All posts by Vernon Peterson

What kind of bird are you? Looking at Max Ernst

“Surrealism and Painting” Max Ernst (1942)

I celebrated Scatter birthday by revisiting the Menil Collection in Houston, the source for my posts last year on the extraordinary art collection amassed by two Europeans, John and Dominique de Menil, who brought their oil business and modern art collection to America at the beginning of World War II. Located in a park-like complex that is surrounded by a neighborhood of modest bungalows, the Collection of more than 16,000 pieces includes a gallery devoted to Surrealism and offers individual shows, such as last year’s idiosyncratic “How Artist’s Draw,” curated by Bernice Rose.

Last week I spent two days at the Menil, most of it wandering through the gallery housing “Max Ernst in the Garden of Nymph Ancolie,” then in its last two days. The show focused mostly on the evolution of Max Ernst’s themes and motifs between the two World Wars, culminating with a view of a huge (nearly 14 x 18 feet) oil on plaster mural he produced for a Zurich nightclub, which has been transferred to plywood panels and restored.

51xkfrth46l__sl500_aa240_Surrealism and Ernst are the Collection’s core. The de Menils met Max Ernst (1891-1976) in Europe before World War II and became unalterably infected with his Surrealist vision. The show included a new film about the installation of a 1973 Ernst exhibit at nearby Rice University, supervised by Dominique de Menil. The film, “Max Ernst Hanging,” was produced by Francois de Menil and John de Menil, son and grandson of the de Menils, and features vintage black and white footage of Dominique de Menil organizing the show, as well as incredible coverage of Ernst, then in his early eighties, walking through the space while the exhibit is being hung, looking at pieces he hadn’t seen in years, and then mingling with Houston’s art patrons during the opening. Many of the pieces in the 1973 exhibit were on view in the current show. (Olga’s Gallery is a great place to get a quick look at a cross-section of Ernst’s work.) The experience sparked a few reflections.

“What kind of bird are you?” (A question from a patron at the 1973 opening in “Max Ernst Hanging.”) A good question. Ernst and his work are filled with birds, so much so that the painter adopted an alter-ego, “Loplop,” a phoenix-like, anthropomorphic bird that is at once image and observer in his work, and appeared again and again in his paintings and sculpture. Birds that are cut-out drawings or photographs used in collages, dotted-line or cartoonish birds in cages lightly painted on the surface of otherwise detailed paintings, sculptured birds, and strange biomorphic creatures that share bird and human and even vegetal and insect forms and characteristics. At times the birds seem trapped and isolated, at other times spiritual and free, and then, as in, “Surrealism and Painting,” shown above, the bird-human form – is it one figure or are there three? – suggesting an almost sentimental notion of family. It is serene, secure and a bit claustrophobic. But birds. Birds everywhere.
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The world is small in places, we know

180px-spanish_steps_arpCousin Rick, a far-flung Scatter-friend, writes from Paris. Writes! On writing paper, with hand-formed, fully-formed letters and elegant sentences. Like tooled leather, it seems to me.

Cousin Rick works for a large international “software solutions” firm, recently merged with a larger firm. “With a merger of this size,” Rick tells us, “it can take months for the new teams to be formed. This has left me as a salaried employee, averaging 3-4 hours work a week.” Cousin Rick is young, too young to tell us “I’ve started calling this period my ‘2d Retirement.’ (I took 6 months off when originally relocating to Paris.) My brother, an involved father of two young children, prefers the phrase ‘too much unstructured free time,” and I think my mom has started mentioning something about ‘idle hands. . .’”

Rick has moved to a new apartment. “For Paris it is good size for one person. The building is about 200 years old, and retains some original touches, like the crown molding. It’s what I would have pictured as very Parisian before moving, with high ceilings, two large ‘French’ windows overlooking a busy street scene, and large courtyard area in back, away from the street. The neighborhood is central, gritty and colorful. Lots of Turks, Greeks and Africans. Still probably 10-12 years from being ruined by people like myself.”

