These are a Few of My Favorite Things – Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

Here’s a game: It’s called “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.” Pick some works of art you really like, in different mediums – poems, novels, songs, paintings – and see if you can find a common thread, of style or theme, that suggests a logic to your choices. What do your choices reveal about your attitudes and expectations of art? About you?

I’ll try. I’m thinking of three objects: one poem, one work of art, and one popular song. Here are the objects:

One poem: Philip Larkin, “Talking in Bed” (1964)

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind

One song: John Prine, Angel from Montgomery (1971)

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

When I was a young girl well, I had me a cowboy
He weren’t much to look at, just free rambling man
But that was a long time and no matter how I try
The years just flow by like a broken down dam.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go
One painting: Edward Hopper, Room in New York (1932)

M. Hall Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
M. Hall Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Here’s what I love about each of them.

I love how the Larkin poem turns love into syntax. Many people see a failed relationship here. Maybe, maybe not. But the poem suggests that the outside world cares even less for the couple than they do for each other. Eddie Arnold sings “Make the world go away;” the world has already gone away, and here they are. But it is “still more difficult” to find words because they at least are trying. Then the poem ends with a fussy syntactic distinction. If they can’t find words both true and kind, they would settle for words not untrue and not unkind. The distinction seems small, but it is the difference between a romantic, sentimental poem and a naturalistic one. The poem measures truth and kindness in syntactic, rather than cosmic units, and holds out the hope – dim though it may be — that syntax might rescue us from loneliness.

In Prine’s song, I first love the way Prine puts himself fully in the character of the woman speaker, and the song completely ignores the incongruity of the gravelly male voice singing “I am an old woman…” (listen to Bonnie Raitt’s version if you want to hear it in a gravelly female voice). I also love the specificity – the angel is from Montgomery. But what I really love is his/her plaintive confrontation with idealized romance that has grown up and old – “when I was a young girl, I had me a cowboy” but now “there’s flies in the kitchen.” As for Larkin, romance in the world is subject to constraints – not the shaping force of syntax, but of time’s chisel. The simple accompaniment, the bone-dry phrasing, the brief upward lilts in the chorus “make me an angel, that flies from Montgomery” that immediately plunge back down to earth. The song is so poignant because we hear in the character’s voice the last gasp of dreams that are about to wink out. Similarly to how Larkin remembers that “talking in bed ought to be easiest,” Prine’s speaker’s dreams are still alive, if barely; just enough to make the present intolerable by comparison.

In the Hopper painting, love is again all but flown. Stylistically it reminds me a little of “Mad Men” (though the chain of influence would have to be the other way around).

madmen

In Hopper’s painting, the couple sits in the room, separated by thick swaths of color. They look in the same direction, but at different objects – he at his newspaper, she at her fingers on the keys of the piano. They are each absorbed in their own way – he in reading, she in thought – sharing the frame, yet separated by a vast gulf. Love is again made subject to constraints, this time of space. Hopper captures the postures of emotional distance, similar to how Larkin captures its syntax, and Prine captures the sound of its voice.

So clearly I like my art depressing. But I think it’s more than that. All three are what I would call “thick” – simultaneously minimalist and expansive. In the Hopper painting, the thickness is literal, in the lines, shapes, and colors; in Prine, it is in how he lingers on a powerful feeling and extends it out across multiple dimensions – past, present future, its internal and external settings; in Larkin, the thickness is in the brevity of the moment that he captures and elaborates – his subject is merely a hiccup, a moment of hesitation between words.

All of these works bring intense, concentrated focus to something very small, very particular. I think this is the same reason I prefer Vermeer to Breughel, Dickinson to Whitman, Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” to REM’s “The End of the World as We Know It.” Even if the latter works can be summed up by a title, their themes are broad and they work by association; they over-flow with a cacophony of images that surround the central idea. You don’t so much contemplate them as bathe in them.

Larkin, Prine, and Hopper don’t circle outward, they burrow inward, concentrating on a small piece of the world within, giving it shape and dimension; quite literally, concentrating it. Complex emotions are made momentarily complete and visible, and therefore momentarily manageable. I think as someone whose mind works more like Whitman’s (ok, don’t I wish!), always skittering outward to new sets of associations, I yearn for the stillness, the quiet, the complete and full moment even if it is full of pain.

Ultimately, I think I love how these works thematically bring the yearning for the sublime down to earth. Robert Frost says in “Birches,” “earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” I like this notion. All three of these works stuff the ideal into the box of the real. Sure it’s sad and the box might be a coffin, but in a weird way, the juxtaposition affirms the ideal by showing its death: the ideal might be something we cannot have, but it is something we cannot well live without. When the dream is gone, all that’s left is to be “Comfortably Numb.”

