All posts by Vernon Peterson

Ord. 374: Commissioner Leonard and the Audacity of Nope!

Commissioner Randy Leonard missed the March 19 City Council vote on City Ordinance 374, the measure he sponsored to prohibit the use of duct-tape or other markers on public property as a means of reserving space to view parades. Though he missed the vote, I imagine the Commissioner, aboard the bicycle carrier PSS Tom McCall, declaring “mission accomplished.”

I don’t like parades. I attended the Rose Parade once, in 1980, wearing a mask to protect against Mt. St. Helens ash. But I worked for thirty years in an office overlooking MLK, Jr. Blvd., and each year watched as folks blocked out space on the sidewalk with tape, chalk or string, and perhaps a lawn chair or two, reserving each his own personal observation deck for the Rose Parade. This would begin a week or more before the parade, and on the last day or two some people, the less trusting, would take turns occupying their spot, negotiating neighborly boundaries, all for the sake of a parade. I admit that the junk-art collagist in me also liked walking the streets the next several weeks, observing how remnant markers faded and melted away, especially the duct-tape, which as it disintegrates turns into a delicate web before disappearing altogether.

At first I assumed the law authorized this ad hoc reservation system. When I realized that this was just neighborly folk law in action, I was amazed, and still am, that for the most part people respected each other’s taped dominion. I always highlighted the practice for visitors, a charming sign of Portlanders’ mutual respect and good will. “Something there is that does not love a wall,” as Robert Frost said, and that something was your everyday Portlander, satisfied to have a marked venue with a view.

I’ve heard the plaint: “What makes folks think they can save a prime view of the parade simply by laying down a strip of duct-tape?” What indeed! For no reason other than it’s the custom of the country.

No longer.

I’m reminded of the “Sut Lovingood Yarns” by George Washington Harris, in particular a story called “Bart Davis’s Dance.” Bart hires a band, his wife Peg fixes a bunch of food, and they invite the Kentucky countryside to the dance. A preacher shows up. Welcomed good-naturedly by Bart, the preacher says, “Yu is hosspitabil,” to which Bart wonders if he should take exception, asking Sut, “I b’leve I’se been ‘sulted in my own hous’; didn’t that durn’d preachin mersheen call me a hoss?” Sut is always “sloshin’ about” at such affairs, and loves to stir the pot. “Sartinly,” Sut tells Bart, “pitabil is a sorter Latin tail stuck tu hit so yu moutn’t onderstand; hit means pitiful hoss in Inglish, an’ ef I wer yu, I’d see that his stumack wer spiled fur Peg’s fried chicken an’ biskit.” Violence and hilarity ensue.

See, I think a Rose Festival visitor observed the ceremony of the tape, was as amazed as I was, and happened to mention to Commissioner Leonard that she thought it very hospitable on the part of Portlanders to allow such a practice.

The Commissioner was not going to take that sitting down, as I’m sure he’s entitled to do, in a parade seat reserved for dignitaries, in a prime parade viewing area set aside for such purpose. And I suspect it rankles that an activity like this, not sanctioned by Authority, should actually work, more or less, certainly more than, say, the water billing system (yes, I know, different commissioner), but less than – well, I can’t think of a thing at the moment. More’s the pity, hoss.

CIA, Harold L. Humes and Harry Mathews

He didn’t tell me much about CIA’s modus operandi that I hadn’t heard already, but I did learn about the generally accepted laws of intelligence organizations. The basic rule is that if something can go wrong, it will. Applied to information from the field as it was read in supervisory offices, this means: “When something can be misinterpreted, it will be.”

Harry Mathews, My Life in CIA

We don’t keep secrets these days. We don’t want to be told things that should be kept secret. We don’t joke (especially in airports); we don’t pretend. We don’t pretend to know secrets. Secret agents among us pretend to be something they’re not. Secret agents often pretend to be what they think secret agents should be. And we assume we’re stalked, watched over, listened to by agents so invisible they don’t need to pretend to be secret. We don’t know what combination of places frequented, things read or words used on a cell or the internet will trigger the profile that becomes the secret we do not know we keep. So, what if we happen to be paranoid?

doc_humes_1968-fullinit_.jpgCheck out Rachael Donadio’s essay on Harold L. Humes in the New York Times Book Review, February 24, 2008. In the early 1950s Humes founded The Paris Review with Peter Matthiessen and others and wrote two highly-praised novels, The Underground City (1958), about post-World War II spies in Paris, and Men Die (1959), a story about African-American soldiers on a U.S. munitions base in the Caribbean. Called “Doc” by friends, Humes was a cultural touchstone in New York in the ‘50s and ’60s. He even managed Norman Mailer’s run for mayor in 1961. But he became increasingly paranoid. He believed the CIA was out to get him. It turns out, in fact, that his friend Matthiessen did work for the CIA, using The Paris Review as cover. Humes’ last years were defined by mental illness and odd behavior and he never wrote another novel. He died in 1992.

