San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park

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Bika and the author after a hike in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park.

Our Tibetan Terrier, Bika, was very fond of hiking in Buena Vista Park. The oldest official park in San Francisco, it was established in 1867 and was originally named Hill Park. It is comprised of either 36 or 37 acres (various experts dispute this point), and is located almost exactly in the geographical center of the city. The hill around which the park is laid out rises to a height of 575 feet, which is lofty for our coastal metropolis, and is an oasis of vegetation, wildlife and views totally surrounded by elegant residential neighborhoods and popular commercial districts. From Buena Vista Park, you can catch glimpses through the trees of just about any other part of town you want to see.

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View of Marin Headlands and St. Ignatius Church from Buena Vista Park

I suspect that Bika liked Buena Vista Park so much because it is generally a sunny place, just as her own personality was habitually sunny and cheerful. The main hiking trail, which we always began with when we went there, ascends the warmer south-east slope of the hill at just the right angle: you need to be a bit vigorous to make it to the top without excess huffing and puffing, but it’s not so steep that you can’t enjoy the walk without being a seasoned mountaineer, though Bika was definitely in the latter category. The trail is broad there, and lined with towering eucalyptus which sway in the breeze, along with other forms of native and non-native vegetation of the coastal Californian and Mediterranean varieties. Had William Randolph Hearst ever acquired the hilltop and built a castle on it, I’ve often thought, he would have lined this south-east upward-bound trail with flowering orange and pomegranate trees, roses and trellised grape vines, as he did the roads and riding paths leading the last mile or two to the upper entrance gates of his estate at San Simeon. It would have been lovely, but I’m glad he didn’t. The natural effect of the park as it is today is a relief after all the tightly-packed construction and high-density, often artificial living of the surrounding city.

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One of the fires following the Great Earthquake of 1906, as viewed from Buena Vista Park

Once, on this trail, Bika and I encountered two rough-looking customers whose dual Rottweilers made a snarling beeline for Bika the instant they saw her, so that I was forced to pick her up and hoist her to my shoulder lest her rather frail frame be crushed by the bigger dogs or some other horrific incident ensue. The Rottweilers’ owners were indignant that I should do this, saying that it only made their dogs think mine was ready for a fight, but this was something I dealt with fairly often with Bika: she weighed only 30 pounds, and I was forever keeping an eye out for dogs or bicycles or coyotes (we have all three near our house) to appear out of nowhere and rob me of the best friend and companion of all my days. I was perturbed that morning in the park, of course, but looking back on it now gives me yet another pleasant memory of the Bika years to cherish. Because I was able to help her, you see, and she leaped happily down from my shoulder moments later and continued her delighted and smiling ascent to the top.

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One of the elegant houses opposite the entrance to Buena Vista Park, this one designed and built by Ida McCain in 1916

The paths up the the west side of the hill feature gutters constructed by WPA workers in the 1930’s from broken headstones from 19th century cemeteries in San Francisco’s Lone Mountain-Laurel Heights area. Beginning in 1914 and continuing into the 1940’s, thousands of headstones were transported to the immense necropolises of Colma, south of the city (not always with their accompanying human remains), and unclaimed monuments were later broken up and used for landfill and in the construction of seawalls in various parts of town. If you look carefully at the stones used in Buena Vista Park, you can find some whose inscriptions have survived. Searching them out might make for a rather macabre hobby, I suppose, but you might also learn something. My own great-grandfather was one of those whose remains went missing during this period of transmigration of the dead. For all I know, his monument may be visible in Buena Vista Park today, used for the construction of a wall or gutter. Recycling. I really don’t know what to think about this, but it’s an interesting idea.

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View north-west to Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.

One last thing about Bika’s favorite city park: it contains one of San Francisco’s few remaining coast live oak groves. Buena Vista’s is on the park’s northern slope. All kinds of creatures thrive there, and one reason is that the acorn crop comes in the fall when other food sources disappear and many animals must start preparing for the winter. Sapsuckers drink the trees’ phloem (tissue below the bark which transports sugars throughout the tree); western harvest mice strip the bark; and Botta’s pocket gophers eat the roots of saplings. Birds including brown creepers and nuthatches search trunks, branches and leaves for the many insect species which thrive in live oaks. And here’s a little fact which I really like: some species of squirrels gather nuts for the winter and store them in any available hiding place, usually burying them, and, despite their excellent memories, sometimes forget where their culinary treasures have been concealed. As a result, many a great oak tree has received its start from a forgotten acorn which never made its way to a hungry squirrel’s festive dinner. As for Bika and squirrels, she paid no attention to them. ‘Lower life forms!’ she seemed to think, whenever one crossed her path. When I finally get around to taking one of our recently adopted Tibetan Terriers for its first hike in Buena Vista Park, I’m sure he or she will think exactly the same thing.

