Friday, January 19, 2018

Seattle Opera: Così Fan Tutte

Saw Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte at the Seattle Opera on Sunday.  The singing was wonderful, the production so-so, the opera itself not so good.

Here’s the story.  Two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are convinced of the virtuousness of their fiancées, respectively, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, but the cynical Don Alfonso laughs at their naiveté and wagers that he can prove that the women are fickle and faithless.  The only condition to the wager is that the young men must do anything he tells them.  They agree.  Soon the lads are called off to their army unit (it’s just a ruse of Don Alfonso’s) and bid farewell to their sweethearts.  Once they're gone, two friends of Don Alfonso’s show up from Albania.  They are, of course, Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, and soon they are laying siege to each other’s beloved.  Over the course of the opera they both score.  The sisters can’t resist their manly charms.  And, besides, as the victorious Don Alfonso sings in the finale “Così fan tutte!”, which in Italian means literally “Thus do all” although it’s normally translated as “Women are like that.”  In view of the misogyny and rampant male sexual anxiety which runs through this opera I think the translation “Bitches be hos” would also fit.  

Mozart wrote this opera in a rush and it shows.  Much of the music is second-rate and the characters are poorly developed.  It’s hard to tell the lovers apart.  At one point even Mozart himself seems to lose interest in the score and starts to steal from his earlier works.  This opera is also very long.  Subtract the  twenty-five minute intermission from this production and the evening takes up about three hours of your life. 

What is an opera company to do with such a piece?  Easy.  Modernize it.  Ever since Peter Sellars’s 1986 production of Così, which was set in a diner, directors have availed themselves of this approach to deal with the fact that this opera is simply not that good on stage.

And thus it is with this production, which takes the added step of moving the action to the Pacific Northwest.  The women live in Seattle, people take lots of selfies and drink Starbucks, there are references to Uncle Ike’s pot shop.  And instead of becoming Albanians the two young men are transformed into 90s-era grunge dudes from Portland.  Ugh...  But OK, I understand the limitations of this piece.  But then the production descends into that embarrassing amateurishness which so often characterizes the Seattle Opera.  No sooner are the Portland dudes onstage than they start thrusting their crotches at the women.  This action (out of character but good for cheap and reliable laughs) continues for much, if not all, of the first act.  One of them even pretends to masturbate using a pillow.  Why?  Are these artists so unsure of their talent, so petrified of losing the audience's attention that they're willing to indulge in the kind of stage antics that would barely pass muster in a High School production?  They should concentrate on serving the work, not on catering to taste of the most bored and imbecilic spectator in the hall. 

But enough of that.  You go to an opera to hear good singing and this production has plenty of that.  (Please keep in mind that there are two different sets of lead singers in this production; I'm reviewing only one of them.)  Ben Bliss and Michael Adams were fine as Ferrando and Guglielmo.  Kevin Burdette, looking very dapper in a suit, brought an urbane nonchalance to the role of Don Alfonso; if someone ever writes an opera about Cole Porter or Cary Grant he's the man to cast in the lead for it.  Despina, the sisters' maid and the Don's accomplice, was sung beautifully by Laura Tatulescu.  But the show belonged to the two lead females.  As, respectively, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, Hanna Hipp and Marjukka Tepponen have voices which are solid and commanding, majestic yet warm.  Tepponen, in particular, has a voice made for opera seria.  I would love to hear her sing Handel.  At one point during her performance of Act II's Per pietà ben mio, perdona (which was the highlight of the show, by the way) she dropped down to a pianissimo so swift, soft, and beautiful that I got goose bumps.  You could hear gasps in the audience at the perfection of it.  It made everything else worth it.  

Così Fan Tutte plays at McCaw Hall until January 27th.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Books and Life

The other day an interviewer asked me, as many do, which book has had the greatest influence on my life.  If, over the course of my entire life, just one book had influenced me more than any other, I’d be an idiot.  There are books that were crucial in my twenties and others that defined my thirties, and I impatiently await the book that will sweep me away when I reach a hundred.
 - Umberto Eco, Chronicles of a Liquid Society (2017)

Monday, January 15, 2018


Peter M. Jogo, Paisley Mac
Went to the International Mezzotint Invitational show at the Davidson Gallery in Pioneer Square this weekend.  I loved it.  I loved it so much that I don’t know that I have anything interesting or insightful to say about it.  It was that kind of a show.  I just stared at the pictures and lost myself in their dark and luxurious beauty.  One could, of course, check out this exhibition at the Davidson Gallery’s website (and after January 27th that will be the only way to view them), but these prints should be seen in person to appreciate their power. 

