Jazz virtuoso Terrence Blanchard is currently on an international tour with his stellar E-Collective Quartet performing music from their Blue Note release ‘Absence.’ Joining them on this tour is the string ensemble Turtle Island Quartet and the group was in Philadelphia Oct 12. for a one-night only concert at Penn Live Arts Annenberg Center Mainstage.
The lobby of the Annenberg filled up for Blanchard’s pre-show conversation with University of Penn music scholar Guthrie Ramsey. Blanchard recalling his days as a young musician working with jazz legends Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey, but also praising his early music teachers who encouraged Blanchard to seek his own path beyond their syllabus of all classical training
And that is something Blanchard continues to do, expand his musical reach, on all fronts, musically and otherwise collaborating with different genres and artistic forms. The Penn concert a multi-media performance in tribute to jazz master Wayne Shorter and /photographer Gordon Parks.
Visual artist Andrew Scott’s Gordon Parks| The Emphatic Lens screen behind the players with live shots of the musicians superimposed on the film in real-time.
The voice of Gordon Parks is heard as a montage of his photographs appear on the backdrop screen behind the musicians as guitarist Charles Altura, pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist David Ginyard Jr and drummer Oscar Seaton open with title track ‘Absence’. (Ginyard) and a few bars in Terrence Blanchard saunters onstage plays a lush trumpet lead that just entrances as it engulfs the amphitheater.
The start of a 100- minute set of music from ‘Absence’ with its era mixing genres with focus the dynamic sounds and innovations of 70s era electronic genres. A journeying mix of jazz-funk, blues, ballade, hardbop, electronica and contemporary classical music fusion with The Turtle Quartet.
On Blanchard’s composition ‘I Dare You’ with string passages by the Turtle Quartet with a driving Beethoven-esque riff that gives way to the Collective’s rowdy jazzfunk orchestral. the title a quote Shorter when someone asked him how he would define jazz music and Shorter’s response was ‘I Dare You.’
Ginyard’s ‘The Vision’ is an elegantly somber string piece with a sonorous cello bassline, with Taylor’s bluesy electronica chambers swirling around and Seaton splitting atoms on the drums.
Dark Horse- Charles Artura’s Dark Horse a trippy blues guitar, passionate and mystical West Coast atmospherics. The E Collective’s interplay with the Turtle Island is equally dynamic, in its agency and play between traditional classical forms and jazz, blues and progressive genres.
The concert concluded with music from Blanchard’ release ‘Breathless’ and explained that the E Collective wanted to inspire young musicians to play different jazz genres, focusing on electronica and fusion. But in the wake of more gun violence, he explained, “with young people getting gunned down in the streets, Blanchard noted ” we changed our purpose.’ The group visited “cities, where there was gun violence and there was (opportunity) for civic engagement and played a concert.” The music on Breathless “dedicated to social workers in our communities.”
The final extended selection a scorching social statement ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and in recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement Seaton’s solo opening an edgy jazz orchestral then Artura’s, Guiney & Eigsti in aggressive counterpoint to Seaton’s ballistic beat, and Blanchard blazing trumpet primal scream & afterburn, ala Hendrix, of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Blanchard has continued to be a jazz innovator as well as performing, recording, and teaching. He is the first Black composer to have his work staged at The Metropolitan Opera with ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ based on the memoir by NYT’s writer Charles Blow, which opened their post-pandemic 2021 season.
(Prelude) ~Five years ago, there were full-throated protests against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev conducting concerts in Verizon Hall. He had already been was dropped from many international orchestras because of the maestro’s very public support Vladimir Putin, who was, among other things, arrested or imprisoned political dissidents, enacted a slate of anti-GLBTQ policies against Russians and had already seized territories in Ukraine.
There were no protests earlier this month against Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev when he led the Philadelphia Orchestra, with guest soloist Russian pianist Lukas Geniusas. When Putin invaded Ukraine nine months ago, Sokhiev was being pressured by colleagues to condemn the war, but the conductor deflected any full-throated denouncement of Putin’s war in Ukraine, but announced on social media and he had, ”decided to resign from my positions as Music Director of Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and Orchester National du Capitole de Toulouse.
Rebuffing any overt political statement, stating “In Europe, today I am forced to make a choice and choose one of my musical family over the other. I am being asked to choose one cultural tradition over the other.” As disarming (or dissembling) as that can be inferred, Sokhiev dodged retribution has sidestepped any overt repercussions here.
The program almost filled Verizon Hall to the rafters on Nov. 5-6 conducting an all-Russian program of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and starting with lusty horn fanfares of Alexander Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor, (no Stranger in Paradise idyllic tone-poem here). Sokhiev ramping up the volume of this showpiece as a tune up for the more introspective themes of the Russian masterpieces that followed.