Humes’ daughter, Immy Humes, has made a documentary film about his life, and his books have been reissued by Random House. I haven’t read them, though I’m planning to do so. But I have another reason for bringing him up. Reading Donadio’s essay I thought of a superb book I did read a couple years ago, Harry Mathews’ My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95).
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Al Souza: The Puzzler’s Dilemma

I’m just trying to do this jig-saw puzzle
Before it rains anymore

– M. Jagger / K. Richards “Jigsaw Puzzle”

Ours is a family of re-puzzlers. Last holiday our sons, both in their mid-twenties, spent two days working through our old puzzles, beginning with the extra large-piece “Masters of the Universe,” a “battle royal” featuring He-Man and two dozen other trademarked Mattel heroes of the day (circa 1983). From there they moved to “G.I. Joe Battles Cobra Command,” four puzzles that, when completed, can be interlocked to form a large mural depicting all-out war on land and sea and in the air. These boys have always been deliberate, methodical re-puzzlers. As youngsters they would build them, tear them down and build again. As adults they are also deliberate about seeming disengaged; they are handling memories, after all, not puzzle pieces.

My wife and I joined them on the adult puzzles, some we’ve had since the late 1960s, when we were first married and a bottle of wine and a good puzzle were an evening’s entertainment: “Fisherman’s Wharf,” in Monterey, California, the way it looked when we lived there; “Five-Clawed Dragon,” a detail from an embroidered Chinese Imperial robe; and “St. George and the Dragon,” a photograph of a statuette owned by a Bavarian duke who lived during the time of Shakespeare.

Oh, we’ve had other, one-time puzzles, more than I’d want to count, but these are the ones we’ve kept and re-puzzled time and again. Life is like a jigsaw puzzle, I’ve thought. Not like a box of chocolates. The puzzle worked over and completed, and then un-puzzled and tossed back into its box, is the seven ages of man – the first youthful stammering returning to reclaim incoherence from the modest settled principles an adult pieces together once, maybe twice, in a life.

So I was curious to see Al Souza’s sculptural jigsaw puzzle collages showing at Elizabeth Leach Gallery this month. He uses commercial puzzles gathered from thrift stores and on E-bay, and some that acquaintances around the country find and assemble for him. He layers and juxtaposes parts of the puzzles in large scale works such as “Italian Dressing” (72” X 72”, above), creating an explosion of slick images and bright colors that are the hallmark of commercial puzzles. Animals, clocks, landscapes, famous paintings and buildings, loopy holiday ribbon candy, toys and sports memorabilia – jumbled together in odd, surprising ways.
Continue reading Al Souza: The Puzzler’s Dilemma

The Echo Maker: Powers of Attraction

Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall
between the story in the mind and what hits the page.

– Richard Powers

richard powers photo Richard Powers did not disappoint the small but very attentive group at his reading March 6. We accept on faith, I suppose, his claim that there is a shortfall between what is in his mind and what shows on his page, but we’ll never detect it, because what he writes is such a seamless weaving of disparate threads, as in the story he read that night. Called “Modulation,” and written special for his reading tour, it interweaves the stories of four people in places as various as Iraq, Sydney, Germany and an “I” state campus in the dead of winter. Different temperaments, different relations to music, but each trying to detect a secret harmony, a ghost tune they strain to hear in the global jangle of music, samplings and crossover genres, bootlegs and illegal downloads. Music – “the art that leaves nothing,” except the desire to read “Modulations” when it is published this spring in Conjunctions 50, a special anniversary collection of stories and poems by 50 writers.

Powers explored the theme later in response to a question about the fate of music, or any other “intimate art” such as reading, “in an age of technological ubiquity,” as he phrased it. He’s not worried. Every age, he believes, has produced a music “surprising for its moment.” Being grounded in our “now” is second nature in his novels.
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Robert Creeley: “Selected Poems, 1945-2005”

creeley.jpg The rhyme is after
all the repeated

— Robert Creeley, “For W.C.W.”

Black Mountain College, nestled in the mountains of eastern North Carolina, was small but thrived on its own terms for the 30 years it existed from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s. And thrives, perhaps, in memory because of the storied avant garde careers of teachers and students who took a turn there: Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Paul Goodman, as well as a cluster of poets that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley (1926-2005). Creeley’s Selected Poems, 1945-2005 (University of California Press), edited by Benjamin Friedlander, has just been published, a microcosm of 60 years and some 60 volumes of work.

