Category Archives: Books

Robert Pogue Harrison: How does your garden grow?

Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to be called: soul.
Dr. Vigil, in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano

Portlanders have a garden state of mind. Perhaps even a garden state of “what used to be call: soul.” Forest Park meanders through the city. There are the Japanese and Chinese Gardens and all the micro gardens within their perimeters. In one the “enclosing landscape,” as Edith Wharton put it, is forest, except for a panoramic vista of the city; in the other it is high-rise buildings. There is the highly-ordered Rose Garden and, within its confines, the test gardens that supplied the metaphor for Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love. There are community and backyard gardens, porch pots all down the block, and desk overhangs in every office. Yes, our garden varietals are many, to include the world’s smallest, Mill Ends Park, all 452 square inches of it, located at SW Naito Parkway and SW Taylor Street.

But with all the gardens and the countless hours gardening per capita, do we live in a “gardenless age” for lack of really “seeing” the gardens in our midst? Robert Pogue Harrison believes so, and I’m always inclined to suspend judgment and follow the course he charts through art, literature, philosophy, psychology and anthropology – you name it – to the clearing he finds in the woods. I’ve kicked around a bit in his new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, but barely have disturbed its topsoil. I’ve spent more time with his earlier books, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992) and The Dominion of the Dead (2003), both remarkable for elegant prose and suggestive argument that draw you back for second and third looks. Harrison takes a ruling image – forests, burials, gardens – and explores how they function in human life and institutions, how they filter through the mind as image and metaphor. What he says about gardens, that they “are never either merely literal or figurative but always both one and the other,” captures his working method in all three books. In Forests, for example, it is the realm of trees that provides the meeting ground of human history and nature, and it too defines “the edge of Western civilization, in the literal as well as imaginative domains.”

But Gardens is not a primer on “literal” gardens or gardening. Harrison is not a gardener, and I’m not reading his book as one. My husbandry extends to mowing lawn, harvesting dog and cat leavings from the yard, and tending – contemplating – a dead bonsai tree that owns a corner of the porch.
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Dangerous doves, problematic preachers and four-dollar words

Quick hits on a Tuesday with lots of other things on its agenda:

Mourning the doves: It might seem eccentric verging on preposterous here in proudly liberal Portland, where a John McCain lawn sign is as rare as a cup of coffee out of a Maxwell House can, but dovishness is not a universally admired trait. I haven’t read Louise Erdrich‘s new novel “The Plague of Doves,” but I love the title. A plague of doves? Sounds like it could be the title of a neocon screed, something by William Kristol, say: If only those end-the-war-now wimps had a streak of realpolitik in their heads, they’d realize you don’t win world peace by singing Kumbaya. You gotta be tough, you gotta be mean, you gotta fight fire with fire, even if it takes 100 years. A plague on the doves!

Ever since that ancestral white bird spotted land and an olive branch on the side of Mt. Ararat, we’ve been soft on the species. But it turns out there really is such a thing as a plague of doves, especially if you’re a farmer and they’re eating all your freshly planted seeds. That’s the kind of bird Erdrich is aiming at in her new novel, which takes place in the fading hamlet of Pluto, on the edge of Ojibwe reservation land in North Dakota. Reviews of this multigenerational (and multiply cultural) book have been enthusiastic. I’m putting it on my get-to-soon list. No matter what Ann Coulter thinks.

Them’s fisticuffarian words: This morning’s New York Times contains a front page story by Alessandra Stanley about The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.‘s recent television appearances to expand upon his theories of patriotism and the God-damning of America, and if I could get past the four-dollar words I might have a sense of what Stanley thinks of the whole spectacle. Continue reading Dangerous doves, problematic preachers and four-dollar words

Friday hyper-scatter

So, what’s Art Scatter doing this weekend, you might ask… One-third is headed for Willow Lake, South Dakota, to visit its aunts and relive childhood memories. One-third is headed for the Hood Canal and oysters, glorious oysters. But what about the third that stays at home, what about that third, the third that blew his travel budget on an all-day TriMet pass last week?

1. The Ceramic Showcase 2008: We are admitted suckers for crafts — making something from the essentially nothing (clay, tall grasses, etc.) just gets us excited. It’s like alchemy! Plus they align us with John Ruskin and William Morris and the craft traditions of Asia… sweet. And actually we need a serving bowl (crash — “sorry!”) and four plates. Fire in the kiln… at the Convention Center.