Corfu and Lawrence Durrell

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Kalami Bay, Corfu, Greece. Durrell’s ‘White House’ is visible, though half-obscured by a tree, to the center-right of the photo. It rises directly above the water. 

 

Corfu and Lawrence Durrell

I recently finished rereading the memoir the British novelist Lawrence Durrell wrote of his years on the Greek island of Corfu, from the mid 1930’s until the outbreak of war in 1939. Often I note passages when I read, so I can go back and savor them later, lest they be forgotten entirely as one book follows another. And I’d like to share some of them here, in case someone else can get something out of them too. They are from the 1996 edition of the book as published by Marlowe and Company, New York. The memoir originally appeared in 1945.

‘Seen through the transforming lens of memory the past seemed so enchanted that even thought would be unworthy of it.’

‘A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.’

‘It is a sophism to imagine that there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams….[We] are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us; the sensation of being mere points of reference for space and time.’

‘Our life on this promontory has become like some flawless Euclidean statement. Night and sleep resolve and complete the day with their quod erat demonstrandum; and if, uneasily stirring before dawn, one stands for a moment to watch the morning star, which hangs like a drop of yellow dew in the east, it is not that sleep (which is like death in stories, beautiful) has been disrupted: it is the greater for this noiseless star, for the deep scented tree-line and the sea pensively washing and rewashing one’s dreams. So that, confused, you wonder at the overlapping of the edges of dream and reality.’

‘In the spaces of the wind the ear picks up the dry morse-like communication of the cicadas high above on the cliffs; while higher still in space sounds the sour brassy note of a woman’s voice singing…Drinking the wind like some imagined figurehead on a prehistoric prow one cannot tell from the sad expression of the clear face whether N. hears the singing or not. Or whether indeed the singing is not in one’s own mind, riding clear and high above the white sails to where the eagles, broken like morsels of rock, fall and recover and fall again down the invisible stairways of the blue.’

‘”Philosophy,” he said once, “is a doubt which lives in one like a hookworm, causing pallor and lack of appetite. Suddenly one day you awake and realize with complete certainty that ninety-five per cent of the activities of the human race–to which you supposed you belonged–have no relevance whatsoever for you. What is to become of you?”‘

‘And here we are,’ says the Count, unwilling to relinquish his subject, ‘each of us collecting and arranging our common knowledge according to the form dictated to him by his temperament. In all cases it will not be the whole picture, though it will be the whole picture for you.’ 

Ángelos Sikelianós

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Villa of Ángelos Sikelianós on the Island of Salamis, Greece.

This is the first poem I have translated from Modern Greek. I am indebted to the translations of others whose works I have consulted in the process, but I found that none of them exactly expressed the impression the poem makes on me, and felt compelled to create my own. It’s an emotional and sensual poem, oddly earthy and ethereal at the same time. One can almost feel the temperature and weight and take in the insistent sounds, fragrances and visual characteristics of the various natural phenomena depicted by the poet in this short work. It has a rushing and expanding quality to it–an osmotic poem, perhaps–a scant collection of images which seem to have a power all their own to go out to greet the reader, become one with him, then be exhaled in the very reading to become something they could never have become if left unnoticed upon the page. It’s a curious thing.

Ángelos Sikelianós was an Ionian, from the island of Lefkas, where he was born on March 27, 1884. His poetry, as this short example shows, is dense with metaphors and comparisons which at times can nearly overwhelm the reader–but pleasantly so, and I find what I have discovered of his work so far to be intriguing in its simultaneous depth and clarity. He is not considered a Surrealist exactly, but he was interested in Surrealist themes, and some consider him a forerunner of that movement. He spent most of his life in Greece and died in 1951. My translation here is followed by the original Greek text.

First Rain

We leaned from the window,
and all that lay before us
was one with our soul.
The clouds, pale as sulphur, deadened vineyards and fields;
winds from the trees
hummed with unsettled air;
a swallow breasted swiftly 
back and forth across the grass.
Then suddenly it thundered,
the torrent broke, and dancing came the rain!
The dust leapt up, light as air.
And we, nostrils trembling, opened our lips
to the heavy draught of earth, letting it,
like a spring, drench the depths of our entrails
(already the rain had sprinkled
our thirsty faces,
like the olive and the mullein).
And shoulder to shoulder we asked: ‘What fragrance is this
that cuts the air like a swarm of bees
from the cones of pines,
from balsam and thyme,
from besom and willow too?’
And I breathed forth a mist (so abundant were the scents)
I breathed forth a mist, and became like a lyre,
caressed by the munificence of the breath…

