Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Horace: Diffugere nives

With profound thanks to Bhishma Xenotechnites

(Finished for now, and constructive comments welcomed below —)

( Well, then, here's the result. I'm not sure why I have bothered —
     translation's not my game, and
lord knows there are versions enough in our English language;
     most of them much the same. 
Still, I wanted to get inside both meaning and meter.
     Horace deserves no less. If
I have made an egregious error, I hope you'll forgive it.
     All I intend is a gloss
On this masterpiece from a time and a place quite removed from
     our more frenetic world, where
meditation on Nature's recurring cycles fell out of
     fashion — though now, as we've learned,
Her cards trump all we've tried to retain in our dealer's hands,
     grasping, we find, to no purpose. 
Horace addresses his song to his friend, Torquatus, and sings of
     others we no longer know—
Tullus and Ancus were kings who died more than five hundred years 
     Before Horace sat down to write;
Theseus we dimly know from legend, but few can remember
     Pirithous, rival and friend.
Still turn the seasons today as they did two millennia and more
     ago when these great lines were written;
Horace's moon is ours; our seasons obey the same law; like
     him, we will never return.)

All the snow vanished now, and the grasses back in the meadow

     foliage caps every tree ;

Earth goes through her familiar changes and banks are left bare by

     rivers whose waters are low ;

Grace, with the Nymph and her sisters, the twins, dares to go now, naked,

     leading them all in the dance. 

immortality isn't for you, warn the years that nourish those

     hours that steal the days. 

Cold gives way before breezes; Spring is trampled by summer;

     Soon herself to give way:

Autumn pours out her fruits; then Winter's lifeless fogs come

     Back, repeating the course. 

That loss, however, is quickly restored by the moon in the heavens.

   We, when we have gone down where

pious Aeneas, rich Tully and old King Ancus have gone, we'll 

   be just dust and shadow. 

Who knows whether the hours of this day will continue, increasing

   by those of days to come?

Everything will elude even greedy hands of your heirs, friend —

   All that your spirit will yield.

When you finally perish, Torquatus, and terrible Minos 

   makes his final judgement,

not your family, not your eloquence, piety —

   nothing will bring you back.

From that darkness not even the goddess Diana, though he's

   chaste, can free Hippolytus,

nor has Theseus the power to break Lethe's fetters, binding his

   dear friend Pirithous.

     —Horace, Carminum IV, 7 (my translation)

Sunday, May 18, 2014


• Nina Raine: Tribes
Beth: Anita Carey
Billy: James Caverly
Daniel: Dan Clegg
Sylvia: Christine Albright
Ruth: Elizabeth Morton
Christopher: Paul Whitworth
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, seen May 14, 2014.

Eastside Road, May 18, 2014—

THE PRODUCTION HAS closed, but I want to write a little about this play anyway; it's had a considerable success since its 2010 premiere in London, with productions off-Broadway, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the La Jolla Playhouse, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, in Boston and Washington D.C., and now at Berkeley Rep.

I want to write about it, chiefly in order to investigate my reservations about it. I think it's a play well worth producing, performing, and seeing; it gives rise to all sorts of contemplation. If it fails, in some respects, most of its small failures are the inevitable result, I think, of the complexity, the magnitude, and the audacity of its ideas.

The "tribes" of the title are, first (in order of presentation), a loud, foul-mouthed, undisciplined family of academic intellectuals dominated by an overweening father (Christopher); second, the Deaf community with a capital "D," as I've learned from the playbill, which gathers around its sign language to participate in a kind of society we hearers can hardly imagine.

The family comprises the well-written mother, Beth, and three grown children all still living with parents: Ruth, yet to find her passions; Daniel, neurotic, wilful and damaged; and Billy, almost completely deaf since birth but raised to read lips rather than sign language — a misguided intention of the parents, who think thereby to give him place in society at large, rather than surrender to that of the "handicapped."

Into this stew walks Sylvia, the child of deaf parents, fluent therefore in sign, hearing herself, but quickly going deaf. She introduces Billy to sign language and to more than that, including employment and, of course, romance. This is a total assault on the overbearing Christopher and all his arrogant assumptions; further, it disrupts a fascinating dependency Daniel has evolved on his brother's place in the family. A true theatrical crisis results, and Raine's writing rises to her play's demands.

But not always. At least in this production, much of the time the audience is cajoled into participating in the subtle catastrophe through crude, sitcom-like badinage. The six characters are not evenly fleshed out, and some plot details seem arbitrary, introduced perhaps to illustrate some aspect of the hearing-versus-deaf problem, then dropped before they distract from the central onrush.

What Raines does accomplish in this play is present the huge gulf that apparently exists between those who hear, and who communicate largely through sound and hearing (and in this case fury), and those who do not, and who must communicate through touch and sight. Behind and below this, of course, there's the matter of awareness, awareness and sympathy.

There's also the matter of language. We always think language is what makes us express ourselves and understand others: but as this play points out, language is just as often what makes us misunderstand, equivocate, and mislead, and certainly distract ourselves from confronting reality and especially the reality of the completely different views of reality experienced by those around us.