“Would make a perfect base for the Art Scatter team,” he teases.
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Love, Forever Changes and The Ground Beneath Her Feet

You are just a thought that someone
Somewhere somehow feels you should be here

Arthur Lee, “A House Is Not A Motel”

love“We change what we remember, then it changes us, and so on, until we both fade together, our memories and ourselves. Something like that.” This is Salman Rushdie on the way our lives intertwine with the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999 ) is a novel about Ormus and Vina, Indians raised in Bombay, who become the first couple of international rock. Propelled by Ormus’ words and melodies and Vina’s voice, they blaze across the rock firmament as VTO (“Vertical Take Off”), their lives mirroring the rise and fall of many sacred monsters of rock the last half century.

200px-love_-_forever_changesI thought about Rushdie’s novel watching the documentary film Love Story, about the legendary L.A. band Love and their 1967 album “Forever Changes,” the best single album I’ve ever heard, and one of the most enduring albums of what folks still call the “the psychedelic era,” an odd term that reflects the cover art but not the bold lyrics, crystal clear vocals and resonant orchestral sound, acoustic guitars supplemented by symphonic strings and horns. The album is especially loved and respected in England, and British producers Chris Hall and Mike Kelly have made a quiet, fairly typical but informative rock history film, with vintage footage and interviews with Arthur Lee, the dark genius of the group, as well as Bryan MacLean and Johnny Nichols, who all played a critical roll in forming the band’s charismatic image as an early racially-mixed rock group. Recorded by folk the label Elektra, Love was not promoted very effectively in rock venues. They also refused to tour much outside L.A. Not burnt-out cases, really. They just faded out, disappeared. So the album “Forever Changes” has survived and thrived by word-of-mouth, although several years ago Rolling Stone placed it # 40 on the list of 500 greatest albums. My sons ride me for thinking it #1, but there you have it. “Forever Changes” is lodged there as firmly as Venus in my rock firmament.

If you haven’t heard it, it is never too late.
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Zen and the art of Michael Dibdin (why I’m a serial reader)

dibdin “I’m a stranger here myself.”

Odd this should be the last thing I hear from Aurelio Zen. I’ve just read Zen’s parting shot in Dead Lagoon, the Michael Dibdin mystery novel I’ve saved unread for several months. Didbin wrote eleven novels featuring Zen, the solitary, dark-hearted Italian police inspector. The first, Ratking, was published in 1988, when Zen is almost fifty and nearly washed-up as an investigator, and the last, End Games, was published in 2007, a few months after Dibdin’s death. Born in England in 1947, Dibdin taught in Italy for several years before beginning the Zen series. He died in Seattle in March 2007, having lived there many years with his wife, Katherine Beck, also a mystery novelist.

I became intrigued with Didbin after reading his short non-Zen novel, Thanksgiving, a disturbing, creepy Sam Shepard-like American tale set in the Nevada desert. The first Zen book I read was And Then You Die (2002), which picks up the inspector’s story as he recovers from an assassination attempt. I quickly moved through the somewhat grisly Medusa (2003), about caves and fascism; Back to Bologna (2005), a sly tale of soccer, bungled murder and an off-kilter semiotics professor out to get a popular TV cook; and finally End Games (2007), published posthumously, a strange, comically cynical end-of-world tale about the attempt to make a Mel Gibson-inspired movie about the Book of Revelations.
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A Scatter clutch of new year “I’m in Indiana” poems

“Everything stated or expressed by man is a note in the margin of a completely erased text. From what’s in the note we can extract the gist of what must have been the text, but there’s always a doubt, and the possible meanings are many”
– Fernando Pessoa

Bare Tree/Hunted Sky New Year

“bare ruined choirs”

spare ruining chores
daily done

My Horizon

affectionate irony
is what i’d like

to hear from the sons
and daughters of my pride

to know what i’m about
to say as wise as irony:

“yes but you have no idea
what use that will be to us

that get home free
day of your demise”