Judith Rothchild, Araignée
The mezzotint process itself goes back to the 17th-century but fell out of favor with the advent of photography.  Nonetheless over the past few decades it has undergone something of a renaissance.  This show features works of forty different contemporary artists from thirty different countries and has a wide variety of styles and subjects.  There are portraits of people and animals, cityscapes, abstract images, landscapes, etc.  But the still lifes are my favorites.  The larger, more complex and photographic prints are testaments to the artists’ skill, true, but I find that the simpler ones are richer and more powerful.  There's a haunting quality to the mezzotint images; they are often precise, highly detailed, the gaze of the artist intense, the object (such as the apple in Peter M. Jogo’s Paisley Mac above) viewed with an almost hallucinatory vividness.  Judith Rothchild’s Araignée is another good example of this quality.  At first glance it seems like a plate pulled from a 19th-century science book on sea shells.  Every crevice is drawn with meticulous care and anatomical precision; but the more one examines the shells, the eerier they become.  The sweeping ridges of the top shell are forceful and muscular, as if there were bone underneath, as if the shell itself were some strange sea creature.  Unavoidably, the work of H.R. Giger comes to mind.  In Nan Mulder's Metamophoses (below) the leaves seem as mobile and alive as the caterpillars surrounding them.  

It helps to understand the appeal of mezzotints if you know how they are made.  You take a copper plate and grade it multiple times using a device called a rocker; this creates thousands of little pits in the plate.  If you were to ink and print the plate at this point it would be pitch black.  To create the image you use a series of metal tools to scrape away the pits on the plate.  Or you can press down the pitted areas entirely using a burnisher.  The burnished areas will appear white when printed; the other scraped areas will be in between the white and the black.  Hence the name “mezzotint”, which is Italian for “halftone”.  This is a painstaking method; a large plate may take dozens of hours just to grade and once you start scraping and burnishing there’s no room for error.  I don't think it's a surprise that mezzotints bring out the strange and surreal in the artist.  They spend hours and hours creating utter darkness, then they etch light into it.  There is something primal about the process.

Nan Mulder, Metamorphoses

Of course not everything in the show is weird and surreal and looks like something from a David Lynch movie or a Nine Inch Nails video.  My favorite pieces in the whole exhibit are Seiichi Hiroshima's Always Hungry series, which are simply drawings of fish.  In Always Hungry I (bottom) we see a fish (sorry, I don't know the species) swimming in a sea of darkness.  The creature's eye is what impressed me; it makes the fish seem alert, keenly intelligent even, and yet at the same time it has the cold and alien quality of a fish eye.  

Seiichi Hiroshima, Always Hungry I

Thursday, January 11, 2018


The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.  When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people - not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul, as evidenced by the innumerable strident words of abuse, hatred and contempt, mistrust, and scorn that forever grate upon our ears as the manswarm passes us in the streets - we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing.  The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.
 - Thomas Wolfe, The Hills Beyond (1941)

Monday, January 08, 2018

My Secret Book

Finally finished My Secret Book by Francesco Petrarch.  It’s a slim volume - about 120 pages - but reading it was a hard and brutal slog.  It’s a record of what Petrarch calls “the private conflicts of my soul,” and it has now been translated by Nicholas Mann as part of Harvard’s I Tatti Renaissance Library.  It turns out that Petrarch had a rather dull soul.  Or, to be more accurate, he couldn’t write about himself without suffocating his personality (which was large) under the stodgy and stultifying conventions of medieval literature (which were larger).  

One day, in a dark mood, Petrarch has a waking vision of a radiant woman approaching him.  She is the personification of Truth.  Sensing his anguish she summons up the spirit of St. Augustine.  For the next three days Petrarch and Augustine engage in a scholastic disputation over the author’s misery, replete with homilies, intellectual jousting (with concessions politely granted to an opponent’s logical agility), gentle rebukes, calls to piety, and incessant citation of Latin authors.  Truth sits by and says nothing, though I imagine she too had to stifle many a yawn.  