Creeley was inspired by jazz and abstract art and in fact collaborated with musicians, photographers and artists on various projects, a legacy of the communal atmosphere at Black Mountain. Creeley and other Black Mountain stalwarts were part of the “New American” poets anthologized by Donald Allen, but while they were associated with the Beats, they had their own clear path, a more reserved, austere form of verse that was innovative and experimental nonetheless.

One of my favorite Creeley poems is not included in Selected Poems, perhaps because it seems to be a shade romantic and sentimental. Here it is, “The Woman”:

I called her across the room,
could see that what she stood on
held her up, and now she came
as if she moved in time.

In time to what she moved,
her hands, her hair, her eyes, all things
by which I took her to be there
did come along.

It was not right or wrong
but signally despair, to be about
to speak to her
as if her substance shouted.

I read this poem in 1966 in a collection called For Love (1962),” and copied it out in my literary treasures notebook for Mrs. Wheeler’s senior English class. This was a different kind of love poem. No lips like cherries, cheeks like roses, hair like fine-spun gold – the verbal cornucopia that turned woman into an Acrimbaldo portrait. This was a real flesh and blood woman who stood across the room, held up, as it were, but not on a pedestal. The line break “what she stood on / held her up” still floors me. A simple, elegant poem, it tickles the mind and stirs the blood.
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The Echo Maker: The Positive of Richard Powers’ Thinking

Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall
between the story in the mind and what hits the page.

– Richard Powers

richard powers photo Richard Powers is a real test for readers in this day and age. His novels aren’t especially difficult but they are long and they do make you think. And once you taste the waters of any of his nine you’ll want to drink them all in. I’m still captivated by the cover of his first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, with its photograph by August Sander that forms the basis for the interrelated stories of three Dutch and German stepbrothers on the eve of World War I, a computer techie in contemporary Boston, and the narrator P., who discovers the photo in a Detroit museum and brings it to life with research and imaginative musings. The novel tells the story of photography and how it has documented the brutalities of the twentieth century in a way that makes previous centuries’ horrors we only read about a little less real. But Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is also a very personal and affecting story.

Powers’ background in physics, computer programming, music and English studies finds its way into his novels in very intellectual and sophisticated forms. He is one of the smartest writers I’ve ever read, but it is the emotional core of his novels that is so amazing. I wouldn’t miss his appearance at the Literary Arts special event, Thursday, March 6, at 7:30; Portland Art Museum Fields Sunken Ballroom, 1119 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets are $15.00: www.pam.orgor 503-226-0973.

Continue reading The Echo Maker: The Positive of Richard Powers’ Thinking

Molly Vidor and the Elephant in Bonnard’s Garden

What do you do with the elephant in the room? Do you feed it? Nourish it in other ways? Try to talk it down off the wall? Coax it into a deeper relation with furniture and family? You don’t ignore it, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t want it there in the first place if you could simply ignore it.

mv-elephant.jpgIn this case the “Elephant,” left, and a rather pinkish one to boot, is one of Molly Vidor’s five mostly abstract paintings in a show called “Destroyer” now at PDX Contemporary Art (February 5 – March 1, 2008). “Destroyer” is a curious title for the show given the peaceful, reflective nature of the paintings and the fact that in her artist’s statement Vidor correlates her work with that of Pierre Bonnard, who made the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen – landscapes, still lifes, and nude portraits of his wife.

But he didn’t paint one abstract that I can recall, although he eschewed naturalistic color and flattened perspective in a way that makes the composition seem like a patchwork of colors. He wanted his work to be intimate and decorative at once. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has an amazing number of Bonnards, and they have such presence that they create their own space in the narrow confines of the converted residence where they are housed.

I have a theory about why and how Vidor’s shimmering paintings echo Bonnard’s, but it follows from my broader theory that we enter into deeper relations with abstract paintings – or, rather, the abstract quality in painting – than we do with landscapes, or still lifes, or figurative work.
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The Menil Collection, Pat Barker and How Artists Draw Blood

“I am a painter and I paint with nails.”

-Kurt Schwitters

sargent_sketching_in_the_alps_t.JPGI’ve been reading Pat Barker’s novel Life Class (Doubleday, $24), set in the early years of World War I. It’s the story of several young art school students whose lives and ideas about art are altered dramatically by the war.

