Tag Archives: Eric Ryan

This Is Not a Father

I have spent much of this semester making this edition of five books reflecting upon my father who died when I was two-years old. It is very satisfying to make a book by hand and besides the moments when I wanted to abandon the project or figure out a way to abandon myself, (that moment when I was pasting down the pastedown and accidentally pasted the book in upside down was just one such lovely me-ism. I fixed it, but I am still bitter.) overall, yes, a finished book is a nice thing.

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I also spent much of the semester writing a twenty-five page paper for my sociology class on the culture of art. I wrote my paper on livre d’artiste—very briefly, these are French artists books from late nineteenth to early twentieth century. The very first such book was called Parallèlement with etchings by Pierre Bonnard and poetry by Paul Verlaine. In my paper I write extensively about the influence of Charles Baudelaire as well as the publishers of such books such as Ambroise Vollard and Albert Skira.

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When I finished pasting the books into the covers I wanted to put a weight on them so they would not warp. As I mention in my own little book about my father, I grew up surrounded by my father’s books and art,

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but imagine my surprise when a huge spineless art book I used to weigh my books down turned out to be my father’s. The title: From Baudelaire to Bonnard published by Albert Skira.

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That’s an odd bit of coincidence.

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The Luminous Interval

But O the sudden blasts of earth that sweep my breasts
and shake me to the bone!
O Zeus, the seas are heavy, and my unloosened locks
sink me like a stone.
Ángelos Sikelianós,  from Anadyomene, (211) – Modern Greek Poetry,  translation and introduction by Kimon Friar

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Eric Ryan doing underwater archaeology work in the Aegean Sea

It is a different experience to read a translator’s monograph, rather than a poet’s. Kimon Friar’s book, Modern Greek Poetry is comprised of the work of some thirty poets, but of course, the words come from one man: Friar. He begins his compilation with a very interesting history of Greek poetry and language, or languages- one written one spoken which began the split, but which has never been, Friar explains, so different from each other as the English of Beowulf would be to a modern English reader— despite twice the length of time which separates modern Greek from Classical compared to modern and Old English (13).  He then gives a short history of the “schools” of modern Greek poetry and the major poets within.

No cleft can be widened without desire of widening
Sometimes we become hourglasses
And sponges throb to every single drop of ours
-Andréas Embirícos, from Moment of Porphyry (351)

Poetry is a language of darts meant to pierce one’s soul. There were many poems in this book which took my breath away, and many instances, as in the excerpt above where I marveled at the skill of Friar—his use of the word “cleft,” left me in awe. Of course it is entirely possibly that it’s just me, but that’s as it will be, I found the word to be the door into the entire poem, grounding it in the corporal, the consonants’ journey from back of the throat to teeth, sensual and powerful. I don’t read Greek, I have no way of knowing if it is simply a case of a perfect transposing, or if Friar had to truly translate, search his mind to find the word that would transport a reader such as I.

OF SLEEP
I

Sleep came and lay between us
like a rival. He took your eyes
and closed them; he took your lips
and swept away your smile and your kiss.

Your pale hair was combed by the tranquil
waters of Lethe that bore your beloved body
away to the world of stars and shadows.

Filters of silence are forcing your sealed lips,
sleep-living voices our ears, and in you veins
I hear the deep rumor of the voyage.

II

You have emerged from the depths of sleep
with stars and seashells in your hands
and in your eyes the dark coolness
       of seas.

When you open them, I want to be the first to receive
their glance, that I may capture before it fades
the meaning of that world which has kept you away
       the night long.

-Alexander Mátsas

It was through a conversation with fellow blogger and wonderful poet Tom Simard that I was pointed in the direction of this beautiful work of Friars, and I thank him for the recommendation.  Of the poet’s represented, I was only familiar with Constantine Caváfis, but there again, I find the translators’s hand a fascinating thing. Friar’s choice of which of Caváfis poems to include was revealing of what pierces his own soul, and then there is Ithaca.

Last year while reading Caváfis I was working as a caregiver, and one of my oldest clients (over 100) loved the poem Ithaca. We bonded over our mutual sentimental attachment to Greece, the work of my father (who died when I was two) was much influenced by the Aegean and she and her late husband had taken a sublime trip to Greece early on (they met and befriended Mark Rothko on the ship over) to see some newly discovered temples…she had a sweet spot in her mind for the memory and with such a long life, the theme of Ithaca moved her deeply. But there were many poems in my book of Caváfis of more, shall we say- passionate verse…I lent her the book and she was a bit bemused by her nobel Platonic Caváfis writing so much about love, or even lust! That, of course, was what I most loved about him, but she wasn’t so much amused by her discomfiture as I was – oh I do miss her. But I digress…Modern Greek Poetry is an ambitious yet focused book….truly lovely lovely lovely. O my heart.

from DE RERUM NATURA

I move my body, and my soul moves,
I put it to sleep, it sleeps.
I love, and my soul loves,
It tastes my body and my blood.
I sniff the air, and my soul sniffs also.

