
Or in a tiny poem which I must paraphrase because I heard him speak it but have never found it written down:

Lord, have pity on me,
Thy ocean so immense,
My boat so small.

"The River-Merchant's Wife", a poem by Li Po, must one of the most perfect poems ever written in this regard. There are no opinions or conclusions. The speaker does nothing but describe, but the images are almost beyond time.

"At sixteen you departed...
You dragged your feet when you went out...

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you."

The speaker doesn't have to say how much they love and miss each other. You know it from the paired butterflies which hurt her, from the leaves falling early, from the monkeys which make sorrowful noises.

Solomon's Song has Hot Lyric Imagination. So does Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach". And I have heard hot lyric imagination in words composed by Dolly Parton.

(Lyre, National Museum, Athens)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Three Wishes, No, Four, No, Twelve

            I have a magic lamp experience once in a while, where anything I wish for seems to plop down right in front of me. Usually this happens around the beginning of June, when at least a dozen friends and relatives share a birthday week with me.

            This year, the magic wishes didn’t start out well, with a summer cold which caused me to miss the party and to accompany the Chorale concert the next day with bleary eye and stuffy nose. But things began gathering momentum Monday morning when two phoebe birds, long absent, alit on the chicken coop and the telephone began to ring.

            The best presents sometimes just appear, like the rose-breasted phoebes.

    The mail brought quilt pieces made by my grandmother nearly a hundred years ago, and the gift was seeing her frugal craft, tiny scraps pieced together, the smallest of stitches. In the course of the day, poetry in Greek and English appeared, and flowers, music and tomato plants. The afternoon students all played nicely, Debussy and Bach and Mozart.

            At about 4 P.M., Carlos, the instrument maker, called and said he was bringing back the little violin I wrote about last month. The 14-year-old owner of the restored violin was just finishing her piano lesson. Her expression, when Carlos handed her the violin, was indescribable.

            There had been no way to know how the violin would sound before the work was done and the fiddle had strings.

            Another gift: June Morrall e-mailed me, asking if I would do a story, so I wrote about the violin a few hours after we heard its voice for the first time. The grand finale of the garage sale Curatoli violin appears on June’s site, www.halfmoonbaymemories.com.

            The most important wish was granted Tuesday when the doctors declared that Nicodemus was free of the hated disease. That would have been enough for many birthday wishes, but the wonderful intangibles continued.

            By Thursday, I was ready to be done with wishes for a while (we hadn’t even found time go out to a birthday dinner), but then Arl appeared with roses from her garden and eclairs and some new writing.  And my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote and said he was going to include an anecdote I sent him in his next Monday’s column.

            Two neighbors called and asked if we wanted their tickets to Tosca. We gobbled leftovers, threw on clothes, drove to the city and found a free parking place a half-block from the opera house...only to find adorable Camille Offenbach (decolletage, cowboy boots) and her gentlemanly husband sitting in our row.

            “I lived for art and love,” Tosca sang, and we blew our noses and wiped our eyes, though of course you can’t watch the end of Tosca without thinking of when Beverly Sills jumped off the set’s painted cliff onto a too-springy hidden mattress and bounced right back up again in full view of the audience.

            Tosca was marvelous. High up in the San Francisco Opera House, the seats are so steeply banked that you get dizzy when you look down, but there are two large screens which unfurl nearby, giving you better closeups of the orchestra and the singers than you could get with front-row seats.  Puccini's villain, Scarpia, reminded me of a former United States Vice President. 

    So that was the birthday week: The week was dizzying, and we still haven’t had time to drink the champagne we bought.