Then Sokhiev’s shaped the lush, evocative orchestral opening of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1, composed in 1911 by the 22-year-old Sergei’s innovative single movement that gives the soloist room for interpretive artistry, (if they can master the technical requirements) and pianist Lukas Geniusas was, technically and otherwise, inside all of the luminous chambers of this piece. Geniusas’ delivering the concerto’s lightning note clusters and spidery keyboard runs, that in a bar, decrescendo with such delicacy.
Geniusas’ unfussy virtuosity delivering all of the lyrical, dramatic, and energy with this orchestra of this masterpiece. Prokofiev’s cohesive structure foreshadows many of the composer’s symphonic ideas and cathartic dramatic motifs in his ballet scores. In its interplay with the Philadelphia Orchestra proved equally nuanced with outstanding duet passages between Geniusas and by flutist Jeffrey Khaner and oboist Philippe Tondre.
The Philadelphia Orchestra is indelibly identified with the ‘long bowing’ Russian techniques of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic repertory, so it was particularly interesting to hear the 4th shaped by a Russian maestro. Sokhiev conducted sans baton and the energy between the maestro and musicians palpable. The maestro was also very animated on the podium, pivoting and leaning over toward the musicians with lyrical gestures, animated hand dances, sculpting the sounds in the air.
The Pizzicato movement was at its musically wittiest, beyond its initial novelty and the sonics of the Tchaikovsky’s thundering last movement had this audience instantly on their feet with rounds of lusty applause for this performance. Among the outstanding soloists in this performance- David Kim (1st violin) Hai-Ye Ni (cello) Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Jeffrey Khaner (flute), Jennifer Montone (French Horn) Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), all of the orchestra’s mighty upper & lower strings.
Philadelphia Ballet Artistic director Angel Corella is packing company’s 2022-23 season with classic story ballets starting with Cinderella this month and upcoming productions of The Sleeping Beauty, Copellia, and of course that perennial family favorite production of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker in an extended run in December.For contemporary ballet fans there is a program by modern classics by Balanchine that includes Agon, Who Cares? and a ‘New Works’ program with ballets premieres by Juliano Nunes, Andornis Foniadakis and Hope Boykin.
The Academy of Music in Philadelphia was all but full for Philadelphia Ballet’s 2022-23 season opener Cinderella, still enchanting kids of all ages who can’t resist the enduring fairy story of a servant girl marrying a prince and those cruel stepsisters or a fairy godmother who turns a pumpkin into a silver carriage, not to mention transforming Cinderella’s dirty servant rags into a bejeweled ballgown tutu.
Ben Stevenson’s 1970 version of Cinderella, modeled after Frederic Ashton’s lavish Royal Ballet adaptation has plenty of delights with its storybook visuals looking all the lusher in the gilded opera house environs of the Academy of Music.
Equally captivating is Serge Prokofiev’s entrancing ballet score that is cinematic in its narrative power. From emotional dramatic strings to oompah music hall comedy to score that ignite the vaudevillian comedy as stepsisters get ready for the Royal Ball where the Prince is searching for his true love to be his bride. Meanwhile, they have plenty of time to taunt and bully Cinderella.
The first act pantomime and character dancing performed with flair; standouts include- Jack Sprance’s Dancing-master comedic turn as he attempts to teach Cinderella’s stepsisters a simple waltz but is more intrigued by Cinderella’s perfect stillness in 5th position pointe in her raggy dress off in the corner.
Yavol Cohen and Russell Drucker are the Ugly Stepsisters bringing a dirty laundry list of cliche travesti girly camp as they attempt to turn out, jete, entrechats or flirt with the Prince.
When an old crone seeks shelter from the forest, Cinderella takes her in, warms her by the fireplace and give her bread. Meanwhile, she dreams of going to the ball herself and later that night the old woman makes it happen. In a sprinkle of dust, she reveals herself as the Fairy Godmother, flawlessly danced by Principal Dayesi Torriente, who escorts Cinderella to the magical world of the ball, but warns that she must return before midnight, or the spell will be broken.
First soloist Sydney Dolan is luminous as Cinderella, as an actor and dancer. Dolan’s dramatic pacing, dazzling pointe work, regal arabesques, and gorgeous pirouettes command the stage.