2. The Stumptown Comics Fest: When we were a little kid, see, there were these three giant boxes of comic books collected by our uncle (are you starting to see the limitations of the 1st person plural? we are…), and every time I visited my grandparents, well, you get the idea. This is the most important comics event in Portland this year (and Portland is a serious comics town). Just about all of our local stars will be there, and we have lots! You don’t have to be totally geeked out to go, either. I have a feeling the “spotlight” sessions with the likes of Mike Richardson (Dark Horse Comics), Craig Thompson (long-form graphic autobiography), Brian Michael Bendis (comic book supernova), etc., will be jammed, so pick a couple and get there early. To get you in the spirit, here’s Mike Russell’s comics introduction(published in today’s Oregonian) — it’s a beauty. The convention is at the Lloyd Center DoubleTree hotel.

3. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: The Oregon Symphony takes on the last finished Mahler symphony. It’s long (90 minutes without intermission), but I will prepare: I’ll eat right, plenty of exercise and do some puzzles for my mental agility before arriving. Maybe I’ll also drift over to Music Millennium and buy a recording of it before heading in. I like the idea of a massive Mahler overlay of the comics convention! Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

4. Portland Timbers v. Seattle Sounders: And if the weather behaves itself at all, those mighty Portland Timbers will play a bit of footie (that’s soccer) against their hated Northwest rivals. We love Chris Brown! PGE Park

George Johanson, printed and embossed!


The busy, intersecting circles and lines of Milton Wilson paintings catch the eye first at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery — they are on the wall opposite the door after all and their hum is hard to ignore. But this isn’t about Milton Wilson. Take a few steps more and pivot to the right and the maneuver leads to a set of seven sweet prints by George Johanson.

Maybe they won’t read as Johansons to many of us who own Johanson prints — those great Portland night scenes, with the river below us full of rowers, the volcano erupting in the distance, a cat streaking across the frame, full of interesting textures and visual delights. The prints at Pulliam-Deffenbach date back to 1970 — no night scenes, no cats and, of course, no volcanoes. There are seven of them — part of the 10-part Juxtapositions series, that Johanson created on an Arts Advocates grant in London at the Birgit Skiold studios — consigned to the gallery by their owner. And, not to make too big a deal out of them, they make a great case all by themselves for what has made Johanson so much fun to follow during his career, namely, his skill with line, his happy refusal to allow any “school” to limit him, and his imagination, which we already know about from his later prints and paintings. (No one I can think of has re-imagined Portland to the extent Johanson has, a theatrical Portland, filled it with sensual mysteries and a taste of the surreal, where the carnival never stops, all staged on a deck somewhere in the hills above the city.)
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Blessed Unrest: Hawken, Lopez & Solnit at the Gerding Theater

hawken72bw_lg.jpgWe did not find out how or when the State will wither away, but perhaps it was enough that Paul Hawken, Barry Lopez and Rebecca Solnit –- gathered together last Monday, April 14, by Literary Arts to explore the ideas in Hawken’s recent book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming –- proclaimed the possibility that we’ve reached “peak” Empire. It was a stimulating intellectual adventure, a noisy and crowded philanthropy of good ideas, and my initial misgivings dropped away in the audience’s collective exhalation – of relief, astonishment, long last recognition of all that’s been there right before our eyes if only we could have seen it – which rose past the slanted timbers of the set to Sometimes a Great Notion at the Gerding Theater, which formed the backdrop for the trio’s discussion. But something nagged. I asked myself, “Why does hope, so freely marketed, seem like a sub-prime mortgage?”

But I wander too far ahead, and afield. As Lopez, the moderator, noted, the three were gathered in our “little part of the world” for a conversation about what they know (and what of it they could pass on in memorable form) about the forces they see leading to reconciliation and re-invention of community in the world at large. Hawken sees a common thread in community groups –- non-profits and non-governmental groups (“NGOs”) –- around the world: a restorative impulse in the face of the inability or unwillingness of governments to address the plethora of social and environmental crises. In Blessed Unrest, Hawken describes the emergence of these groups all over the world as a spiritual awakening, or the creation of a new “civil society,” a term that means the “third sector” of voluntary organizations that functions alongside government and the marketplace.