It is I who hunger, it is I who thirsts
In my soul, it is I who suffer.
It is I who wound my fingers

(…)

We shall never have enough, O my soul. – George Thémelis (325)

No, we shan’t.

* Title from prologue of Nikos Kazanantzákis’ poem  The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. “We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life” (164).

Propaganda Deshabille

It’s a poor world where we are impartial through ignorance, prudent through impotence, and equal through mediocrity. – Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw (271)

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

I came across an old newspaper article recently in which my father’s art was being reviewed. In the article he spoke about the conceptual aspects of his work and related it to the sort of literature which is something of a travel guide in the vein of Lawrence Durrell or Freya Stark. I have written about Durrell and his wonderful Alexandria Quartet, but I had not heard of Freya Stark, so I sought out her books and settled on Dust in the Lion’s Paw.

The fascists are bringing all their guns to bear against me. Nagi says ‘their hearts are boiling’ – long may they boil. But, dear Stewart, I do dislike this job. (28)

“This job” was her work as a propagandist for the English government throughout World War II in the Middle East. Stark was fluent in Arabic and slightly less so in Persian and so, despite her sex, was very easily employed in the seemingly unsavory line of work.

“A main obstacle was the unfortunate word propaganda itself. (64)

That’s probably more true now then it was at the time, but Stark makes an eloquent and impassioned defense of what she really considered to be persuasion. She had three rules of thumb she lived by:

1) To believe one’s own sermon.
2) To see that it must be advantageous not only to one’s own side but to that of the listeners also.
3) To influence indirectly, making one’s friends among the people of the country distribute and interpret one’s words. (65)

Number 3, was “not quite as vital,” (although led to a wonderful manifesto on words, translations, and humanity: Perhaps it is language, more than any other shackle, that circumscribes our freedom in the family of men? (48)) and barely merits a direct mention again, but 1 and 2 are rules to live by. Again and again in her dealings in Yemen, Egypt, Palestine and India she is true to her philosophy- the simplicity of which is profound and as far as I can tell, unarguable. Admittedly she and I have both been accused of naivete.

A woman asked if I didn’t think it time for us to give up using our lipsticks but I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order. (102)

Stark is a marvelous writer. Punto.  Her sentences are gorgeous, with perfect clarity. While her oeuvre was by and large travel books, this was an autobiography full of letters and diary entries concerning the period between 1939-46.

The subtitle: The personal story of an extraordinary woman whose gift with words became a tactical weapon of war, struck me odd at first- I wondered a) who wrote it, and b) how true it would play out in the book. Still not sure about a, but on point b I can say, it’s all true. An old school humanitarian, her forthright English charm at once makes one sit up straighter in the chair, while her intellect and respect for the intellect of others disarms absolutely.

‘Most of my life is in the Man’s world,’ I find written in a rather morose note of my diary at this time. ‘Women are apt to think of it as the real one, but it is not so to me- filled with jealousies and now bloodshed. If women live more in the spirit, theirs is the real world-but I don’t know that they do.’ (51)

The heart of her book is not her struggles as a woman in unfriendly times and places. She doesn’t hesitate to mention the attempts to minimize and dismiss based on her sex, (unequal pay was a constant bother she never deigned to knowingly accept) but one feels through her words and view of the world all that is or could be good. All that really matters.

Art in objects or words- these are the markers that guide us through each other’s hearts, exciting us with fresh views in the familiar terrain of our humanity.

We have debased our words and pay for it by seeing nothing but counterfeit coins. They are forcing me to become a Press Attaché here in the north.[…] I hope to get out of it and sit quietly and move softly and love mercy and forget the atom bomb and all- and perhaps write a book or two about non-controversial matters such as the human heart. (260)

*Punto is Italian for period. Stark lived in Asolo, Italy before and after the war.

Eros: Injured

I spent the day visiting Smith College. They have one of my father’s paintings in their collection, so I was curious, as I was there anyway, to see if the museum had it on display. They did not. But it is a lovely museum all the same.

I was transfixed by the ancient Greek and Roman works, perhaps because of my ongoing Herodotus reading. I was just about to declare the black figure on red the most sublime pottery ever created when I came across a wine goblet of epic proportions that was red figure. Kylix c. 520 B.C.E.