Act II’s Forest dancers are ignited by the male quartet in full unitards- Federico D’Ortenzi, Austin Kyler, Juan Montobbio Maestre and Pau Pujol- are the acrobatic Dragonflies that make way for the seasonal Fairies- Kathryn Manger (Spring), Thays Golz (Summer) Lucia Erickson (Autumn) So Jung Shin (Winter) all making the most of their brief solo variations.
the full Corp de ballet enters for the Palace ball, but Stevenson’s choreography is particularly static in the ball scene. The comic vamps by the Stepsisters runs out of steam and the corps de ballet court dances are little more than pageantry, with a lot of posey unison phrases and little footwork.
Fortunately, first soloist Ashton Roxander rescues these scenes in a captivating, technically fiery performance as the Prince’s court Jester. Roxander’s steely pirouettes, breezy tour en l’air, lightning jetes, and witty gestures as he spins in the air.
As he has proven many times Sterling Baca is a natural in Princely roles and he brings a strong characterization to his Prince. Baca and Baca had beautiful storybook moments in this performance, but the central love pas deux was wound too tight as the midnight clock ticked. and their chemistry looked a bit strained at key moments.
Meanwhile, Sergei Prokofiev’s dynamic score to brought to full detailing and balance with searing moments of dramatic catharsis brought to full bloom by conductor Beatrice Jona Affron and Philadelphia Ballet orchestra.
Prokofiev was at the mercy of Stalin’s regime when he wrote this ballet score in the 40s. After he started it he was ordered to compose a full opera based on Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace.’ He was also had scored Russian films ‘Alexander Nevsky’ and Ivan the Terrible. All to be approved, or banned, by Stalin’s musical censorship committee that scoured scores for any hint of ‘decadent’ expressionism or western ideas.
Prokofiev wrote later that he thought of Cinderella as a real person with full emotions, not a character in a fable. Prokofiev used the story’s plot of a downtrodden servant girl to express universal messages of hope to the hearts of the Russian people living under tyranny. More than one subversive message in that grim fairy tale still, no?
Choreography: Kyle Abraham* in collaboration with A.I.M
Music: D’Angelo & The Vanguard
Philadelphia Film Center
Anita Baker’s 90s hit ‘Sweet Love’ was the tune that set the mood for the almost full house at the PFC Theater for the final performance of choreographer Kyle Abraham’s 2021 dance work ‘An Unfinished Love’ at the 2022 Philadelphia Fringe Festival
Abraham started developing the piece in late 2019 and had to wait out the pandemic shutdowns, before bringing to the stage. ‘An Unfinished Love’ was a hit both at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow and was a curated event at FringeArtsand the show continues on tour across the US.
The piece was inspired by the choreographer’s memories of his parent’s house parties with family and friends, which Abraham chose to soundtrack with the neo soul of D’Angelo and The Vanguard, from the day and especially from the nights.
The set that includes a plush red sofa, end table fern, abstract art & graffiti on the back wall created by Joe Buckingham (whose art for De la Soul albums) and the intimate lighting design by Dan Scully complete the intimate stage pictures. All backdrop for Abraham’s dance-theater comic drama ignited by such D’Angelo classics as ‘Betray My Heart;’ ‘Prayer’ and of course ‘Untitled (How Do I Feel). The choreography just flows, and the music expertly mixed by sound editor Sam Crawford.
The ensemble cast of dancers-actors- Jamaal Bowman, Tamisha A. Guy*, Keerati Jinakunwiphat, Claude “CJ” Johnson, Catherine Kirk, Jae Neal, Donovan Reed, Martell Ruffin, Dymon Samara, Gianna Theodore – all build dimensional characters. The costumes by Abraham and Karen Young casually reveal much about their dance characters.
Abraham’s choreography seamlessly blends elements of ballet/modern, jazz, jive, a dash of B’way, and Vogue ballroom. Abraham’s mosaic is a warm, witty homage to Black social dances past & present- Savoy swing, tap lines, break moves, capoeira flips and laced with balletic aerials, turn variations and arabesques solos that keep moving. And a breezy basso nova tango danced by Tamisha A. Guy and Claude “CJ” Johnson.
The dancers have moments of humorous party dialogue Catherine Kirk’s character Tina mocks Richard, who (Martel Ruffin) sweaty pickup lines. Some of the partiers on the couch gossip about people gossiping. Duos and trio suddenly start to dance, picking up a thread in the music with club moves.
Four partiers are seated on the couch and launch into a series of unison nods, hand dances, leg positions that speak volumes of choreography shade. Just as the party is in full swing Abraham inserts a raucous ensemble scene of dancing and party mingling all in mesmerizing Butoh-esque slow motion.
