Saturday, March 24, 2007

the KEATS HOUSE at HAMPSTEAD: "I find that I cannot exist without poetry..."

A SERIES OF EXTREMELY INSPIRING EXPERIENCES HAVE come my way in the last 24 hours. I will post about them here, seperately. I got up this morning after falling asleep, as per ususal lately, with one index finger snug in the book (which happens to be Gregory David Roberts' memoir, Shantaram right now) that i'd been reading when i drifted off, the lamp still on and everything. It's cold in London right now. Very cold. We have had several boughts of ice and snow whipped horizontally by 25 mph winds, which become wretched rain showers, and make the temperature feel as though it has dipped below freezing. So, spring lasted a week. It will be back, and the trees are still budding, though the last snows seemed to have shrivelled the daffodills for good. Anyway, I have been saving a trip to Hampstead Heath--a former village that is now part of Greater London to the north of the city center--for a long day, and a nice one. On waking this morning, though, I didn't feel like waiting anymore. I packed an orange, a couple of books, my habitual map, and both sunglasses and my umbrella (such is the weather in London), as well as a hat, gloves, and an extra sweater to layer in case the wind really whipped at the Heath.

I made my way there via a few of my favorite charity shops (or "thrift shops" in amerispeak). First, the one on Vauxhall Bridge road that is on the scenic route through my neighborhood to the closest tube stop. Then I rode the train for half a dozen stops, and got out at Nottinghill, the chic mouth of the Portobello Road Markets that come alive every saturday. It's not my favorite section of the markets; that title belongs to the Ladbroke Grove train stop at the other end, where every saturday hundreds of ad-hoc stalls are constructed from pipes and plastic, full of bins that exist just so you can plung your hand in up past the elbow and pull out a forty-year-old cotton scarf, which is back in vogue. The Portobello markets are as dizzying as any open-air market...and the wares run the gamut from trendy vintage clothes, independent designer bohemian wonders, in-house telephones shaped like an ear of corn (yes, it's real! and yes, i wanted to buy it!), the best falafel I've ever tasted, antiques, street performers, stores that combine asian and native american traditional dress (strange, no?), every type and color of hat or boot a person could want, and Myrtle Beach t-shirts from the 1960's forward (that's right, Mom. If only you had kept all the stuff from the giftshop at the amusement park...we could charge £20 (40 american dollars) for one of those hideous orange airbrushed numbers...).

So, the markets. I made two £1 purchases at a thrift store--a purple t-shirt bearing the words "pour la frime"(french for god-knows-what...but i think maybe something about for the society?...i'll update when my Parisian friend Alexia gets back to me on that...) and the most incredible pair of piano-inspired flats with a tiny kitten-heel and a cut that allows the proper amount of toe cleaveage to show. I love making an incredible find at a thrift store. It takes hours, and sometimes you completely strike out...but there in a floor-level shelf in the back corner of the dank and dusty show, under some baby bibs, were the piano my size...for £1! I struck gold! (let me briefly put this in context for those of you who do not torture yourselves with living in the second most expensive city in the world (at least i'm not in Tokyo, I guess)...a pair of shoes at a regular chain shoe-store, the equivilent of DSW or Payless will cost you from £30 on up....that is, $60...and I am talking that much money for children's for keds. Occasionally, Camden Market's shoestores dip down to £10 or £15...and thrift shops sell for as little as £8...but £1!! never, £1!!! )...Here are the beloved new shoes:
I have never gushed about my role in world-capitalism before on this blog. Perhaps, dear reader(s), you think me a bit shallow now? That's alright. For me clothing is exactly what the root of the word textile is a text. It is a visual language spoken, rather unconsciously usually, by everyone graced with sight on this planet. What you wear is a carefully constructed message, even when it's not. So, I can't bring myself to affect the erudite distain for the body. Rather, I turn my body into a canvas, in the less permanent alternative to tattoos...which are hip now...but also reveal something deeper about the age in which we live...people's attachment to visual stimulation, their sense of personal autonomy, and construction of media...but that's another post altogether. So, clothing. If you are a regular reader of the Green Eyed Muse, you know that I make/embellish a lot of my own clothes. It's a creative outlet. The story is similar with my affinity for "thrifting." Anyone with enough money can go to a designer store and find a gorgeous piece of clothing to wear for every day of the week. This is especially true in London. In London you can drop millions of pounds on one outfit, if you so choose. I prefer to be a bottom feeder to this chain, though. Thrifting is down-and-dirty work. You can't carry a cup of coffee into a thrift store, not if you're serious about it. You need two hands to pry apart hangers and dig through bins. It's a scavanger hunt of sorts for treasure. And you need an eye, an eye for the potential in a garmet or shoes or scarf (it helps if you have the skills to alter thrifted clothing to fit you properly...). So, there you have it, an impromptu blurb on the virtues of thrifitng.