There was a lot to like about this production. The entire cast rose to the occasion, though I thought among them some were more capable with their roles than others. James Caverly, himself deaf as I understand it, was stellar in the central role of Billy. Christine Albright stepped into the role of Sylvia, originally set on Nell Geisslinger: she was moving and authoritative in the part. Paul Whitworth and Anita Carey were enormously effective as the parents, and if Dan Clegg and Elizabeth Morton weren't quite their match as the two hearing children, I think this was more the fault of the writing than of the actors.

Nina Raine has bitten off too much in her play. A few weeks ago we saw Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia in a single day: Tribes is almost as thick with ideas and drama, but in two quick acts: it might better have been two more thoughtfully paced and fleshed-out evenings.

Jonathan Moscone's direction seemed straightforward; Todd Rosenthal's set was persuasively detailed; Christopher Akerlind's lighting and, especially, Jake Rodriguez's sound design were sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatically effective. I'm glad I went; I'll be thinking about the play for quite a while. It puts narrative plot in service of abstract and far-reaching idea. It will be interesting to see where Raines goes from here: Tribes is only her third play. I'm curious to see the others, Rabbit and Tiger Country.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Barns, and a personal note

EastsideBarn.jpgPERSONAL NOTE first: I named this blog in a hurry, as one often names things, but with little or no subsequent regret. I live on Eastside Road, and the blog reflects my own view on a number of things. It's true I live on the west side of the country, a fifth-generation northern Californian, born in Berkeley with a mentality to match; but when I'm not looking out over the Pacific — and I'm not, as a general rule — my view is extended toward the east: over the USA, across the Atlantic, toward the European linguistic and cultural history that's so much a part of the American heritage.

My outlook is informed by sense of place, and you're looking at my place. Narrow country road, two-laned, bordered by hills on the right, a broad beautiful valley on the left. Here we're looking toward the north, maybe half a mile north of here, at something I'll never see again: a white barn silhouetted against a file of sycamore trees, adding focus to the valley.

I love vernacular architecture. This particular barn stood here for at least the last sixty years. It was made of redwood, very likely first-growth redwood from across the river: vertical siding painted white; and it was tall, twenty-five or thirty feet tall I imagine. I don't know its original purpose, but before this valley was vineyards it was prune orchards, and before that it was hopfields. The barn may have been built to protect hop-poles, but that's just conjecture.

Last Thursday the barn burned to the ground. It had been an unusually hot day here, nearly 100°. The fire broke out toward evening; there was no one in attendance. By the time the firemen got there the situation was hopeless. (You can read the local newspaper's account of the fire here; for once, the comments are worth reading as well.)

Calplans barn, Eastside Road
Photo: Greg Witmer

I stopped on Saturday to look at the site. Two men were standing under the blackened sycamore sadly looking at the ruins. They looked at me curiously and I explained that I was there to tell them how sorry I was for them on losing such a magnificent barn.

It was a beautiful barn, I said. It, and Hopkins's stand of poplars to the south, had always supplied a focus to the valley for me, it somehow completed the beauty of the area. I stopped, feeling a little awkward. I was talking philosophy and aesthetics; they were factory-farm workers.

I suppose some might say I have a romantic view of landscape and agriculture — a view formed by other values than mere productivity and profit. An important part of life, to me — my life, I mean — is finding and acknowledging and experiencing, as fully as possible, its place: origin, source, presence.

Always recognizing its presence is a matter of moment, transitional and fugitive.

The barn was a fine metaphor of what I'm talking about, and to me that metaphor was enhanced by its geometrical quality. There was something about its position, by the road, under the sycamores, at the edge of the valley, its straight edges (like those of the road and the rows of grapevines) expressing its man-made contribution to the soft fertility of the valley floor, the sinuous river beyond the low trees to the west, the soft hills beyond, where the redwoods grow.

To my great pleasure the two men knew exactly what I meant. You could tell that by their response, yes, it was a beautiful barn, and beautifully made; and very old, older than either of them. But you could also tell by their demeanor. It's no exaggeration to say that they were mourning, like me.

Over the years I've photographed the barn from time to time, and I hope others have as well. I suppose it can never be rebuilt as it was, but I hope its replacement is not a matter-of-fact industrial steel shed. Perhaps the owners are well-insured, and the policy will allow them to rebuild appropriately. Shape and color are important, as valuable, I think, as function.

Of course it would have been better had the original structure been made of stone — there are a few fine old stone buildings hereabouts, but redwood was cheap in those days, easily milled and easily nailed together. Today's steel, today's version of timber in this regard, can have durability similar to stone. I'm not asking for faux-history; all I want — perhaps already too much — is an equivalent to what was there.

Since this post is in the nature of nostalgia, here's another photo — a farmstead in Piemonte, out northwest of Cuneo somewhere as I recall, cropped and zoomed from an inadequate image shot quickly as we drove past, at least a dozen years ago. It has been part of my fixed mental landscape ever since — like the beautiful white barn on Eastside Road.