Catherine Kirk in an elegant pewter jumper and she hypnotizes in her solos and the song central duet with Martel Ruffin. Their dance characters, Tina, and Richard whose pickup lines are getting him nowhere, but they do drift offstage and come back adjusting their clothing, so maybe Tina gave him a test run. Abraham’s choreography conveys sexual desire but emotional vulnerability, it is the central duet to ‘Untitled (How Do I Feel) THE song among D’Angelo fans. This audience swooned as well.
Jae Neal has the most fun with their dance partners and flirting and Donovan Reed with affectionate demands . Neal has a Vogue master duck walk Vogue moment, and then a spasm that has him pitched on the floor as Reed cradles his body. Abraham’s alludes to the 90s era of AIDS devastation in the gay black community. Abraham also commenting on the gun violence against Black men in his works, as an intolerable reality in this era.
This was Abraham’s love letter to Black culture past and present, as well as an affirmation of community. And the private power of loving the one you are with all your heart and soul. And do we ever need to be reminded of that now, no? Cue music!
Abraham is one of the most in demand choreographer in the world, his accolades include the prestigious Princess Grace Award, the 2013 McArthur Fellowship and just this year is also an honoree of the 2022 Dance Magazine Awardee in recognition of their lasting impact on the field.
Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist David Maraniss’s main arena is political biography (Clinton, Obama, Gore, et.al) and culturally defining eras of post WWII American history- from the‘Red Scare’ of the 50s to civil unrest of the Vietnam War. But without doubt Maraniss brings his full game to his bios of sports legends and is again in top form with ‘Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe.’ The latest in a trilogy- (with Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente) about legendary athletes whose achievements went far beyond their fields of play.
There is so much mythology about Jim Thorpe’s truly remarkable life, that the real man and his struggles get lost. Since his Olympic victories at the 1912 Stockholm Games and going on to become a football and baseball headliner on the US semipro teams, he broke records on the field, but set goals for himself that were impossible to achieve in his country.
Thorpe was exploited for all he was worth, and never reaped the rewards he deserved. In fact, he went through periods of near destitute and yet whatever hardship was thrown at him throughout his career, as Maraniss reports, he remained true to himself and rose above everything with dignity. ‘Path Lit by Lightning’ vanquishes all of the myths, good and bad, in Maraniss’s fine-line portrait of the man and his tumultuous times.
As he did with in Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics (with superstar cast of athletes including Mohamed Ali, Wilma Rudolf, et.al.) Maraniss is expert at detailing the political and cultural backdrops of the sports worlds. In Thorpe’s era it is the pervasive layers of prejudice and racism that Indigenous people from the government and the culture that Thorpe, along with millions of others with tribal heritage, had to surmount on a daily basis.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1878, The son of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, when Indigenous nations were being driven from their traditional lands by the ‘Dawes Act’ decree and white landgrabbers and businessmen. His father Hiram Thorpe was a hunter and rough riding bootlegger. His life started in hardship and tragedy. His twin brother Charles died when he was 9 and his mother Charlotte, died two years later during childbirth.
His mother told Jim that he was a direct descendent of Chief Black Hawk. Jim ran away but was returned to his father and stepmother who sent him to the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School when he was 16. a former Revolutionary war military barracks now established by Col. Richard Pratt in 1878 as an institution to indoctrinate Native American children with the stated goal to “Kill the Indian and make the man.” Assimilationist and culturalization
Among other indignities the institution would force the students are not what was derisively termed “blanket Indians”- dressing in buckskin, ornamented in tribal beads- as well as forbid them not communicate in the tribal language. Carlisle hid the fact that many escaped at their first opportunity. And the institution covered up the many deaths from diseases that the compound was not prepared for. Seriously ill students were sent back to their native territories to die, but many were buried in a hidden graveyard at Carlisle, denying their relatives a proper tribal burial on their own lands.
‘ Many Indigenous leaders rejected this type of ‘education’ in the words of Sinte Galeska (Chief Spotted Tail) of the Sioux Nation, through an interpreter, told Pratt that “all white people are thieves and liars.” citing being deceived by “the government on the Black Hill treaty. We refuse to send our children because we do not want them to learn such things.”
But many Carlisle students were the sons and daughters of tribal chiefs saw Carlisle and other government boarding schools for ‘Indians’ as their only opportunity to survive in the US after generations had been driven from their lands, and the near total genocide that US government perpetrated against Indigenous Nations.
The students were also forced to go through summers of ‘Outings’ being required to work as domestic servants for further ‘cultural assimilation’ (as Carlisle School phrased it) in neighboring family farms and town homes of white families ‘sponsors’ of Carlisle, the students, at $5 a month. In other words, it was indentured servitude. Thorpe was 19 and in grade seven, when he tried to run, but as a noncitizen ‘ward’ of the state, was tracked down and forced to return.