It was stupendous- that’s beautiful, I thought to myself when I saw it, as a wine cup cum bowl it was illustrated on the back in celebration of Bacchus.  On the front, along with a discus thrower,  there were  letters that spelled  kalos, (apparently backwards) meaning- “beautiful.” Just so. Seriously – they knew what they were doing.

Then I came across the early imperial Roman figure, Winged Torso of Eros from the first century C.E.

No arms, no head, no penis, no wings, and yet…and yet. The brutalized Eros is as beautiful as ever.

You hurt me. I was thinking about that sentence on my way home, and it occurred to me that it lacks a tense. If I said you love me it would be clear. If I said you loved me, equally- we understand the implication. But there is no distinction with the word hurt.

With love, one can create a ray or line segment to suggest duration,  inception or completion. But with hurt, there is none. It is a line, pure and simple, no beginning and no end-  you hurt me.  It is the atmosphere, the air one breathes.

Eros:  still beautiful, but wounded. A hurt that simple informs and stains everything else. Eros absorbs the blow- he tries. He tries.

Into the Wind

Sculpture by Eric Ryan

Errata
Where it says snow
read teeth-marks of a virgin
Where it says knife read
you passed through my bones
like a police-whistle
Where it says table read horse
Where it says horse read my migrant’s bundle
Apples are to remain apples
Each time a hat appears
think of Isaac Newton
reading the Old Testament
Remove all periods
They are scars made by words
I couldn’t bring myself to say
Put a finger over each sunrise
it will blind you otherwise
That damn ant is still stirring
Will there be time left to list
all errors to replace
all hands guns owls plates
all cigars ponds woods and reach
that beer-bottle my greatest mistake
the word I allowed to be written
when I should have shouted
her name

– Charles Simic

The Half Truths

“And that’s the boarderline that poetry
Operates on too, always in between
What you would like to happen and what will –
Whether you like it or not” 
-Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (a version of Sophocle’s Philoctetes)

painting by Eric Ryan

A woman that I work for gave me the play The Cure at Troy to read. It is a version of Sophocles’s play Philoctetes written by Seamus Heaney. The story centers around Odysseus’ attempts to get the bow of Hercules away from the ailing Philoctetes.

Whether it is justifiable to use trickery and lies to meet some end demanded of by the commander in chief or the Gods, this play is the ultimate examination of might makes right and the ramifications, on a personal level, of that sort of thinking and obedience, public morals vs. private morals. Even when (or especially when) it goes against the chord of human feeling and truth.

                                        “Do it my way this once,
All right, you’ll be ashamed
but that won’t last.
And once you’re over it, you’ll have the rest of your life
To be good and true and incorruptible.
Odysseus to Neoptolemus                  

Odysseus, just plows ahead as usual – the man does not lack for stamina when it comes to just getting it done! Don’t think- do! He is the sort of man that makes me especially weary and suspicious of the concept of “public morals.” Is there really such a thing? Why should not an inner truth satisfy a public need, and if it it does not, what sort of moral is it really. He makes a forceful case to Neoptolemus convincing him of the expediency of duty. Ignore your heart and do what your told – you’ll get over it. And most people do- after all it takes time to rot fully from the inside out.

In this clever play, Philoctetes is visibly rotting (stinky foot and what not) as the symbol of the general molder of personal morals, by which I mean the truth within that there is really no escaping.  But I suppose this is the dilemma. Justifications for ignoring a deeper truth within have always been in abundance. Same as it always was apparently.

“With you he does what he is told, with me he did what his nature told him.” –Philoctetes

I suppose the thing I find the most interesting about the plays, histories, and poetry of the ancient world is the consistency of cruelty to ourselves as well as to others. We want to live our lives with our hearts wide open, and the shock of the evident impossibility of that predisposition is one that is very hard to bear. At least for me.

“Suspect too much sweet talk
But never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
That blew me here. I leave
Half-ready to believe
That a crippled trust might walk

And the half-truth rhyme is love.”  

– the chorus from The Cure at Troy

The Regiment of Pleasure

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We imagine that with decision and audacity
we will change the blow fate deals us,
and out we stand for combat.

But when the major crisis comes,
our decision and audacity deserts us;
our soul is shocked, it trembles, paralytic;
and circling the walls we run
looking for our safety in our flight.”  – Constantine P. Cavafy, from Trojans

Painting by Eric Ryan

I met a lovely woman recently, and although I may never have cause to speak to her or see her again, she did give me this- “Oh, you must read Constantine Cavafy,” her eastern European accent rolling the words extravagantly off her tongue lodging themselves in my head.