Hawken’s recognition of this phenomenon sparked the creation of the World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility, “WiserEarth,” an online directory of international social justice and environmental organizations, more than 100,000 of them cataloged and indexed in user- and contact-friendly fashion. Its breadth and utility as a searchable database is astonishing. One wonders how many contract employees in Homeland Security it must take to re-index this information in terror-threat priority and monitor the activities of the organizations, as well as the interests and contacts, of those who use the site. (The enormity of that task may account for some of the State’s withering.)

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Tuesday quick scatter

unknown.jpg1. Art Scatter reader Marc Acito had a CLOSE encounter with Chelsea Clinton when she was in town to campaign for someone running for something. Too close for comfort. WAY too close and so shocking on so many levels. His blog recounts the incident in some detail.

In other late-breaking Acito news, his new book, Attack of the Theater People, hits stores soon, which is good because how else can you find out what happened to the characters from How I Paid for College? To kick things off, at least locally, you could go to the Bagdad Theater on April 29 for an official book singing, during which Mr. Acito will perform Marco! The Musical. Tickets are involved, but they’re $11.95. You won’t get a better chance to see someone who’s been this close to Chelsea all month.

2. Speaking of busy Art Scatter readers, we have scattered on news we meant to pass on about Scott Wayne Indiana, who has a show up right now at Ogle. In fact, he needs your help to help animate one of his installations — all you need to do is show up at Ogle at 1 p.m. on April 19 and stand in front of a door. It’s called “Waiting in line.” Even Art Scatter can manage that!

3. Tomorrow, we’ll move along to some items from around the globe. The main thing on our mind right now is a British Museum exhibition that documents the destruction of ancient art in Iraq by the U.S. occupation. That’s not nearly so fun as Marc Acito in full voice or the twisty concepts of Scott Wayne Indiana, but Art Scatter can NOT be diverted from its mission to spread its paranoia and its rage as widely as possible. Of course, regulars know this by now.


“Funes remembered not only every leaf
of every tree of every patch of forest,
but every time he had perceived
or imagined that leaf. “

-Jorge Luis Borges “Funes, His Memory”

haystacks1989.jpgI turn sixty today and my memory plays tricks. At any moment I can forget a word, like “deck” or “cup” or “knife.” It’s there in my mind’s eye, a clear picture, but the word refuses to skip past the tip of my tongue to finish my thought.

I struggle with the word “sofa,” in part because growing up in my family in my corner of the Midwest it was called a “davenport.”

In frustration, I ask for a little help. “It’s that thing with numbers, on the car,” meaning license plate. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just say ‘license plate’?” responds my unsympathetic son.

But there are other memory flips that I think of as structural. I catch myself bewildered whether I’ve actually done something I meant to or merely think I have. Did I lock the door? Turn off the downstairs light? Or I turn to do one of those things and realize I did it moments before.

At the health club I hang my towel on a hook and unless I consciously make a mental note, look back and confirm its position and signature fold, I’ll emerge from the shower with no idea which towel is mine. By habit I have a primary hook and a back-up, but in these moments, who knows? At times I just grab and run. Folks can be very unforgiving if you use their towel.

And here’s another odd short-term memory thing. I read a chapter in a book. A half hour later I skim the same passage. Some details are as if new, others spring up vividly in memory, but with the same patina of recognition as memories that are ten or twenty or thirty years old.

And there’s that curious feeling of panic, forgetting the names of folks I know well when it’s time to introduce them. Or forgetting a person’s name fifteen seconds after we’re introduced. That may be as much social anxiety as faulty memory. But even in moments of quiet reflection, I’ll stammer. Who’s the female lead in my favorite movie, “Love at Large”? Elizabeth Something? Ah, yes. Perkins. Who wrote “One Hundred Brothers”? James Wilcox? No, he wrote “Modern Baptists.” The other quirky writer working in utter obscurity is Donald Antrim.

This is disconcerting because my mind for books and authors, even the most marginal ones I’ve never read or never will read, is usually of the same absorbent variety as others’ minds for baseball trivia or wines. Now that faculty skips a beat, too. So folded in my billfold, tattered and worn, I keep a short list of books, writers, movies and CDs, so I can browse in book or music stores without panic.