The first legend of how Thorpe ended up on the Olympic team is walking past the Carlisle Track team, wearing overhauls and casually jumping over the high-bar that was too high for the other athletes, but Thorpe, untrained in the sport, cleared easily. The coach immediately recruited him for the team.
The Carlisle football team played against Yale, Harvard and other elite institutions, even though they racked up impressive wins, they took hits by those institution who claimed they were a rogue team. And as Maraniss tracks, newspapers used racist language covering them.
Thorpe did not want to continue at Carlisle after his five year course, he returned to Oklahoma with plans of playing making money in the minor leagues, with plans to homestead in oil rich country. He was lured back as a ringer for the Carlisle’s football team by Carlisle’s legendary coach Pop Warner and to train with track teammate Lewis Tewanima, a Hopi long-distance runner, for the US Olympic team.
Carlisle’s rout against the U.S. Army team the ‘Indian’ team was symbolically more than just a grudge match, it was historic and Maraniss’s account is one of the many play by play highlights of the book.
The 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Thorpe one of three native nations athletes joining all mens’ American teams. Crossing the Atlantic on the SS Finland, just two weeks after the Titanic sank. Reporters jumped on the story that Thorpe had injured himself training, but it didn’t stop him from winning a medal on the first day of the Stockholm Games.
Thorpe won two Olympic Gold Medals in the Decathlon and Pentathlon, came back home and was the star football player for the Carlisle School. The most celebrated athlete in the world and he was not an American citizen. Stories were spun about him in the press, most laced with racist tropes, many outright fictions about his behavior off the field, he wanted to be away from the spotlight. The press was making an issue that he had been paid seasonal player in NC minor league baseball two years before.
Pop Warner and other officials denied that they were aware of Thorpe, like many other students were earning money during the summer playing summer minor-league professional sports for extra money. But instead of backing him up,
Thorpe took the fall and was summarily stripped of his Olympic Medals. IOC official Avery Brundage made the permanent decision that Thorpe had to forfeit the medals because he played and was paid as a semipro baseball two years before. Even as everyone from President Dwight Eisenhower, and a host of other Olympians lobbied Brundage to return the medals to Thorpe, he would refuse, even as he would hypocritically praise Thorpe as the greatest athlete ever.
Thorpe was contrite, unnecessarily, but accepted it with grace. Meanwhile baseball teams were scouting him. And even though baseball was his weakest sport, teams knew he would be a huge draw. Thorpe went with the Giants. He had just married Avi, and they were off on an overseas tour to Japan, the Philippines, and Australia.
Pro football was in its infancy and completely deregulated, the safety of the players was rarely a consideration, it was a true blood sport. Collegiate football was more of the money game and taken more seriously, but still the rules were all over the place. Thorpe was voted in as the league’s first president for the inaugural pro season, but by the following year, it was decided that a businessman should take charge or the organization.
The Carlisle athletes were in the ‘bush’ and semipro teams, the press continuing to cover them as undisciplined , hard drinking, carousing ‘Injuns’ among other racial tropes, Maraniss writing “The pervasive view of the debilitated Indian athletes failed to consider the corrosive effects of a dominant culture that left them straddling two worlds, constantly fighting against the odds, romanticized, and dehumanized at the same time.”
Thorpe was in his mid-30s and still bouncing between football and baseball. Wowing the crowds in spurts but dealing with injuries and money pressures. Iva stood by him, but she was fed up with his long stretches away from the family and especially his drinking. His press got nastier and always laced with racist tropes. Every season, he vowed to quit the games, but money concerns lured him in. He still drew crowds.
Iva and Jim decided to separate. Jim stayed on the road, Iva and their three daughters went back to Oklahoma. And a year later she got full custody of the children in their divorce settlement. Jim was then
trying to make smart career moves off the field starting with landing small parts in the movies and as an ‘Injun’ consultant. But he got mostly work as an ‘extra’ on scale pay gigs.
He married Freeda (Libby), but he remained on the road trying to hustle jobs as player-coach. Maraniss has 2 chapters of Thorpe’s love letter to Freeda in the book, which strike as filler and seem out of balance, since. Maraniss he doesn’t delve very deeply into either marriage very deeply. Like his father Hiram, he was on the road a lot of the time. When Iva filed for divorce after 11 years of marriage, she and their daughters hadn’t seen Jim in over a year.
Thorpe and Freeda had three sons and they were making the best of things in California; Jim was getting gig work as an extra and also advocating for Native Americans to be better represented in pictures. Eventually the marriage broke apart, their sons sent off to boarding schools.