Supper in Los Crisis

have I tousled
the salad days’
shimmering little leaves
or not

Grace Under Pleasure

humanism’s warmth:
holding one’s hands
to one’s other’s fire

Continue reading A Scatter clutch of new year “I’m in Indiana” poems

Winter’s tales: Halldor Laxness on love and ice – and fire

“Not much ever happened to him but weather.”
— Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

I think of love stories in winter weather. Perhaps it’s my own small town South Dakota youth calling, remembering my own 60s romance with the love of my life, cold winter nights parking at a turn-out on the gravel road out past the airfield, burning gas, fogging the windows — all manner of heat, and dreaming a life not far different from the one we’ve had. So I can relish without regret cold love stories that are tragic, like William Dean Howells’ A Modern Instance, which begins with a winter sleigh ride, or a poignant tale like Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, with its blue shadows of the winter season and its intimations of the longer blue shadows of human behavior. Even thinking of it brings one of those who-can-tell-what-is-in-a-human-heart shivers.

But here is a cold-storage love story, one that pushes beyond what’s between a woman and a man, beyond the temperament of a season, striking at the ice or fire dilemma of creation itself.

“Where does creation end and destruction begin?” Here’s the preacher’s answer, in the form of a parable about a horse swept over a waterfall:

“He was washed ashore, alive, onto the rocks below. The beast stood there motionless, hanging his head, for more than twenty-four hours below this awful cascade of water that had swept him down. Perhaps he was trying to remember what life was called. Or he was wondering why the world had been created. He showed no signs of ever wanting to graze again. In the end, however, he heaved himself onto the riverbank and started to nibble.”

This derelict minister, Pastor Jon, has himself fallen from grace in Halldor Laxness’ novel Under the Glacier. His parish church stands at the foot of the glacier, its broken windowpanes boarded over, its door nailed shut, and its pews and altar stolen and used for firewood during “the spring of the great snows” several years past. Pastor Jon is now more tinker and local repairman than preacher to his flock. And into this strange world –- the center of creation or the end of the world, depending on who is consulted –- steps the narrator, who calls himself “Embi,” short for Emissary of the Bishop of Iceland. This young prelate has been sent to make inquiries and gather facts regarding rumors of strange goings on at the glacier parish.
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Live from Reed, it’s Gary Snyder 52 years ago

Gary Snyder , Lincoln High and Reed College graduate, made a return appearance in Portland Friday. In the Oregonian Jeff Baker reports the discovery of a tape of Gary Snyder reading at Reed College on February 14, 1956. Rather, it is a cassette copy a Reed student made twenty-five years ago from the original reel-to-reel tape that is now missing. Recall back in February of this year Scatter commented on Reed’s release of the tape of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” that same night and the likelihood that a second tape had captured Snyder’s reading, too. The release of the Ginsberg tape inspired the Reed graduate, Portland photographer Steve Halpern, to offer up the cassette he had made while doing research in Reed’s library. Baker’s story includes Snyder’s reaction to the discovery. Baker also reports that Snyder’s reading from the seminal work “Myths & Texts” gives a glimpse of how the text published in 1960 evolved from the early version he read at Reed.

Jack Kerouac wrote a fictionalized account of Snyder and Ginsberg during this time in The Dharma Bums, still my sentimental favorite among Kerouac’s novels. You can listen to the tape at Reed’s website, which also has extensive notes discussing the variations between the read and published versions of the poems. The recording is remarkably clear. Snyder’s rich outdoor voice complements nicely the environmental themes of the poems. In addition to “Myths and Texts,” Snyder read versions of poems published in later books, including Riprap (1959), although he did not read the title poem in that collection. Too bad, really, for “Riprap” is Snyder’s call to arms, hands and feet as a poet, as well as to the voice, mind and heart that grows through his work from beginning to end.
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W. S. Merwin in other words

