Wednesday, June 22, 2005


My Cold War, New Yorker poetry, pick hits

Last night, after many interruptions, I finally polished off an excellent novel: Tom Piazza's My Cold War. I was already familiar with the author's work as a music critic, having spent hundreds (or was that thousands?) of hours poring over his Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz since it was published by the University Press of Iowa in 1995. But Piazza turns out to be a superbly evocative novelist, with the rare ability to put private life in its public context. The narrator is an academic, with a specialization in Cold War history--his brand of pop-culture careerism put me in mind of the Hitler Studies department in DeLillo's White Noise, although Piazza's slant is less satirical--and his big thing is surfaces: images, ads, iconic bits of footage (hello, Zapruder). Drilling down into the historical machinery strikes him as a distraction. Alas, he applies the same doctrine to family life, which accounts for the many-splendored metaphor of the title. The whole thing is done with great style, wit, and intelligence, and my only regret was that it wasn't twice as long. Special bonus: this is the first book I've encountered since Levon Helm's This Wheel's On Fire to boast a blurb from Bob Dylan.

Just cracked open the latest New Yorker, and so far the poetry department is batting zero for two. Seamus Heaney is a master, but "Chairing Mary" finds him in his slight, sentimental mode. "I think of her warm brow we might have once / Bowed to and kissed before we kissed it cold," he concludes, and not even the late-breaking evocation of last things can yank the stanza back onto its feet. Eliza Griswold's "Buying Rations in Kabul" is hardly a poem at all, more like a repertorial snapshot in rhyme. There are moments when the language grows more taut ("shelf to shining shelf," "thanked us twice for bringing peace") but the ending is clumsy and didactic:
Of course they know that any peace
that must be kept by force
contains another name. It's war.
Contains? She couldn't do any better than that? Well, I did admire her piece on Waziristan last year. And I haven't read the Robert Hass poem yet, so maybe there's some compensatory joy on page 97. Stay tuned for further developments.

And what about music? What are some of my current, high-rotation favorites? Glad you asked. I've been listening to:
"Go It Alone," from Beck's Guero. I used to think Beck was the white Prince, with an eerie ability to mix and manipulate genres like finger paint. Now I think of him as the American Nick Lowe, with the same troubled relationship to sincerity, even as the real, white-haired Nick Lowe turns into an English Burt Bacharach. None of which truly detracts from the fun.

"Your Love Has Faded," from Johnny Hodges: With Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra. The incognito orchestra is Duke Ellington's, the arrangements are Billy Strayhorn's, and as for the undulant, erotic alto--nobody's ever topped Johnny Hodges. He's great on the muscular midtempo numbers, like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Juice A-Plenty," but sublime on the slow stuff, where his expressive glissandi and dynamics will kill you.

"Andante moderato," from Leonard Bernstein's 1988 version of Mahler: Symphony No. 6 with the Vienna Philharmonic. I'm going to see the New York Philharmonic do the mighty Sixth this Friday, so I've been preparing. Can't handle the grinding, minor-key material before noon, but the third movement is Mahler in his melting, pastoral mode, like a warm bath in E-flat major. Lovely. Beautiful, tiered exchanges from the horns at 6:54, with rustic cowbells and clattering agricultural implements off to the left.

That bells section of the Mahler 6th:iii makes me think of some hallucinatory, quasi-psychedelic highland episode. It's easy to think of many Mahler passages in an autobiographical light and this one fits right in.
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