Thorpe’s 3rd marriage was equally disastrous in different ways, as he was on an endless road to “keep hustling” for jobs in his field and eventually, anywhere he could get work. Patsy Thorpe driving him with one scheme after another in various business that would capitalize on his celebrity. They ended up broke and he suffered two heart attacks in their years together.
The 1932 L.A. Olympic officials did not invite Thorpe to the opening ceremony until a government official intervened. Thorpe took it all in stride, but he was lobbying once again to have his medals restored.
He became a spokesman for the cause of his people at schools, sports, and civic organizations, reminding his audiences:
“Indians, you know, are misnamed. We aren’t Indians we are Red Men, and we settled this country long before the white people ever came to these shores why then should we be deprived of citizenship until we can qualify with a written examination none of you here is a government ward you are citizens because that heritage has been passed on to you, but red men are wards of the government.”
The IOC restored Thorpe’s standing as an Olympic champion, but only with a symbolic ceremony in returning his medals had presented them to his children, 30 years after his death. Officially he was named as co-winner with the 2nd place athletes, who all along refused the medals from the start, wanting Thorpe to remain the gold medalist in his events.
But as Maraniss movingly details, the Thorpe’s ultimate victory lap was the achievements of his seven children writing”
“For all of Jim’s troubles– his struggles with alcohol, his nomadic lifestyle, his Sisyphean cycle of finding and losing jobs, his bad luck and mistreatment, his dysfunctional marriages, his time away from his sons and daughters when they were young– the Thorpe family did not wither but thrived from one generation to the next, producing military officers, government workers, college graduates, and Native American activists.”
The scope of this biography, in its meticulous research and rigorous prose style should make Maraniss a contender for a third Pulitzer, meanwhile it’s definitely a must- read sports bio-histories of this or any other championship season.
Edited and with a Preface by Steven Gould Axelrod & Grzegorz Kosc
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 384 pgs; photos
Robert Lowell emerged as one of the most celebrated poets of the mid-20th century, as well as a sought-after academic, lecturer and socialite, but he was equally famous for his very public episodes of outrageous behavior ignited by cycles of depression that landed him at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic for what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disease.
So much has been written about Lowell’s life and work, and by Lowell himself, a through the glass darker self-portrait ‘My Autobiography’ written at a crucial time in his life. It is part of a new collection of Lowell’s previously unpublished prose edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc. The editors preface each of the book’s distinct sections and, when needed, bring context with concise footnotes.
A photo of Lowell as a young man graces of ‘Memoirs’ and you immediately want to know what is behind his steely gaze and you find out quite a bit, however fragmented. The first section ‘My Autobiography,’ Lowell wrote during his stay at Payne Whitney. in 1954 as part of his treatment therapy. Under the circumstances of his experiencing a breakdown,
Lowell writes not only a clear-eyed character studies of his parents, Robert, and Charlotte (nee Winslow). It is written from the perspective of the Lowell as a toddler to age 13. His writing is so dynamic that you are just swept along, never mind that he is describing astute emotions and thoughts experienced at that age.
His adversarial relationships and lineage inspired (however darkly) some his most lauded books of poetry, ‘Life Studies’ and it was well known that Lowell also believed that that his bouts of manic depression fueled his most dynamic poetry.
He viewed his father as a self-absorbed military officer and his mother, a steely Bostonian who resented the uprooting duties required of an officer’s wife.
Bobby was alienated from both of them for in different ways in vividly unsentimental terms, but reliving all of his resentments in his memoir, with droll, if sometimes merciless accuracy about his parents’ dysfunctional marriage. His mother bitterly resented being away from what Robert describes when Robert Sr. was commissioned to other cities. Charlotte wanted to live in what her son calls ‘Antebellum Boston’ and observes the customs of the gentry with snarky Jamesian precision. The most animated are his intimate remembrances of many of his noted Lowell and Winslow relatives.
However formulated Lowell’s prose writing stuns in its energy and objectivity. Stylistically it is as unforced, crafted, and vivid as anything he achieved in verse. A sense of raw discovery about his own nature, wry observation of the titled world around him, a astute observer of family demons that would haunt his poems that established his style and craft in such collections as ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ ‘Life Studies’
Lowell reports on his family’s dysfunction, and his own volcanic anger, with ugly episodes of acting out. He mocks a friend, for instance, after she urinated at her desk. In another incident he started punching boys on the playground and hurling manure at 3rd grade students during a playground recess.