Starting with A Mask for Janus, which W.H. Auden picked for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1952, W. S. Merwin’s first poems were written in a traditional mode, many on themes drawn from classical mythology. In the 1960s, Merwin opened up his forms, abandoned formal lines and punctuation, and infused his poems with anti-war and environmental themes. The Moving Target (1963) and The Lice (1967) revolutionized poetry in a manner different from the way the Beats did. Merwin’s poems still hit me in the gut. A mystical, searching quality sparked by everyday perception and simple language. “Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise” finds the poet recognizing gold chanterelles pushing through sleep and wondering “Where else am I walking even now / Looking for me”. He discovers that his “eyes are waiting for me / in the dusk / they are still closed / they have been waiting a long time/ and I am feeling my way toward them.” That from “Words From a Totem Animal,” Merwin’s characteristic evocation of the spirit haunting man’s relations with the natural world.

So when Kayak press published Animae, a 1200 copy chapbook, in 1969, I was ready for Merwin’s next leap into the unknown. I ordered it through a college bookstore, and when it arrived I loved immediately the paper bag feel of the green cover, the faded salmon pages. It was a shock–but not that much of a shock–to find the pages blank through the whole book. “Animae,” I thought, spirit manifest by its absence. A neat trick, and a low-budget effect, too, at $1.50, and whatever change for postage. I’ve returned to it over the years, as much probably as to any book I own with words. It is seldom listed among Merwin’s published books, and I’d never read about it until last year an academic article referenced it as containing poems about animals, as well as illustrations by Lynn Schroeder. Shocked again! Somehow, my copy ended up a misprint, or non-print. Now, of course, I see the words that are not there. I lived nearly forty years with my blank book and wish I could have it back.

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Autumnal thoughts: John Keats suffers to write blues


She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine . . .


John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”


It is the most anthologized poem in the language, reportedly. (Who thumbed pages and tallied that?) Ron Rosenbaum offers perennial praise to it as the “greatest lyric poem in the language.” And days like the past few make it clear why John Keats‘ “To Autumn” is my favorite poem, celebrating the fullness of fall and accepting the deliquescence of the all-in-all that follows.


I think of Malcolm Lowry’s strange story “Strange Comforts Afforded by the Profession.” Lowry’s alter ego, Sijborn Wilderness, steps into the house in Rome where John Keats spent his last weeks before dying at the age of 26 in 1821. (It is the building, now a museum, to the right of the Spanish Steps.) The time of Lowry’s story is shortly after World War II, and Wilderness wonders at Keats’ suffering for his art, but against the broader background of Europe’s 20th century cauldron – the war and the Holocaust.


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A novel idea for the voter’s pamphlet

the polling place.
The last couple weeks in the political season anything said on behalf of a candidate is artful lie; anything about the opposition is out-and-out lie. The crude lesson of Modernism is that we are, one and all, unreliable narrators slouching toward the polls bearing a fragmented, mythologized tale. It is a commonplace that hagiography, of politician or saint, is the telling anecdote burnished, brightened and mythologized. But these days even formal academic history is a jumble of preconceived ideas and abstract principles, pleading a cause, no matter how neutral the tone. Revisionist history responds by discovering a different cause or an opposite effect.

Has skepticism, the core principle of knowledge and education, led to the debasement of politics, or has the pervasiveness of politics geared us to accept the lie as the lowest common denominator of public discourse? No matter. The problem, I think, is that we continue to view discourse as some sort of continuum running from hard fact to fiction. We’d be better off if we acknowledged that it’s all fiction, and that we live within a series of intersecting novels. We ought to read Free Market Economy and War on Terror the same way we read Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, or War and Peace. Fiction, we believe, bears some element of the truth in the artful arrangement of its lies. What’s behind the words or between the lines? Is it something the writer’s hidden there? Or something that can’t be found out by either the writer or the reader? If it’s fiction, at least, we know we’re responsible for digging truth out. We never take fiction at face value. Well, almost never.

Or perhaps this is simply a rationalization for why, at the age of sixty, I read very little but fiction. In fact, it’s a novel that sparked my recent bitter reflections on American politics.
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