 

 

 

 

What I Read Wednesdays – Alyssa Quinones

Alyssa Quinones

 

For me, Wednesday is the day of the week that causes me the most stress. I spend my Tuesday evenings and the entirety of my Wednesdays with my nose in a book. As a grad student, having two lit classes back to back that are novel-based is no small feat. The permanent dark circles under my eyes and coffee shakes in my hands are a representation of my perpetual tiredness. But the one thing that makes it all worthwhile—I’m greatly enjoying the books that are being brought my way, books that, if it weren’t for these courses, I probably would have never picked up myself. My Images of Women in Modern American Literature class has been one of my favorite courses I have taken in my collegiate career. Books in that class have not only broaden my scope but have also pushed against my comfort barrier. They have made me cry in sadness and in anger, but have also made me immensely happy. Everyone should read them.

americanah

One of those books is Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book was a roller coaster of emotions for me, and after Adele dropped ‘Hello’, I couldn’t handle life anymore. If you occasionally jam out to ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé (if “occasionally” means every day) than you already know who this woman is. Beyoncé sampled words from Adichie’s Ted Talk entitled “We should all be feminists” in her hit song.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)

Adiche, with her authoritative voice and boundless humor, takes you on a sensational journey of race, love, and class by transporting you from the past and the present to tell an unforgettable story about a young woman named Ifemelu. What makes this book so important is how acutely relatable it is because it is of our time. It is rooted in our decade, in our history. The prominence of technology, internet culture, sense of community within the blogging world, the 2008 election and the microscope held over race in America as a result are all aspects of what makes this novel such a prominent and essential part of our culture.

From the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that Adichie has a firm grasp and understanding of what makes people tick. Her narration is a flawless examination of race through the lens of “otherness.” We perceive of race through Ifemelu’s eyes whilst in America and in Nigeria, where race is something she never had to truly acknowledge. Back home, the issue at hand wasn’t race, it was class. While going to college in Nigeria, Ifemelu is bogged down by bouts of discontentment. She wants a better life and education for herself.

One of the main complications I had with this novel was the protagonist herself. Although I greatly enjoyed the novel and found Ifemelu’s strength, perseverance, and intelligence to be refreshing to read, I came away with mixed feelings. Ifemelu’s general fickleness and self-sabotaging manner made her a difficult character to like at times. Her relationship with her old boyfriend Obinze conflicted me the most. Unlike a majority of my classmates, I did not view this as a love story and, by the end, was not rooting for the two to be together. But like every relationship Ifemelu has in this novel, she finds a reason to end it. Curt, her first American boyfriend, commonly referred to in her blog posts as the “hot white ex”, provided her with a life too easily lived, too comfortable. His race, wealth, and high social standing provided her with numerous ways to better herself and her standing whilst in America, but she sabotaged herself out of the relationship. She was playing a role if you will, involving herself in an experiment. She was happy, but not content. Her second American boyfriend Blaine, an African-American professor at Yale with high intellect and a false sense of maturity, appeared at first to be the perfect man. Before they had begun dating, Ifemelu could see their lives together quite easily. Once together, the only basis of longevity in their relationship was Obama’s campaign for the presidency. She found it difficult to fit in with his friends. Again, she found pleasure, but she wasn’t content. Obinze was the great love of her life, having met at school in their youth and dating into University, they had a strong and seemingly unbreakable bond. Bouts of depression and feelings of hopelessness regarding her situation caused Ifemelu to feel outside of herself and give up on the relationship.

At times during my reading, Ifemelu came off as petty and selfish. Now and again, her behavior is what caused me to find this book so harrowing to read. I’m fairly certain I had to stop reading out of anger and frustration at least 5 times towards the end of the book. (Note to self: ‘Friends’ is always a great distraction when literature or real life becomes too stressful. Naps help too.) Though, looking back on the novel, now I see that, that is something Adichie was blatantly trying to do. She is able to find the balance between impactful characters that both entertain and enrage whilst offering an important social and cultural commentary.

I hope I didn’t come out sounding too preachy in this post, but my class discussions are only 2 hours long, and I’m fairly sure half of the class would have crucified me for my opinions on Obinze x Ifemelu (#Obinelu? #Ifeminize?). I think I may be the only one who feels this way about Ifemelu. I’m sure the Internet dwellers are sharpening their pitchforks, but, even though I had my problems with the two protagonists of this novel, it was still one of the greatest novels I have ever read. I hope my interpretation of Ifemelu as a character can spark some conversation. She is a character that, like any human being, is riddled with many flaws, but flawed characters are usually the most interesting ones to read.

The end of Americanah brought with it a sense of longing and melancholy. I found I was not yet ready to leave the story or the characters within it. I wish we got to see more of Obinze’s point of view. Although I disagreed with some of his actions, I found him to be a very fascinating character and his time in England was some of my favorite parts to read in the novel.

Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple by the end, I liked the idea that there is a certain dullness to life without the one you love. They both were living a life removed of color because the person they wanted to be with was no longer in it, a life of black and white, separations and categories, decisions and paths, all leading them to their true adventures.

One of the many securities of literature is that it can offer its readers an escape from their lives. In light of recent events in Paris, please stay safe and love one another.