Both rational and irrational behavior are chronicled by Lowell in the ‘Crisis and Aftermath’ chapters of the book, with such droll titles as ‘I had periodic wild manic explosions’ ‘ Seven years ago, I had an attack of pathological enthusiasm’ and ‘For Two Years I’ve Been Cooling Off’ and other short essays in which Lowell describes his experiences of breakdown, treatment, and incidents at Clinic.
Again, the verisimilitude of the prose and his dynamic style, just sweeps you along, but raises questions about and how much of the stories are spun for effect. It is total recall, or the feral expressions of a literary savant, or performative?
In one episode he describes what was going through his manic mind when he attacked a fellow patient listening to another patient play the piano in the day room at Payne Whitney. Annoyed by the pianist’s tight dress and the man’s yellow socks so much so that he pulls the man off the chair by is feet.
He recalls detouring his travels deliberately when he was informed his mother died in Italy after a series of strokes and he had to bring her body back to the US. And Even after his father’s death, Lowell’s bitterness is expressed on an unpublished ‘draft’ poems collected in his private archival documents.
The final section of the book- ‘My Life Among Writers’-he weighs in on his peers and his sharp assessments of their literary merits and deficits of heavyweights including T.S.Eliot, Anne Sexton, Silvia Plather William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, John Berryman, et al. The best among them is his portrait of social theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt who he obviously admired personally and for her work,
After Lowell’s dynamic and incisive writing in ‘My Autobiography’ and ‘Crisis and Aftermath’ the final chapters on writers and an appendix with ‘Fragments’ of Lowell’s private prose, everything from a single page essay on his parents bickering to his mother’s compulsiveness neatness, and notes on his grandfather’s funeral, but will be of interest to devoted Lowell readers as extra pieces of the puzzle.
British poet Thom Gunn was just out of Trinity College when he published his first collection of poetry ‘Fighting Terms’ in 1952, even though he avoided poetic styles of the era-such as blank verse, confessionals and other devises were the rage. Instead, he wrote with in an anonymous voice, for instance, emulating the Elizabethans, as well as poetic meter. By the 60s, Gunn had become one of the most acclaimed poets of his generation in both the US & England, along with his peers.
As he was establishing his writing career, the literary closet was still very much a reality, but even early on he abstracted ‘otherness’ metaphorically in such poems as ‘Wolf Boy.’ But by the 60s, he was not holding back, with gay themes and imagery, sexual and otherwise. In collections ‘‘Moly’ ‘Boss Cupid.’ In 1993 his collection ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ was elegiac collection of loss and survival written during the height of the AIDS epidemic. A year later Gunn won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (Genius) Award.
He shared a home in San Francisco’s Haight with his lifelong partner Mike Kitay, an American theater director, who he met when at Cambridge in at a cast party for ‘Cyrano’ in 1952 and fell in love and shared an open relationship for the rest of their lives. And in Gunn’s case a sexually adventurous one, he loved the leather bars, dance clubs and the baths in SF, New York, and London.
There has been no biography, but there is now a virtual autobiography with the publication of ‘The Letters of Thom Gunn‘ A sprawling collection of his correspondence. A sprawling (& addictive) collection of Gunn’s correspondence selected by editors Clive Wilmer, Michael Nott, and August Kleinzahler, that are meticulous and thorough in their sourcing and annotation for narrative context. The first correspondence to his father from a 9-year-old Thom in 1937 and the last to his brother Ander, the year of his death in 2004. In between, Gunn is a habitual letter writer- to friends, family, editors, scholars, colleagues as well as his close friends from the leather bars and sex partners.
Gunn remained guarded about certain aspects of his tragic childhood in Britain post-WWII, his parents, both journalists, were divorced, his mother committed suicide, when Thom was 15 and Ander 12. It was only in his last book of poems ‘Boss Cupid’ (2000) that he wrote about his mother’s suicide. He sent the draft of ‘The Gas-Poker’ to Ander first, wanting his opinion about how he represented the tragedy. When Thom was 15 and Ander 12, when they discovered their mother’s body on the kitchen floor next to the oven. There are a few references about his parents in letters to close friends. His most affectionate letter throughout his life were to the two Aunts who took him in after this horrible tragedy.
Gunn came to the US in 1954, when Kitay was stationed in Texas. Gunn wrote gorgeous love letters- intimately confiding, lusty and spilling his guts and without pretention (except deliberately).
Gunn came to the US in 1954, to be with Kitay who was finishing his service in the Air Force in San Antonio. They weathered a scandal after the military interrogated Kitay about being homosexual. It came to nothing and Kitay was honorably discharged.
They converted a large house on Cole St. in San Francisco, and it became a refuge for their friends, artists in need, lovers, and other strangers. The fun and dramas all described in his letters as well as Gunn’s passions for cooking and gardening. Gunn enjoyed a strong bond with fellow British expat Christopher Isherwood, who prose style he much admired.