Many weeks later at the library, hoping in vain to find a translation of History Of The Peloponnesian War that I might enjoy a little more than the one I am currently reading, I thought to myself, “Cavafy.” I knew nothing about this poet. Just his name and a lovely woman’s ardor. The fact that he is particularly acclaimed for his poetry on Ancient Greece, I was ignorant. I found a book of his complete poems Before Time Could Change Them, translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis.

The book’s forward is written by Gore Vidal. At any other time that would not be so very interesting, but given that Vidal just died and was in my mind as well, well, what can I say? except – what a harlot coincidence can be.

Ancient Greece, love, Gore Vidal- I am sure mine is not the only mind to hold all three at once, although Cavafy could not have had Gore Vidal ever in his mind as his death predates probable knowledge, however, the man could not have given the other two subjects more thought, and so, he more than makes up the deficit.

Che Fece….Il Gran Rifiuto

To certain people there comes a day
when they should say the great Yes
or the great No. An instant shows who holds
the Yes ready in himself, and saying it

he crosses into limitless honor and confidence.
The naysayer does not repent. If asked again,
he would repeat the no. But he’s brought down
by that no – the fitting one – for all his life.

In many of his poems, Cavafy does not simply embody the spirit of his subject, he becomes the subject. Speaking as or to the subject with clarity and absolute fidelity to the character and historical or mythological event. Naturally there is a German word for this- what isn’t there a German word for?  Einfühlen. According to Vidal, J.G. Herder invented this word to describe the act of entering and “inhabit[ing] other times.” The poem Ithaca is a wonderful example, “As you set out toward Ithaca, hope the way is long…” It’s a wonderful poem conveying the sine qua non of the journey; then, now; be you Ulysses or not, it’s all an odyssey – if you let it be.

Maybe it’s the water: I would swim anywhere, but given the choice, it would be in the Aegean. When I was in Greece, I would swim out as far as I could, turn on my back and float. Just float, suspended in the water…until an inhibiting feeling of the scandal of total freedom would make me raise my head to check on the distance between my body and the shore. The cool green water, bright sun, and intense salt is what I still crave and often dream of. Cavafy’s poems are just that – cool, bright, and intense.

In the Same Space

The houses and cafés, the quarter,
surroundings that I’ve seen and walked through; year after year.

In joy, in sorrow I created you:
with so many episodes, with so many matters.

And you have made yourself entirely a feeling, for me.

– Constantine P. Cavafy

 

*The title is from a poem that laughingly imagines an army of pleasure:

The Regiment of Pleasure

Do not speak of guilt, do not speak of responsibility. When the Regiment of Pleasure passes with music and flags; when the senses shudder and tremble, whoever stays far off is foolish and impious…..

Fecund Heart

“Life is more complicated than we think, yet far simpler than anyone dares to imagine.” Clea, Lawrence Durrell

Painting by Eric Ryan

“Society! Let us complicate existence to the point of drudgery so that it acts as a drug against reality.”

I had read only the first few pages of this last installment of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet when I was suddenly taken up with two opposing feelings: the first was the relief and happiness I felt at being once again amongst all of the characters  I had grown to like so much or at least  found so intriguing, and the second was the dread of the end- coming closer with each turning page. I just wanted to stay.

Naturally, the eponymous Clea comes into focus here; she is  more complex in many ways than the other female characters that have been presented – likable in an uncomplicated way, a little bit of a fresh breeze in the saga. But it is Pursewarden who draws to me again, particularly with his hilarious Brother Ass ramblings that he addresses to Darcy.

“Laugh until it hurts, and hurt till you laugh.”

Pursewarden’s wit, cynicism and honesty are so precise they leave no scars on the target, no reverberations of aggrandizement or protectionism are necessary – a simple laugh of acknowledgement is much more fitting and worthy of those whom come under the examination of his pen.

There are several astonishing twists and turns in this novel: life and death moments that are absolutely riveting. Durrell’s writing is so smooth and calm, the juxtaposition of the story to the telling of the story is really wonderful.

As I read, I couldn’t help thinking that we live in a very uptight, “square” and…boring age. I wonder what Durrell would have made of it. In each of these stories the characters, good or bad, are interesting, vivid people with lives that wring out a reaction from the characters that surround them, as well as from the reader. Without being crass or vulgar, there is an honesty, sensuality and physicality that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Today everyone is too afraid of upsetting their own personal bourgeoise prison to actually experience life and – live.