Composed between the mid-1340s and 50s and never published during the author’s lifetime, this book was written too soon.  It’s nothing like the great Renaissance autobiographies that would follow; works such as Girolamo Cardano’s The Book of My Life (1576), or Cellini’s Autobiography (1563), or Montaigne’s Essays (1570-92).  In those books the personality of the author, his struggles, failures, quirks, victories, daily habits, et al. appear before us simply and directly.  There is no need to resort to medieval allegory.  Some time between the mid 14th-century and the mid 16th-century people learned how to express themselves as individuals, how to tell the story of their own lives, how to put forth their own opinions and thoughts.  But Petrarch was too early for this change, and this disappointing book makes that painfully clear. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

What It Is One Sees

…one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees but to find out what it is one sees.
 - James Schuyler, letter to John Button, May 4, 1956

Monday, January 01, 2018

Start the Year Right

I spent much of my free time this week listening to Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, which I've never heard before.  It’s magnificent.  Breathtaking.  Exhilarating.  All those big words.  Every now and then I come across a piece of music - usually by Beethoven - which reminds me that all the other music I’ve ever heard in my life is total crap.  This is such a piece.  Give it a listen.  It will set you right with the world.  (If you’re pressed for time, go to minute 15:00 in the video below for the choral section.)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Books and Movies for 2017

Here’s a list of all the movies I saw and books I finished in 2017 (links will take you to quotes or reviews):

Books: Fiction
  1. One Fat Englishman - Kingsley Amis
  2. The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
  3. 18 Stories - Heinrich Boll
  4. The Baby Doll Murders - James O. Causey
  5. Fire on the Mountain - Anita Desai
  6. Human Voices - Penelope Fitzgerald
  7. The Quiet American - Graham Greene
  8. The Way Some People Die - Ross Macdonald
  9. Casanova’s Homecoming - Arthur Schnitzler
  10. The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Books: Non-Fiction
  1. Notes of a Native Son - James Baldwin
  2. Personal Impressions - Isaiah Berlin
  3. Frames of War - Judith Butler
  4. The Old Regime and the French Revolution - Alexis de Tocqueville
  5. Experience and Education - John Dewey
  6. Slouching Towards Bethlehem - Joan Didion
  7. Hollywood in Crisis, or: The Collapse of the Real - Wheeler Dixon
  8. The Immense Journey - Loren Eiseley
  9. Between Them - Richard Ford
  10. Letters, vol. 1 - Gustave Flaubert
  11. Our Love Affair With Germany - Hans Habe
  12. The Wounded Land: Journey in a Divided America - Hans Habe
  13. Play All - Clive James
  14. The Propensity of Things - Francois Jullien
  15. Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs - August Kleinzahler
  16. Madame de Pompadour - Nancy Mitford
  17. Occasional Prose - Mary McCarthy
  18. The Development of the Modern State - Gianfranco Poggi
  19. The Frontiers of Meaning - Charles Rosen
  20. Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews - George Scialabba
  21. Lost Profiles - Philippe Soupault
  22. A Philosophy of Loneliness - Lars Svendsen
  23. In Praise of Shadows - Junichiro Tanizaki
  24. Warner Bros - David Thomson
  25. Trouble in Paradise - Slavoj Zizek

Unfinished Books: I didn’t read these all the way through, but I did manage to get posts out of them: 
  1. Designed for Hi-Fi Living - Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder
  2. Man of the Year: A Memoir - Lou Cove
  3. Film Noir - Paul Duncan and Jürgen Müller
  4. Main Currents in Marxism - Leszek Kolakowski

  1. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
  2. 45 Years
  3. A Few Good Men
  4. A Life at Stake
  5. A Perfect Couple
  6. Almost Famous
  7. Another Part of the Forest
  8. Arrival
  9. As Good As It Gets
  10. Babette’s Feast
  11. Back to the Future
  12. Barcelona
  13. Blackmail
  14. Blue Jasmine
  15. Bridge of Spies
  16. Cape Fear (1962)
  17. Captain America: Civil War
  18. Captain Fantastic
  19. Carrington
  20. Cause for Alarm!
  21. Central Intelligence
  22. City of Fear
  23. Diabolically Yours
  24. Drugstore Cowboy
  25. Easy
  26. Fallen Angels
  27. Florence Foster Jenkins
  28. Foreign Correspondent
  29. The Founder
  30. Furious 7
  31. Genius
  32. Gosford Park
  33. Hannah Arendt
  34. Heartburn
  35. I Heart Huckabees
  36. Jackie
  37. Keeping Up With the Joneses
  38. La La Land
  39. Let Yourself Go
  40. Love and Bullets (2017)
  41. Manon 70
  42. MASH
  43. Match
  44. Metropolitan
  45. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
  46. Mr. Holmes
  47. Naples ‘44
  48. No Regrets for Our Youth
  49. Please Murder Me
  50. Prelude to a Kiss
  51. Pushover
  52. Ride the Whirlwind
  53. Russian Ark
  54. Samsara
  55. Secret Honor
  56. Stand by Me
  57. Star Wars: Rogue One
  58. Stolen Kisses
  59. Sully
  60. The Accountant
  61. The Comedian
  62. The Day Time Ended
  63. The Great Beauty
  64. The Imitation Game
  65. The Last Days of Disco
  66. The Last Metro
  67. The Lego Batman Movie
  68. The Long Goodbye
  69. The Mayor of Hell
  70. The Men who Stare at Goats
  71. The Nice Guys
  72. The Shawshank Redemption 
  73. The Story of a Cheat
  74. The War of the Yokels
  75. Un Choc
  76. Up in the Air
  77. Vincent & Theo
  78. War Dogs
  79. When Harry Met Sally
  80. Where Danger Lives
  81. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  82. Wife & Husband
  83. Wild at Heart
  84. Wings of Desire
  85. Xanadu