He was also an academic poetry lecture circuit, even though he was not that comfortable reading his own verse, eventually embracing the format, and even reading his work for broadcast. He never warmed up to the exclusivity of the book world more than professionally necessary. Thom much preferred checking out the leather bars in Frisco and New York.
Gunn himself admits to being bored and was sexually active into his 70s, with much younger men, even as he joked about why anyone his age would be interested. His personal life might be part of the theme in his poems and in his letters, but doggedly doesn’t want to bore. As his letters plainly reveal, it was a concern he never needed to worry about.
The letters are intimate, candid, witty, lusty, and charged with energy and wry observations about everything from poetic form to his prolific sex life. His correspondence is a paints a vivid self-portrait of the poet and private man, and his uninhibited and gregarious life.
Sean Hewitt is author of ‘J. M. Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism’ and the award- winning poetry collection ‘Tongues of Fire.’ He has just published ‘All Down Darkness Wide’ his harrowing memoir of love, loss and self-discovery. its evocative imagery and raw intimacy, you can almost forget that is nonfiction.
The title is from a poem by Gerald Hopkins that is engraved on the broken stone structures, in a Victorian era cemetery, referring to ghostly lanterns on, “paths leading me on to this navel of the city.” its labyrinths and shadows also a cruising ground and drug enclave.
Hewitt is there to soul search and escape to deal with his grief. And to keep vigil in remembrance of the gay men who have disappeared from violence, intolerance for decades and in Hewitt’s time, the generation of gay men from HIV/AIDS. Hewitt communes with those realities on this hallowed ground to make sense of his life now in the aftermath of his breakup of a five-year relationship with Elias.
Elias, a Swedish student who Sean met by accident when they were both traveling in Columbia. Hewitt had finished his degree at Cambridge and wanted to travel and begin his life as a writer.
First though, Hewitt recounts his affair with Jack, his first love at Cambridge. who he found out had recently died when he tried to get back in touch with him after his breakup with Elias. Sean’s memories of their first dates together so moving in their immediacy and eroticism as he sheds his shyness and caution, sexually and emotionally.
Hewitt’s generation of GLBTQ+ visibility but, as in many countries still navigating homophobia manifest in entrenched biases and socialpolitical norms. He lost touch with Jack after Cambridge and two years later when he found a photo of Jack, and tried to contact him through the internet, he came across his obituary.
With Elias it was an instant emotional attraction. At first, Elias was elusive, but eventually their casual friendship bloomed into a full romance during their journey. They soon were back home, Sean in England starting his career and Elias in Sweden, finishing his degree. They maintained a long-distant affair, visiting each other when possible, and when Hewitt was on a writing fellowship, they stayed at Elias’ parents, then got their own apartment together as Sean’s pursued a writing career.
Over time, their lives began to unravel, as Hewitt became aware of Elias’ pulling away into his own world of depression and despair which drove him to attempt suicide.
The causes of Elias’ depression that brought him to attempts at suicide, Hewett does not attempt to explain, other than wait helplessly, by Elias side, for a month while Elias was treated in a psychiatric hospital. The worry and crisis consuming his life as he tried to finish his professional commitments.
It is an intense, interior memoir, of a young life examined in real time and the paralyzing reality that he couldn’t Elias from killing himself. His feelings of inadequacy and his eventual resentment that he was put in a position of not knowing how bad it was going to get day to day. Elias becoming emotionally distant and self-isolating. They struggled to deal with the issues of Elias’ increasing mental decline.
Then on an otherwise normal appearing morning, Elias was upbeat and headed off to a busy morning at school. A short time later he called Sean in distress, but he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He was on a cliff ready to jump and didn’t, but he did swallow the hundreds of pills stuffed in his pockets. Hewitt and Elias’ father save him, get him to the hospital and after he is detoxed, for a month long stay in a psychiatric hospital for further treatment, Sean at his side every day.
When he was released and they returned to their apartment, they both realized that, everything between them had changed. They went through the motions, but they both were fearful that he would do it again. Hewitt’s unblinking and account of the desperation they both experienced of trying to make it work Elias continued to spiral into unrelenting depression.
In its unblinking honesty and beautifully crafted prose, this is one of the GLBTQ+ titles of the year. It belongs on the shelf with Paul Monette’s ‘Borrowed Time’ and Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Hours.‘ Even with a few episodes of drunken forays in Liverpool’s cruising grounds, that strike as too massaged, that said, ‘All Down Darkness Wide’ is altogether courageous in its emotional truths.