Durrell surprised me somewhat by bringing the stories (all four of them) to such a complete and satisfying end- the sort of end that really begins anew. Clea, (and The Alexandria Quartet taken as a whole with  Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive), is a startlingly beautiful tale woven by the thread of a complex mysterious and ethereal city, trod upon by the sort of people whom are not so easily come by – authentic, feeling, fragile but enduring artists, in other words – human.

Heart of Desuetude

“He had heard and read of passion, but had regarded it as something which would never impinge on him, and now here it was…”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

In the third of the Alexandria Quartet series by Lawrence Durrell, (you may recall my earlier posts on the first book Justine, and the second, BalthazarMountolive, the focus of the familiar story is now set upon the idea of power. As the story is seemingly repeated through each new eponymous character the genius of Durrell is really exposed. One begins to reassess the simplest assumptions: what looked like love was mere deception, what looked like an impossible twisted dark corner is true love, true friendship, and affection. Are life and truth so slippery as that? Yes, I suppose it is so.

“Truth is so bitter that the knowledge of it confers a kind of luxury.”  Mountolive

The love of power, the passionate ardor with which it is sought and wielded is examined with some intensity in this story, but it is backlit by a touching friendship and love affair between Mountolive and the mother of Nessim, Leila.  A tragic sort of love crushed by fate and weakness of feeling perhaps… The grunting displays of power  as well as the equally strong attempts to avoid dealing with a position of power, whether that position was sought for or not are shown through personal, national, and vocational relationships. Many people, maybe most, do not actually want to be in charge or deal with the ancillary pressure that a position of power brings; especially as power often devolves into paper pushing bureaucratic horrors.

In the gear up to a writer’s conference that I am participating in starting today (I’m a little nervous, if I focus on Mountolive maybe it will go away, maybe I’ll go away…) but I digress, there were a series of essays that we had to read, each others as well as published works; the one that I loved the most and which reminds me of the themes of Mountolive in many ways, is the one written by George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant. The final line in the story: ” I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”  struck me hard. Sometimes it really is that simple- that pathetic. The acts committed by people in power, acts that wouldn’t have or shouldn’t have occurred and yet somehow seem unavoidable, are so complex. We humans are so strange.

Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.”  Mountolive

The last and final book in this series is Clea. She has been in and out of the first three and I am very curious about her. Durrell is never obvious in which character he will focus on or which perspective. Even from book to book a single character’s life can be revealed and obfuscated in the most interesting and authentic way.

“When you are in love you know that love is a beggar, shameless as a beggar; and the responses of merely human pity can console one where love is absent by a false travesty of an imagined happiness.”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

Sculpture by Eric Ryan, my father.

connections of my imaginings

Painting by Eric J. Ryan

When I was girl I lived in a large room full of bookshelves. The books were just there. There was a little quartet that always drew my attention. I never read them through, just a page here a page there, I was really too young for them. Still I cannot think of my years spent in that room without thinking of these books and evoking the images of their covers, the weight of their paper.
The other day I came across a quote:

“I have been looking through my papers tonight. Some have been converted to kitchen uses, some the child has destroyed. This form of censorship pleases me for it has the indifference of the natural world to the constructions of art- an indifference I am beginning to share.”  Lawrence Durrell, Justine

I knew immediately where it was from, (The Alexandria Quartets) it must have been one of the pages I read. It seemed reason enough (me happening upon this quote all these years later and more than that: remembering it) to read it.  They were my father’s books, but he died when I was two so I can’t ask him about them now. “Justine was his favorite,” my mother said when she saw me reading it.

Is it true that we look for connections and confirmations? If we find them does that make it real, or just a mere coincident signifying nothing. I don’t know, and yet I find myself being guided by these “signs”. Even if I cannot escape my heartfelt cynicism. I read it, but I know it means nothing. I will neither find my father, myself nor any one else in it beyond what is available to any reader.

At any rate, I particularly like books that are set in this corner of the world (I, for instance, prefer The Stranger to 1984 simply because I loved the setting of Algiers, it almost seemed another character to me). Granted I make it a big corner, Morocco to Persia, having only spent time in Turkey my ignorance will make allowances stretching the boundaries of the corner to suit my thesis.

To be sure Alexandria is an important part of this lugubrious tale. Justine is full of tragic love and it is an intense read if you’re of a melancholic state of mind. Every character is so unhappy and so unhappy in love. You just want to shake them out of their seemingly self inflicted misery, rouse them from the dry wind of their pathos. The atmosphere and language of the book is skillfully and wonderfully rendered: you can almost smell the sea air, feel the hot breeze on your arm. It quite haunts me. The next book in the series is Balthazar (followed by Mountolive and then Clea) which I look forward to reading and perhaps reading into.

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us? – Justine

*Eric Ryan is my father