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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

I have a project that needs tending this morning so I am going to replay a post about a painting from the enigmatic Symbolist painter, Fernand Khnopff, whose work has been described as “visual realism combined with a mood of silence, isolation, and reverie.” It also includes an interesting video about this painting from the Khan Academy which is a great free site for well done courses and videos on a wide variety of subjects. For those of you with a lot of extra time these days, it’s worth a look.

Fernand Khnopff I Lock the Door Upon Myself

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God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?…

Christina Rossetti

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The painting at the top, I Lock My Door Upon Myself,  is from Belgian Symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff who lived from 1858 until 1921.  The title is taken from a verse of a poem, Who Shall Deliver Me? (shown in part above), from Christina Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite poetess whose brother,  Dante Rossetti, was an influence on the work of Khnopff.

It’s a haunting painting, one that always makes me stop a bit when I stumble across an image of it. Perhaps it is the symbolist elements in it but for me it is probably the beautiful construction of forms and color that give the overall piece an almost abstract feel. Just a great image in so many ways.

I came across a video from the free educational series Khan Academy that offers a short and insightful exploration of the painting’s symbolism. Very interesting if you have five minutes or so.

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Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

― Robert Frost, West-Running Brook

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The painting at the top is called Socially Distant. It’s a 20″ tall by 60″ wide canvas (much larger than it appears on the screen) that is part of my annual solo show, Social Distancing, scheduled to open June 5 at the Principle Gallery. Of course, I say scheduled because of the uncertainty for anything in the near future given our current situation.

The series of cityscapes I am doing in recent months was began just as Covid-19 was just taking hold in Asia. Not many here were following it closely or, at least, closely enough. I can say with all certainty that when I started painting these pieces they were not intended to be a commentary on this situation. I saw them as being both about its constructed form– its shapes, colors and contrasts– and the feeling of anonymity and separateness that the crowded streets and looming structures that a city offers.

But sometimes the work and the times converge. As the crisis has unfolded these paintings seem more and more prescient with their empty streets and vacant windows. The anonymity that I initially saw transformed into the social distancing required to combat the spread of this virus.

Even the colors seemed to point to this crisis. The reddish skies suggest the the warmth and fetid fertility of the hot zones that have often spawned outbreaks.

This particular painting has one differing feature from the others in the series –a lone figure standing in a second story window, just to the right of center. I wasn’t sure about this and left the figure out of the painting for weeks as I mulled it over. But as the current situation unfolded and grew, the figure loomed larger in my mind and I finally relented.

In a way, its inclusion makes the vacant city seem even emptier.

To accompany this piece, I’ve included a Robert Frost poem that I have liked for a long time, Acquainted With the Night. In this context, I especially like the last four lines of the poem and their convergence with the empty clock face high atop a tower in the center of the painting that serves as a false moon and creates a strong diagonal in the picture plane between it, the moon and the lone figure.

Take care today and have as good a day as possible.

 

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Since I have much to do this morning, I am running this post from back in 2013 that concerns a few early pieces. I came across one of these pieces, Doug’s First Day on the Job, early this morning and, while it made me chuckle, it reminded me of current events. Thought this post was worth looking at again.

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GC Myers Early Interior sm“Can you remember who you were, before the world told you who you should be?”

Charles Bukowski, Post Office

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I have often shown early work here, stuff from when I was still trying to find a path forward. Most of it is from before I ever thought  that showing my work in public was a possibility. As I have pointed out, I still revisit this early work on a regular basis in an effort to stay connected with that time in which the need to create was the only motivation needed. There’s also an element of backtracking in this as well, trying to put together how this work somehow led to what I do now.

Sometimes it is hard to see the connections as the work is so singular and never followed up on, then or now. I think those are the pieces from that time that intrigue me the most, making me wonder how my journey forward from that time would have been different had I chosen and stayed on that path.