Leaving the thrift stores, and fighting the crowd back to the tube, I stopped in a cafe run by a sicilian family. I asked the guy for his recommendation...and to have it "for take-away" and he heated and brown-bagged a slab of bread, cheese, tomatos, mushrooms, and chicken that was twisted into the shape of a boat. I ate it on the platform waiting for my train. It was incredible. I caught the train north to Hampstead. It was getting on into the afternoon at this point and I didn't want to miss the Keats House, which closes at 5pm. I walked the 15 blocks or so to the Keats House, down Hampstead High St., up Downshire Hill to Keats Way in the bitter cold. Just wandering around the old homes and traditional English gardens of the former-village, knowing I was in the haunt of literary royalty, was a thrill. The house itself, though set in pretty gardens, is unremarkable but for the man who lived there. By the path through the gate is a small sign "Keats House: visitors please enter by the back door of the house." (As if we were close friends dropping in for one of Keats and Brown's dinner parties-turned-salon-discussion of poetry, politics, and art.) The house is small, and there is scarcely any furniture remaining in it. However, there are original manuscripts in glass cases approximately where Keats is thought to have written each of them during the two years he lived in the home.

John Keats (pictured above) was born in 1795. He wrote his first poem in 1814 at the age of 19. He died of "consumption" (the disease we now call Tuberculosis) at the age of 26 in 1821. He most likely contracted the disease from his brother, whom he tended until death, shortly before moving to Hampstead. Keats is one of the so-called "Big Six" canonical Romantic poets. He is of the second generation, and undeniably the most tormented because of his short life and the knowledge that he would die in agony. Keats fell in love with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne (pictured above) while living at Hamstead. They were betrothed but Keats died before they were married. He didn't die in Britain, however. The last-ditch treatment for consumption in the early 19th century was a trip to a milder climate, for those who could afford it. Keats, therefore, travelled to Rome where he died and is burried.

Keats touches most young students of Literature in particular, because of his early death. He covered the span from teenage angst, to sober responsibility, loss, love, depression, and death in his poetic career lasting merely seven years. To hear some of his works read aloud, visit the BBC site.

I barely scratched the surface of life at the heath today. There will be more to report from that northern corner soon, I hope.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Ambient Jazz at the Whitechapel Gallery...

IN AN ARTICLE ENTITLED "ARTFUL LONDON" THE NEW YORKER claimed "the original purpose of the Whitechapel Gallery was 'to fill the minds of the people with thoughts to exclude those created by gloom or sordid temptation,' and for a hundred years this bright space in London's East End has been succeeding..."(March 5, 2007 issue).

That seemed to be the effect of the Whitechapel Gallery on everyone gathered there last Friday, though they all seemed to be far removed from more-stereotypical east-enders. Rather than a myriad of skin colors, languages, and ages...which defines especially the east-end, but also all of London, there was an overwhelming sense that my friend and I were in the midst--instead--of the ghost of the East-End that first inspired this gallery. In the 1960s and 70s the East-End became a sort of bohemian enclave for artists, poets, writers, musicians, and other creative spirits. Rent was cheap in the wild-eyed, hard-fighting, less-beautiful borroughs of central London to the east. The East-End's heyday of communal creativity has been grown over, yet again, by immigrant working communities. But the remnants of that time and the romance of its memory are Whitechapel Gallery, Brick Lane, Spitalfields market...and its newer incarnation is peaking, in places like Whitecube gallery. The creative spirit is far from gone in the East-End. And the crowding of so many cultures is as rife with beauty now as I am sure it was then.