Thursday, December 28, 2017

All of It

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.
 - Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

Monday, December 25, 2017

Noir Christmas

Film Noir on Christmas?  Really?  Is that appropriate?  Couldn’t it wait a day or two?  Did I have to post this review today?  Yes, I did.  I make no apologies.  Frankly, I think the so-called “most wonderful time of the year” could do with a little roughing up.  A shot of noir (straight up, of course) is exactly what we all need to help balance out all the “peace on earth” stuff we’ve been subjected to for the last few stress-filled weeks.  And don’t tell me that some of you haven't sat around that Christmas dinner table and thought about how nice it would be to off a relative or two.  Just throw in a juicy insurance policy of which you’re the sole beneficiary and you’re in noir territory.

Film Noir, edited by Paul Duncan and Jürgen Müller, is a wonderful and lavishly illustrated book celebrating this endlessly fascinating genre/style.  For any relative or friend with an interest in classic noir, or movies in general, it would make a wonderful gift (too late now).  

The first part of the book is a series of essay organized around noir themes: “The Perfect Crime”, “Love on the Run”, “Women in Film Noir”, etc.  The second half is a list of the “Top 50 Noir Movies” with brief essays about each film.  Oh, good, a list.  I love lists; you can always argue and nitpick over them.  This one has the standard noir canon - Detour, The Asphalt Jungle, The Night of the Hunter, etc. - but it has a few movies that simply don’t belong: Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho.  No, no, and no.  These are great films but they are not noir.  They lack the appropriately suffocating sense of doom and entrapment.  The list also includes Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.  Again, no.  That’s neo-noir.  But otherwise the list will do.  It does, though, contain a hilarious typo: the Robert Mitchum-Jane Greer classic Out of the Past is listed as Gout of the Past (no doubt a stirring historical medical drama).

The text for this book is provided by Alain Silver, James Ursini, and others, but I don’t really care about the text.  This is a book you buy for the pictures - in this case 630 pages of them - like the one above from Double Indemnity.  The book also contains a still from that film's alternate ending in which Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) visits Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) while he's in the gas chamber.  

The pictures are magnificent.  Here's a still from The Beast of the City with Jean Harlow.  Released in 1932, the film may not be a noir per se, but the photo certainly is:

Then there's this one of Humphrey Bogart from In a Lonely Place:

And Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce:

And this quasi-pornographic still of Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame from The Big Heat

And this one of Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook, Jr. from Kubrick's The Killing:

And the book has movie posters, too.  Such as this french poster for The Maltese Falcon:

Never mind that it’s Christmas - anytime is noir time.  So when the relatives have left and the kids have gone off to bed, pour yourself a glass of egg nog, dim the lights, and put on your favorite DVD of Gun Crazy, or Night and the City, or Touch of Evil, or, even, if you have it, that cinematic rarity Gout of the Past, and enjoy.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


The instinctive generosity of the Americans is curiously linked with rapacity, their kindliness with cruelty, their violence with fear of disorder.  They are warm-hearted and cold-blooded, their assertive self-confidence is mingled with self-criticism, and their conservatism is the other lobe of an unparalleled recklessness.  Yet the most serious mistake of Europe has always been to misunderstand their romanticism, which is the consequence of having lived a Cinderella story.  It has been repeatedly mistaken for softness, gullibility, decadence.  Their smile is childlike and bland; they affect an innocence and credulity which the European mind has accepted as real.  Yet from Franklin and John Jay on, their negotiators have usually come back not only with all that the adept cynicism of their opponents undertook to take from them by means of a cold deck, but with the scarf pins, cuff links, and pocket watches of the cynical as well.  For the romanticism is the thinnest possible veneer.  There have been no such realists since the Romans and they are the hardest empiricists of the modern world.
 - Bernard DeVoto, “The Century”, (1950)