9780521834247.jpgFinding myself in this predicament more and more often, it’s no wonder Douwe Draaisma’s book Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past (Cambridge University Press, $18.99) caught my eye in an ad in The London Review of Books. I neglected to note it on my billfold crib sheet, though, so a day or two later in the bookstore I recalled, vaguely, “Why Memory, Something, Something…” and no more (until I looked it up again in the Review).

Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion Takes Root

“Remember William Carlos Williams’ description of the pioneer
women who shot their children against the wilderness like cannonballs. Do the same with your novels.”

— Nathanael West

sometimes_notion_150.jpgDismantling Paradise is hard work. Accomplishing it by proxy, such as in writing a novel, also takes its toll. Perhaps that’s why Ken Kesey abandoned the novel form after completing Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964.

He dismantled the myth of Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail.

Americans claimed Oregon, in the words of John Quincy Adams, with the promise “to make the wilderness blossom as a rose, to establish laws, to increase, multiply and subdue the earth.” But the idea that the West is a storehouse of riches to be extracted from raw wilderness, is counterpoint to that other potent myth – that the West is a natural, unspoiled Eden. Many folk long to spend their pilgrimage here in refreshing hot springs, even as money folk see the quick buck in resources, renewable or not.

As Aaron Posner’s stage adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion premieres at Portland Center Stage, and related lectures and discussions explore Kesey’s importance and place in Oregon culture, let’s recall how Kesey exposed that myth as baldly as a clearcut and covered a theme as old as Europe’s invention of America. The empire with no clothes. An empire as precarious as the Stamper house cabled and sandbagged on the brink, the river’s edge.

Here’s D. H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature:

“Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the underconsciousness so devilish. Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Hums the underconsciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! Cackles the underconsciousness.”

And Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael:

“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

Olson is writing about Melville and Moby Dick, but he’s thinking of the continent and “the restless thing” that is the American in action, out to conquer that stretch of earth between oceans. “It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning.” Americans fancy themselves as democrats, “but their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.” For Olson’s Melville “it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people.”
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Cave doings

The news last week that archaeologists rooting around an Oregon cave found coprolites containing human DNA and dating back 14,000 years has shaken Art Scatter right down to the toes of its foundation myth. Art Scatter emerges from lithic scatter, the circle of rock shards and shavings that stone-age men and woman created as they bent themselves to the task of making objects.

photo25.jpgThe findings in the Paisley Caves in central Oregon on what were then the shores of once-great Summer Lake, connect us to that image — and expand it. Because along with flaked stone spear points, grinding stones and other tool-making remnants, the archaeologists based their most important claims on the coprolites, a word we use to avoid the less elegant “dried dung” or worse. Art Scatter’s concept of itself, it turns out, was a sanitized idea, and the shudder generated by the new evidence involves the implications of this addition to our “image.”
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Hemingway: Last Night in Havana

U.S. policy toward Cuba is depressing.

Fifty years ago there were high hopes in Cuba when Fidel Castro toppled the dictator Batista and ran out the American Mafia. But since then there has been a slow, steady descent into poverty and repression, the combined effect of the U.S. embargo and Castro’s ruthless system of concentration camps, forced-labor and re-education, supported by a network of secret police and informers. Recently, Castro was replaced by his brother Raul, and there was much speculation about “transition scenarios” and the usual saber-rattling from the administration about regime change, keeping hopes alive for the politically-active Cuban-American community that someday they’ll be able to reclaim the property Castro confiscated fifty years ago.

ernesthemingway.jpgBut there’s likely no going back in any sense. Consider the curious fate of Ernest Hemingway, always a revered local god in Cuba. His novels To Have and Have Not, The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream reflect the sun-soaked, elemental, sometimes violent sense of adventure he found in pre-Castro Cuba. His estate on the edge of Havana, Finca Vigia, or “Look-out Farm,” where he lived for more than two decades, is now a state-run museum, housing thousands of books and dozens of paintings he collected, as well as many heads of animals he killed on safari.

Finca Vigia is the setting for Leonardo Padua Fuentes’ entertaining novel Adios Hemingway (Cannongate, 2005). As the story opens in the year 2000, ex-cop Mario Conde returns to duty to investigate the discovery of a skeleton and FBI badge that have washed up in the garden during a violent storm. It’s quickly established that the man was murdered some forty years before, during Hemingway’s last months in Cuba. Suspicion falls on the famous author because it was then that he abruptly left Cuba to resettle in Ketchum, Idaho, where he killed himself in 1961.
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