Wednesday, November 23, 2011


On Saturday I went to see “Satyagraha,” Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi, his formative years in South Africa, live in HD at a local theatre. The title means “truth force,” and the text of the opera is taken from the “Bhagavad Gita.” It’s hard to believe that opera singers could sing the whole thing in Sanskrit, but they did. I couldn’t imagine how this could be opera material, but it is, and it is dramatic in a minimalist way that I would describe as stunning, so different from the typical opera in which cataclysmic events occur and the characters thrash about.

The music with its persistent rhythm, repetition and throbbing continuation until I thought it couldn’t go any farther - but it did - carried me along relentlessly. Midway through I wished I could get up and move - I had difficulty staying seated. I really wanted to dance around the theatre even though I would not describe Glass’s music as dance music.

The acting, all of it, was superb. And the enormous puppets and puppeteers created a kind of drama I have never seen. These puppets, whose “skin” looks like newsprint, are gigantic as well as sinister. They give a visual form to the evil forces that Gandhi encountered, at least this is my interpretation of their function in the opera.

Three people important to Gandhi at different points in his life also make an appearance in the opera: Leo Tolstoy, the Indian poet Tagore, and Martin Luther King.

The encore broadcast of this opera in theatres will be 14 January 2012. And no, I am not getting paid by the Met for this blog post.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Even though I have finished reading Eavan Boland’s "A Journey with Two Maps" I continue to think about what she wrote and I have been rereading parts of the book.

The last chapter is “Letter to a Young Woman Poet.” This chapter moves me for its forthright and intelligent comments, and because she writes in such a personal way. When as a young seventeen-year-old girl she walked the streets of Dublin, past all the statues of Irish orators and patriots, she - as a young woman - was absorbing her culture, her history. And when she began writing poetry she “began to have an intense engagement with every aspect of writing a poem. So much so that the boundaries between the edges of the poem and the limits of the world began at times to dissolve.”

She entered into the history of poetry to such an extent that she wanted to change the past it encompassed. She wanted to eroticize the tradition so that she could make “the iron breathe and the granite move” in those historical figures past whom she had walked as a seven-teen-year old. She saw words as agents rather than “extensions of reality.” Words can change us, she concluded - could change her - rather than just recording what was happening.

She lived her life “through ordinary actions and powerful emotions. But the more ordinary a day I lived, the more I lifted a child, conscious of nothing but the sweetness of a child’s skin, or the light behind an apple tree, or rain on slates, the more language and poetry came to my assistance. …Finally, I had joined together my life as a woman and a poet. On the best days I lived as a poet, the language at the end of my day - when the children were asleep and the curtains drawn - was the language all through my day: it had waited for me.”

Boland’s life became the source of her language, and for me - a creative woman who desires wholeness in the “ordinary” parts of life and in her art, a woman who becomes fraught with the necessities of domesticity - reading about this poet for whom daily-ness becomes the source of her creative work brings me, if only for a moment, into a state of light on this dark November Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

“A Journey with Two Maps” by Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland, a poet who was born in Dublin, Ireland, and now a professor at Stanford University in California, begins her "A Journey with Two Maps" with a personal narrative even though she considers her book to be “a book of criticism.” She does not apologize for beginning this way because her personal story is part of who she is as a poet. She writes of herself as a poet with two maps: the first one traces her past and the second points the way for her future as a poet rooted in the history of women who were poets and finding her place now among contemporary poets.

The subtitle of her book is “Becoming a Woman Poet,” and in her introduction she explains that the book is about both “being and becoming.” “Being” and “becoming” are about as all-inclusive as is possible. Any creative person is doing both of those things at the same time, always for as long as he or she is alive, and who knows, perhaps even after death.

I was drawn to this book because some days I feel myself to be a poet, and other days I am not sure that I even am becoming one. I thought perhaps reading about Boland’s maps would feed my imagination and lead me to feel more sure-footed with words. In any case, I had a feeling I would enjoy this book, which was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement as a memoir. It has a delightful mix of personal experience and critical thinking about literature, about poetry.

Boland experienced what many women face as a mother with young children. In the nursery with her babies, she ruminated on the idea of the domestic as subject matter for poetry. This was at a time in the seventies when Ireland was torn apart with violence. She had a clear vision of her life within the four walls of her suburban Dublin home in the shadow of what was happening to her country. The domestic poem had not been given a place in the public realm, and yet for Boland in her own home she felt she was being given an opportunity to bring the two together in poetry. The dilemma was that as far as she knew, there was no welcome for this kind of poetry in Ireland.

She writes candidly about her life. She and her husband were young, and in the midst of the stress of the country, in their own home they quarreled. And in later years she remembers these scenes, these two young people. “What was it I kept going back to?” she asks. “It was more than their youth and anger. It was a puzzle of art rather than life: a split vision. Each time, I returned to them in memory and with design. I remembered the actual setting: unvarnished floors, a small television. But I also thought of what was outside the windows, the sparse trees and disturbed earth of a new suburb. And beyond that again, a troubled and scarred island.”

And later she says “I knew I wanted to re-interpret the domestic poem. In my house, on a day with tasks and small children, I felt its about-to-be power everywhere. As a painter’s daughter I had memories of my mother arranging flowers, fruit; getting them ready for a still life. I wanted the opposite: to feel that those atoms and planes could be thrown into a fever of spatial dissent; that they moved, re-arranged themselves, threw off their given shapes. I thought of that as the starting point for my poems.”

Boland spoke of going to the National Gallery in Dublin and looking at paintings portraying interiors: “A woman’s checked dress. A table with a cup on it.” and these objects became her own, and she became the women in the paintings, which for her spoke of the “ferocious” importance of these things in the lives of everyone. “What made painting capable of that narrative? And not poetry?” And she thought it was strange that these interiors were not a part of poetry. She wanted to change that.

This is why this book speaks to me: Boland’s questions, her observations that broke down conventions. She was persuaded that the fabric of daily life is legitimate subject matter for her art, as it can be for whatever art is ours, whether we are using words or paint or ink or glass.

There is so much more this book has given me. Line after line, the words of poets I had never heard of, and a sense that delving into the lives of artists and writers, and looking deep within myself, I can discover where my creative energy can take me.