Monday, December 18, 2017


Some movies stick to you; you see them, like them, and move on, thinking that you’re done.  But you’re not.  The film has put a hook in you, and a week or a month later it’s going to reel you in.  Such is the case for me with Sully, Clint Eastwood’s 2016 drama about Chesley Sullenberger and his dramatic landing of a damaged 747 on the Hudson river in 2009.

I enjoyed the film when I first saw it, but didn’t think it was anything special.  Yet days later I found myself still mulling it over.  Something about the film, it seemed to me, was off - not bad, just off.  Tom Hanks did a fine job in the lead role and Eastwood’s directing was lean and efficient, as usual.  There was nothing wrong with the story.  But something in the film got under my skin and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

And then it hit me: This is a film about work, not just about a plane crash.  The forced water landing is the story of Sully, but the drama, which is different, lies elsewhere.  It lies in the questioning of a man’s professionalism, not least of all by himself.  Only a middle-aged or elderly man could have made this film.  Its concerns are those of maturity, of a life lived, of what’s at stake at the end of a career.  No wonder it seemed “off” to me; these are not the typical concerns of a Hollywood movie.  Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have flipped the standard narrative formula: the disaster is not the climax, the resolution of the investigation is. 

Never mind the cheering crowds and adoring media after the crash, the NTSB has entered the picture.  Their computer simulations show that Sully could have returned to LaGuardia with the damaged plane or safely landed it at nearby Teterboro airport in New Jersey.  They’re asserting, in other words, that his decision was wrong.  And they have the power, through their investigation, to ruin him, to effectively nullify his entire career.  But there’s more.  If Sully made a wrong move, then he’s not the consummate professional that we - and he - think he is.  And if that’s the case, everything crumbles.  What he’s facing is a form of humiliation; either becoming a scapegoat or confronting the fact that he’s a man who’s bad at his job.  

The drama of the movie resides in that anxiety and uncertainty, and in Sully’s refusal to accept either outcome.  He prevails, of course - swiftly and deftly demonstrating that the NTSB simulations are wrong.  What makes this film unique is that it is a vindication not only of heroism, bravery, etc. but also of the professionalism of ordinary men and women who work.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Down Into the Dark

Once long ago as a child I can remember removing the cover from an old well.  I was alone at the time and I can still anticipate, with a slight crawling of my scalp, the sight I inadvertently saw as I peered over the brink and followed a shaft of sunlight many feet down into the darkness.  It touched, just touched in passing, a rusty pipe which projected across the well space some twenty feet above the water.  And there, secretive as that very underground whose mystery had lured me into this adventure, I saw, passing surely and unhurriedly into the darkness, a spidery thing of hair and many legs.  I set the rotting cover of boards back into place with a shiver, but that unidentifiable creature of the well has stayed with me to this day.
For the first time I must have realized, I think, the frightening diversity of the living; something that did not love the sun was down there, something that could walk through total darkness upon slender footholds, over evil waters, something that had come down there by preference from above.  It was in this way that the oceanic abyss was entered: by preference from above.  Life did not arise on the bottom; the muds of the deep waters did not compound it.  Instead, with its own pale lanterns or with the delicate strawlike feelers of blindness, it has groped its way down into the dark.
 - Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1957)

Monday, December 11, 2017

August Kleinzahler

I feel about poetry the way screenwriter Ben Hecht felt about working on the screenplay for Gone With the Wind.  I’ll do it, he told the producers, but only if I never have to read the book.  There’s no doubt in my mind that poetry is the highest form of literature, that it’s the greatest expression of the human condition, and that we English-speakers have access to a reservoir of poetry unmatched for quality in the last seven hundred years.  But I recoil at the prospect of actually reading it.

Allen Ginsberg once described a poet as a man standing in a field waiting to get hit by lightening; and he felt that he’d been struck only twice - once with “Howl”, the second time with “Kadish".  Reading poetry is often like watching that man in the field and waiting waiting waiting for the lightening.  In fact, you need to watch several people in the field and the skies are usually clear for weeks at a time.  It can be very trying.  So many poets, so little lightening.  A guide would be helpful.  