I’d read Barker’s World War I trilogy published in the early 1990s – “Regeneration,” “The Eye in the Door,” and “The Ghost Road” – and was deeply affected by the historical and psychological realism of Barker’s writing, and by her knowledge of the era and keen sympathy for her characters. She portrays real figures such as the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers to explore the devastation wrought by the war on a generation of British men and women, both at home and on the front in Europe. Rivers is a commanding presence in “The Ghost Road,” in charge of treating and rehabilitating shell shocked soldiers to return them to the war.

“Life Class” has a similar real-life figure, Henry Tonks, a surgeon and anatomy teacher turned artist (his sketch of J.S. Sargent sketching in the Alps is above), who teaches life drawing at the Slade School of Art, a class attended by the young artists, women and men, we follow through the rest of the novel. Tonks is present only briefly in the narrative, but his spirit looms over the whole. In real life Tonks worked with a plastic surgeon pioneering techniques used on young men whose faces were mutilated in the war. In the first chapter of “Life Class,” on the eve of the war, he instructs art students on the relation of drawing to anatomy. Drawing is all about physicality, finding a way to “convey what lay beneath the skin.” “Drawing is an explication of the form,” he would say, meaning a mirror of what is there to be observed in the real world. A “real world” that will be turned upside down and inside out by the war.

I happened to be reading the book last week when I was in Houston visiting the Menil Collection ( (For a description of the Menil, see my post “The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes with Menil.”) I was struck in particular by a new exhibit, “How Artists Draw,” curated by Bernice Rose, formerly a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and now the Menil chief curator responsible for the development of a new Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center, which will be “dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition, and study of modernist drawing, including its role in contemporary artistic practice.” The emphasis on “modernist drawing” separates what the Institute is about from the philosophy and classroom practice of Henry Tonks. What replaced explication of form in drawing followed irrevocably from artists’ experience in World War I and its aftermath.

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The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes With Menil

Dateline Houston . . . but no Houston skyline as we dart off the freeway, lose the skyscrapers looming over downtown, and slide off into a mixed through street – specialty furnishings and pawn shops – and then onto a narrow side street, Sul Ross, home to the Menil Collection. My brother-in-law has driven forty minutes in heavy traffic to bring me here; I have four, maybe five hours before he returns. I head past the furious landscaping being done to complete the new Michael Heizer sculpture that sweeps across the 400 foot front of the museum building, enter the door and walk past the front desk in the broad, bright foyer (there’s free admission at the Menil), turn right down the central corridor, and pause before the first doorway: SURREALISM.

I hardly dare breathe. It is just as I remember from a visit a few years back. Outside of books, this museum is my only true experience of what Surrealism means. Dozens of works: de Chirico, Magritte, Ernst, Picabia and Cornell. Striking images, especially Magritte’s visual puns familiar to folks with no idea what Surrealism means. The large gallery space is divided into smaller rooms of a dozen or so paintings each. Each space has two, sometimes three entrances, so you circle back through areas, peek around corners, compare paintings, view pieces from a longer perspective – intimacy and distance, the vague unsettling dis-ease induced by Surrealism. Claustrophobia and open-endedness. It’s dreamwork, what Andre Breton called “the interpenetration of the physical and mental to resolve the dualism of perception and representation.” It’s the uncanny that rises like perfume from the most familiar objects in your world. This vast Surrealist space is one of my spiritual homes.

I have that space is back in Portland, too, if only in my head, but still I’m incredibly envious of the Houstonites who have daily access to its physical space.
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James Lavadour: Landscapes of Change

“What does not change / is the will to change,” as the poet Charles Olson said, meaning that, wherever we look, change is fundamental, continuous, and irrevocable. We know this but often forget it in broad prospect as we round our own daily planet.

James Lavadour’s recent paintings are landscapes of such change. Now on view at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem (February 2-March 30), are several of Lavadour’s large-scale works formed from nine, twelve or fifteen small, intricately-painted panels. The paintings are essentially abstract, and yet in their depths they suggest the great forming cataclysms of the Pacific Northwest: exploding mountains, lava floods, draining seas, massive dragging glaciers and the great Missoula floods that carved the Columbia Basin. These convulsive geologic images are echoed in the painting process visible on the wood surface of the paintings, showing how Lavadour has scraped, dripped and wiped the layers of paint.

Lavadour 3

The paintings are astonishingly beautiful. Most of the individual panels range in size from 12 x 18” to 24 x 30,’’ and yet they draw you into what are really monumental landscapes, as if glimpsed through and framed by a car window on a drive up the Columbia Gorge, the mountains, cliffs and falls just out of focus through clouds, mists and rain splatter rendering the view from the window a blear. Continue reading James Lavadour: Landscapes of Change