So, we sat, among silver-haired men and women, in black-framed glasses, with colorful fringed scarves piled high around their necks, black clothes, and enough of an aloofness mixed with an obvious joy taken in the arts to make me wish for my own fiftieth birthday to come around, so I might claim a piece of their obvious erudite and persistent enchantment with the world. I admire, and am a bit mystified by, men and women who maintain their ability to chase books, art, music at its cutting-edge through their whole lives. Life-long learners, they are, interested in the whole world...they just don't seem jaded, the way that so many other people do.

The venue within Whitechapel can only be reached by a green-lit alley and industrial staircases right now, while most of the gallery is undergoing major renovations. Emerging from the bare walls and the choking smell of new paint, we found our way past a tiny red sitting room with an inviting large leather couch, into a room with glass ceilings, a few tables, a floor-level set up of musical instruments, and a bar lit from beneath the table and framed in mirrors. We waited an hour in the buzzing room, sipping organic ale and wine, and having a too-loud conversation. We seemed to be the only foreigners.

By the time the music started, the room was deadly silent, and packed with extra chairs placed in every available space, and spilling into the hall. Every seat was full. And every person was completely silent. The woman sitting on the same wall-mounted booth as me, to my right, even slid off her several silver bangles to preserve the absolute quiet. The bartenders were completely absorbed. And buying drinks, between the songs of the set of course, was an exercise in leaning in close, whispering, and then witnessing the precision with which the two men gently pulled bottles from the ice, and tipped the till upwards to release the drawer without its customary *ching*. I can only describe the mood as reverent.

And the music itself! The band, a recently created collaboration of several veteran jazz musicians with a bit of a vision, was eclectic and serious. I knew the show would be good when we walked in. Every man had sheet music perched in front of him. There were standard drums and a snare drum, an electric piano, a cello, two saxophones (one fat, one thin...played alternately by the same man), a laptop synthesizer attached to pedals, a trumpet, and a gourd-shaped object with a tube through the middle that acted as a voice-distorter. The set was incredibly moving. The thing about jazz anyway, and their particular version of ambient jazz, is that it can be as quiet as breathing, and invasive, and swelling with so much emotion that you actually feel the music, more than any other, rather than hearing it. The band is called ONL. You can buy their newly released album on the website. Fantastic.

The gallery has Thursday night poetry readings as well... Very exciting.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

two poem-drafts I wrote on the bus tonight...


Even the homeless seem complacent in my adopted city.
Finished crouching outside the rushing warmth of subway mouths,
they lie, mummified, in doorways and alleys.
I imagine briefly, with the rush of air down the step from the bus,
that I too had to become well versed in the virtues
of an eave turned this way, or a grate, or the torturous
promise of a hovel in proximity to The Cardinal,
Ye Old Shakespeare, The Victoria, or any other pub,
with their darkly painted wooden frames and gilt letters,
belching smells of bangers and mash or the caramel
gaze of shining Strongbow pints in the window glass.
It is a fantasy as brief as my shiver, turning a corner.
And I am wondering how I intellectualize their suffering
and do not make myself cry for the shame of it.

“Royal Gala Apples”

Here they’re called “Royal.” Your favorite apples
unmistakable in their red and yellow brush-strokes
still tinged in unripe almost-green. And “Gala” just as sure
as one of the thousand parties you’ve thrown.
Did they rest in a china bowl in your biggest house
in town? When Moma was a girl and you kept
it spotless. A stage always set for the characters—
mafia dons or homeless men, it didn’t matter.
And in my imagination the people he brought around
to look at the immaculate house grow bolder,
crazier with each recollection of the recollections.
Were he himself a character in a book, I’d say
he could be counted on for little but his warmth
towards strangers, the crippling largeness of his heart.
I hope the apples were there as witnesses.
When I bite them standing on Portobello Road
in cold London late-March rain, I feel
the warmth of sea breeze, and I can hear the scratches
of a thousand palmetto fronds on the windows.
I smell your heady perfume as clearly then as at other times
in the morning café-rush or the after-work train.
They take me home so quickly that it carries my breath away.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in London.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Moleskin(e) Chronicles...

MOLESKIN: according to Wikipedia, a moleskin is a type of fabric, a refined pelt of a mole, often manufactured by British mills... The article also contains this interesting association for the word 'moleskin'...

...A moleskin is also, allegedly, a pink (flesh coloured) piece of covering for the genital area of a female. The name derives from the shape of the covering. Such were often used by moviemakers in Hollywood. The most famous incident involving a moleskin, was when
Janet Leigh lost hers during the shower scene of Psycho. Not thrown at all, she merely remarked that no-one (meaning the staff present) was seeing anything they had not seen before...