For example, here are three pieces from around the same time, all painted within a month or so of each other back in 1994. None really lead directly forward to the current time but I really always enjoy seeing these three pieces, wondering what my motivation was at the time. The first , shown above, is an interior scene that just formed on the paper. I had no idea what was going to be there, outside of the checkered tablecloth. I remember that the cross on the wall was a last minute addition, one that changed the whole feel of the piece. I can understand why I didn’t follow this path but it still makes me wonder.

GC Myers Still Life smThe next was this still life, here on the left. I remember this piece well, having ambivalent feelings about it as a whole. I liked the clear graphic look of it but it was almost too clean, too sharp. It had really good eye appeal but it seemed all surface to me. I see things from this piece that I did bring forward, such as some of the clearness of the colors which I like in some instances. The thing that always strikes me is that I see a face in profile, looking to the right. Faces subconsciously built into the composition are something I often look for in my work, feeling a curious satisfaction when I find them. I wish I knew why. Maybe that’s what draws me back to these early pieces.

GC Myers- Doug's First day on the Job smThe last was one that had a title, Doug’s First Day on the Job.  I remember this as a piece that I viewed as an exercise even as I started, experimenting with forms and color. The resulting scrum of arms and fists with the strange authoritarian figure in the foreground, hooded and  pointing ominously out of frame reminded me of the chaos and confusion of  a kid’s first day on a new job. A strange environment with new procedures to learn and strange new people who struggle with each other and boss the new guy around. I knew even as I painted this that this was not my path but I enjoyed this piece anyway. It had a cleansing effect and was a wonderful lesson in color and form .

Plus it made me chuckle.

I don’t know that there is any great connection between these pieces or to my future and current work. I always wonder though at how these disparate  pieces formed in such a short time, wondering if I have that same burst of energy within me still. Maybe that is the reason for this backtracking, looking for that energy source, that fount of inspiration.

I don’t know…

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Watch on the Rhine- Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, 1943

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In Praise of the Fighters

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.

There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.

There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the indispensable ones.

Bertolt Brecht, The Mother,  1930

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I came across this short poem/song taken from the play The Mother written by Bertolt Brecht and was reminded of one of my favorite movies, Watch on the Rhine, which featured one such indispensable fighter. I was reminded, as well, of the path we are hurtling down as a nation, especially in the light of the events here of the last few days and weeks. The transformation is accelerating as all guide rails that have protected us in the past are smashed aside. The parallels between what is happening here at the moment and the formation of other authoritarian/fascist regimes in the past century are haunting.

But this short verse and this movie favorite of mine remind us that in almost all of these other regimes, they have been opposed and often defeated by people of great strength and resolve. They were Anti-Fascists or Freedom Fighters who put aside concerns for their personal benefit or safety and devoted their lives to opposing, in every possible manner, the cruelty of fascist rule.

You might read this and shake your head and think that this is an overstatement of what is taking place, that things are not so dire as I might see them and that we are light-years away from fascism.

I hope you’re right.

But I remind you that in all of these past regimes there were large numbers of their citizens who thought just that same thing, that such a thing was inconceivable. It can’t happen here. But authoritarianism creeps up on you, taking hold little by little. Then, when there is a window of opportunity for it to impose its total will on the citizenry, it accelerates at a pace that exceeds the ability of normal response to restrain it.

It may be too late beyond that point but for these people who stand in brave opposition. The fighters.

I urge you to see Watch on the Rhine if you get a chance or at least read the original play. The film was made in 1943, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett from the prize-winning play written by his wife, Lillian Hellman. It concerns a well-heeled family in the Northern Virginia area across the Potomac from Washington whose daughter ( played beautifully by Bette Davis ) returns home from a war-torn Europe for the first time in many years with her husband and children. It is set, and was written, in the year or so before before our entry into World War II.

Her husband is a German freedom fighter named Kurt Muller who is a fugitive leader in the underground movement against the Nazis. He is played by Paul Lukas in a magnificent performance, one that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor that year over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bells Toll. Yes, it was that good.

His Muller is the common man who finds himself in the role of the selfless hero willing to give up everything– his career, his family, his life– in order to stand against evil. Muller did not seek this task but knows that it is one he must shoulder. His words are simple, direct and powerful.