It would be hard to find a better one than August Kleinzahler.  There are three reasons for this.  First, he is himself an outstanding poet.  (All the links in this post will take you to samples of that respective author’s work.)  If you wish to start reading contemporary poets his work is an excellent place to begin.  Second, although he currently lives in San Francisco, he was born and bred in New Jersey (as was I), so his tolerance level for bullshit is much lower than that of the average American.  And, third, he has released a great new book of essays - Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose, 2000-2016.  It’s very good.  In fact, I couldn’t, as the saying goes, put it down.  How often can that be said of a book of essays on poetry?

Most of these pieces originally appeared in The London Review of Books and now that they are gathered together they paint a portrait of American poetry since World War II.  Some of the writers are well-known: James Schuyler, Allen Ginsburg, Thom Gunn, James Merrill, etc.  Others are not: Christopher Logue, Roy Fisher, Lorine Niedecker, critic Kenneth Cox.  The book could easily have been called Lives of the Poets since the biographies tend to intertwine, the cumulative effect is polyphonic.  Basil Bunting, for instance, pops up as a minor character in a few essays but then gets one all to himself.  Louis Zukofsky, too, stands in the background of many of these pieces before moving to center stage.  

Kleinzahler does an admirable and highly entertaining job of depicting the poets and the milieu in which they worked.  Here he is describing the era of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, etc:
For what then seemed a lengthy spell, from the late 1950s well into the 1970s, the stander-bearers of American poetry were a group of manic-depressive exhibitionists working largely, if not exclusively, in traditional meter and rhyme scheme, analysands all, and with self-inflating personae that always reminded me of those giant balloons of Micky Mouse and Pluto associated with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade….Lowell and Randall Jarrell, roommates at Kenyon College in the 1930s, and to a lesser extent Berryman, too, were big on rating and ranking: the top three poets, the top three oyster houses or second baseman, the three best Ibsen plays - they seemed especially to like the number three.
His love and passion for poetry are infectious, and his assessment of the poets themselves, lively and engaged.  The sparse typography of Lorine Niedecker’s fragile poems serves as “a reminder of the silence from which the poems emerged, by which they were pervaded, and to which they returned.”  After finishing the Selected Poems of Robert Merrill he comments that the experience is like “being trapped in endless rooms full of Ming Dynasty black lacquer furniture…it’s exquisitely fashioned but makes you want to find the sanctuary of a Shaker meeting hall where one might sit on a hard wooden bench and stare at not very much at all.” 

Kleinzahler knew several of these writers personally and his recollections add a vividness and humanity to the book.  He recounts his lunch with Allen Ginsberg, whose life seemed to be an equal combination of the banal and the sordid.  Leonard Michaels, a novelist rather than a poet, comes across as boisterous, obstreperous, irresistible fun.  And I especially enjoyed Kleinzahler’s recounting of the time he spent with Thom Gunn in San Francisco.  Occasionally, the two of them would get together, grab a drink, and go catch a movie matinee.  Once, after seeing Sexy Beast, they have a few too many martinis and get on an obscenity jag.  Soon they’re cavorting around the bay’s public transit system chummily yelling obscenities at each other.  Oh, if only there was a YouTube video of that.
This book could also have been called Life of a Poet.  Interspersed with these essays are pieces of an autobiographical nature - an account of how he became a music critic, diary selections, a memoir of hunting for jobs in Alaska, a road trip with a pesky and obnoxious companion called “the Maestro” (the soubriquet “asshole” would have done, too).  Kleinzahler himself comes across as smart, funny, opinionated, free of any traces of pretension or cant.  When younger writers ask him for advice, he remarks that he always wants to tell them to find a rent-controlled apartment (advice, let me add, which is good for any profession).  

The last essay in the book is an account of his mother's final months and the selling of her house in Fort Lee, NJ after her death.  It's honest, clear-eyed, moving but never sentimental.  We follow Kleinzahler's emotions as the furniture and tchotchkes of his childhood home are sold off or thrown out piece by piece until the house is an empty shell waiting to be occupied by its new tenants, a young Chinese couple.  Along the way, we meet his sister and brother-in-law; the next door neighbor who undertakes to sell the place; Dario, a Colombian friend of the neighbor's who helps him clean the house and remove the bulkier items.  In the midst of separation and grief, Kleinzahler records the life surging around him, the vitality that never stops.  And as in the earlier essays the effect is gripping and, more importantly, true to life as well.