MOLESKINE (with an 'e') : is a trademarked brand of tiny personal journals, that, according to the parent company Modo & Modo, "is the legendary notebook used by European artists and thinkers for the past two centuries, from Van Gogh to Picasso, from Ernest Hemingway to Bruce Chatwin...originally produced by small French the end of the twentieth century the moleskine was no longer available..."

Perhaps more interesting, is the exhibits of last October in London (alas, I was nowhere-near-here yet) which showcased a number of moleskines by famous artists and writers...

Long story short, I am not meaning to plug a product. In fact, I am only a recent devotee of my own little Moleskine, but confess to keeping it everpresent in my daily life here. My last journal tuckered out and was full to the brim. And it was lined...which discourages and distorts doodles. So, last week, I bought a moleskine. Then, upon finding the double-entendre imbedded in the word itself, I warmed to to all powerful, and seemingly serendipitous metaphors. So, here begins the Moleskin(e) Chronicles...which for lack of modesty, show forth what the moleskin(e) hides...

An excerpt from the moleskine of a conversation I had with a stranger on a bench today. There were children playing around me, and it was a rare moment of connection with a live human being among all of them in this city-hive...

HIM: do you have any children? you seem to enjoy them...

ME: No! Uh, no, I'm too young. (embarrased laugh and then the thought
"actually biologically, and even socially, i am not too young...")

HIM: i'm Ali, by the way.

ME: i'm Whitney.

HIM: Oh, Whitney. (over-pronouncing the "t"...a common Britishism), 'witness,' right?

ME: Yeah...I guess...Whitney, like witness.

HIM: very nice.

ME: do YOU have any children?

HIM: (hesitates with a deferring laugh...) Me? Well, yes. One. It's a bit of a story. I made one promise to myself, and that was to never have children. But, then I met a Japanese girl in 1997, and I, well, I made a mistake...

ME: hm.

HIM: ...sweetest mistake I ever made though...

ME: I'm sure.

HIM: ...three years in courts, and now I have to stay with her if I want to see my son. How many children do you want to have?

ME: Two. A girl and a boy.

HIM: both by the same husband?

ME: Well, yeah, ideally...I guess so...

HIM: Why?

ME: Um... hopefully I will love him and like him steadily and enough and that is what I will want...

HIM: Love? Like fancy and like and affection and sex... I am not sure they belong together...

ME: hm... ...I have to go now, I have somewhere to be. It was a pleasure to meet you, Ali...

(and then I realized that we had conducted the whole conversation without questioning each other's nationalities...)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Blue blue daydreams...

poem fragments, unfinished because of a very special visitor...

The following are a few poem-fragments that have appeared to me in my walks lately, especially through Regent's park. They are extremely unfinished...but i want to publish them because i haven't written any poetry here in too long a time. I will start again with more poems, and finished ones, in the next week or so, after my beloved visitor flies back home...


El cielo de la boca…the sky of the mouth,
as if it were infinite yet unprotective.
He interrupts, amplifies my English idiom with his
own Portoguese one. El cielo de la boca…he repeats,
while I push a finger up, behind my teeth,
inviting and reinviting the soreness
of yesterday’s harsh, hardened Spanish bread.

In London, each man and woman carries
his or her own heaven— celestial bodies
that fold, wrap and strap themselves
for pockets, bags, backs of baby buggies.
Only the infants’ heavens are transparent
to God’s heaven: clear plastic zipped
over tiny faces, wheeled, and seeing
ceiling, sky, ceiling, sky, ceiling, sky.

Most heavens are black heavens. Somber,
sophisticated, elegant, complicit
with other colors— even, in this day,
with the rich tone of wet earth,
they are subservient to purpose.

Those who see, record the colors
of some heavens, the patterns of others,
as they float like half orbs over heads.
Those who hear, note the sound
of crackling firewood. They are still, needing
closed eyes under their tent, to find
the sound in its purest form.

perhaps only the child, with eyes
untrained, can discern the possibility
that water sounds are like fire sounds
when they strike on the heavens.

El cielo de la boca. The sky of the mouth
can be as impermeable, as painful
as the modern, portable heaven.