Lukas, who also originated the part on the Broadway stage, is brilliant. Whenever I see this movie, I am haunted for weeks afterwards by Lukas’ performance. The power of it thrills me but I find myself questioning my own strength and beliefs as a human. Thankfully, to this point, I have never been put into a situation like that faced by Kurt Muller and hopefully never will.

But would I be able to stand with even a fraction of the grace and courage of Lukas’ character?

I really don’t know.

There is a different first line of Brecht’s song at the top of the page taken from another translation of the verse from its original German: Those who are weak don’t fight.

I sincerely hope I don’t fall into that category if the situation ever presents itself at my door.

And I worry that it is coming up my walkway even as I write this.

 

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Interesting history behind the Henry Wadswoth Longfellow poem below that was transformed a few years after it was written in late 1863 into a well holiday song.

The 1860’s were a tragic time for the poet Longfellow. In addition to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, his wife was killed in a tragic fire at his home. In early 1863, his oldest son enlisted in the Union Army despite his father’s protests. That same year he was severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. He survived but the injuries ended his army career.

This poem was a response to the times from Longfellow. The next to the last stanza points out his despair and his waning faith in the face of a divided nation:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But in the last stanza, upon hearing the loud pealing of the Christmas bells, he regains his belief that good will overcome evil:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

The poem became popular at the time and was first set to music as a song in 1872 by British organist John Baptiste Calkin and then again in 1956, by American songwriter Johnny Marks, whose version, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, was first recorded that year by Bing Crosby. The Marks song has been recorded by over 60 artists and has sold over 5 million copies.

It’s a poem and song of hope for dark times. We can certainly use that these days.

 

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Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

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I was going to write something about gullibility this morning and while I was searching for something to kick off the post, a quote or an image, I came across this little bit of mirth from the late Shel Silverstein. It pretty much summed up everything you need to know about our willingness to often accept things that make no sense or are demonstrably false.

Of course, none of us will admit to wearing the plunger. We convince ourselves it’s a damn fine hat because Teddy or someone else, maybe someone named Donnie, says it is just that. If he says it looks good then it must, because he always tells us just what we want to hear and believe. We’re to smart and wary to fall for something other than the truth.

But in fact, we are actually like the character in All the King’s Men that Robert Penn Warren described: “I suppose that Willie had his natural quota of ordinary suspicion and caginess, but those things tend to evaporate when what people tell you is what you want to hear.”

And when someone is telling you that the toilet plunger on your head looks great, you really want to believe him. Because otherwise you’re just an idiot with a damn toilet plunger stuck on your head.

You know, whenever I see one of those godawful red hats on someone from now on, all I am going to see is that person with a toilet plunger on their head.

There’s a brain somewhere inside that bony box sitting between your shoulders, people. Take off the plunger and use it.

 

 

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I came across a short quote from the late Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, that I wanted to share here:

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”

I found that these words came from his speech given at his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. But while researching this quote, I came across this other poem that really spoke to me. I thought I would share this as well. It was written in Warsaw, Poland in 1944 in the midst of the German army’s destruction of that city.

Basically, he is saying that though the world might seem to be in chaotic and deadly turmoil, that the world for some is ending, there are those who will not notice it. The sun is shining  as it always does and the moon will rise soon after as it, too, always does. Birds sing and fish swim as they always do. People go about their days, working and playing, as they always do.

How can this be the end of the world if such things go on unaffected?

But the end he may be describing may not be the actual end of the world, though for some it surely does. The world is always changing sometimes in small ways and sometimes in large swipes. Every change means the end of one world and the beginning of another. Perhaps, while he is surely pointing to an actual ending of worlds for his neighbors in WW II Warsaw, he is also referencing a symbolic ending to worlds of innocence, of worlds of gentleness, replaced with worlds of violence and treachery.

I don’t know for sure but that is how I am reading it. Take a look and decide for yourself.

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A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

–Czeslaw Milosz   (1911-2004)

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