ΤΟ ΠΡΩΤΟΒΡΟΧΙ 

Σκυμμένοι από το παραθύρι…
Και του προσώπου μας οι γύροι
η ίδια μας ήτανε ψυχή.
Η συννεφιά, χλωμή σα θειάφι, θάμπωνε αμπέλι και χωράφι·
ο αγέρας μέσ’ από τα δέντρα
με κρύφια βούιζε ταραχή·
η χελιδόνα, με τα στήθη,
γοργή, στη χλόη μπρος-πίσω εχύθη· κι άξαφνα βρόντησε, και λύθη κρουνός, χορεύοντα η βροχή!
Η σκόνη πηρ’ ανάερο δρόμο…
K’ εμείς, στων ρουθουνιών τον τρόμο, στη χωματίλα τη βαριά
τα χείλα ανοίξαμε, σα βρύση
τα σπλάχνα να μπει να ποτίσει
(όλη είχεν η βροχή ραντίσει
τη διψασμένη μας θωριά,
σαν την ελιά και σαν το φλόμο).
κι ο ένας στ’ αλλουνού τον ώμο ρωτάαμε: «T’ είναι πόχει σκίσει
τον αέρα μύρο, όμοιο μελίσσι;
Απ’ τον πευκιά το κουκουνάρι,
ο βάρσαμος ή το θυμάρι,
η αφάνα ή η αλυγαριά;»
Κι άχνισα – τόσα ήταν τα μύρα – άχνισα κ’ έγινα όμοια λύρα,
που χάϊδευ’ η άσωτη πνοή… 

 

 

Konstantinos Kavafis

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Scene at Greek Yacht Club of Alexandria, Egypt, 1920’s. Konstantinos Kavafis spent most of his life in this city.

One of the books I’ve been spending time with lately is a marvelous recent collection of poetry in translation entitled ‘Modern Greek Poetry: An Anthology’, edited by Nanos Valaoritis and Thanasis Maskaleris and published in 2003. Since my own smattering of Greek has been confined to a year of reading the ancient language with a private tutor, followed by a year of New Testament Greek in a classroom, and then some enthusiastic but very undisciplined attempts to learn modern Demotic on my own, I am extremely grateful for the existence of this great collection of translations representing the work of many modern poets. Now and then I’d like to share a few of them here, along with an occasional comment. 

I have never really taken to Konstantinos Kavafis (1863-1933), perhaps because his rich assortment of historical Hellenistic allusions are mostly lost on me, perhaps because I have always been puzzled by his rather flat or even non-existent use of metaphor, and certainly because his quirky blending of ancient, modern and regional colloquial speech can simply not be reproduced in translation at all. But I have been struck forcefully by two short poems in this collection and would like to share them here, hoping that someone else will find them remarkable and move that person to investigate Kavafis’ work in more detail on his or her own. Here are the two, then. They are good examples of what I might call ‘catalytic poetry’, verse which prompts a kind of interior reaction or conversion in the reader which could be identical, similar or even entirely different from anything which might have been happening within the poet himself when he wrote it. 

Hidden

Of all the things I’ve said and done
let them not ask who I was.
Obstacle it was and it transformed
my actions and my way of life.
Obstacle it was and it stopped me
often when I would speak.
My most unnoticed actions
and my most covered up writings–
only from these will they understand me.
Perhaps it wasn’t worth expending
such care and such labor to reveal myself.
Later–in a more perfect society–
someone else made up like me
will surely appear and freely act.

Addition

I do not examine whether I’m happy or unhappy.
But one thing with joy I always set in my mind–
that in the great addition (their addition which I hate)
which has so many numbers, I’ll not be there,
one of the many numbers. In the whole sum
I was not counted. And this joy is enough.

February 1897

‘Prospero’s Cell’

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Island of Corfu, Ionian Sea, Greece.

I’m back to an old hobby lately: reading and thinking about the Greek island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, and in general all things Corfiot. A great little book I return to periodically is Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Prospero’s Cell’, first published in 1945 and reprinted several times since. It’s a little masterpiece of travel, history, culture and reflection all on its own. And it takes its name from one of the non-fictional characters who appears in it, a reclusive nobleman who lives in a dilapidated villa among vineyards and olive groves, and whose theory is that Corfu is actually Prospero’s island, that Shakespeare was inspired to use it as the setting for his play, ‘The Tempest’, and may even have visited it himself. Here’s a short quote from the book, typical of the kind of thing I like about it, and of Durrell’s style as travel writer and essayist:

‘The Count smokes his home-made cigarettes in a short bone holder, stained with nicotine. Relaxing and spreading out his hands against the moonlight as if to warm them at its white fire, he begins to talk. I have wasted all these words on describing the Count in the hope of isolating that quality in him which is so admirable and original, and when he begins to talk I grasp at once what it is. He is the possessor of a literary mind completely uncontaminated by the struggle to achieve a technique; he lacks the artifice of presentation, the corrupting demon of form. It is a mind with the pollen still fresh upon it.’

I don’t know about the Shakespeare theory. One thing in its favor, as Durrell points out in the book, is that the name of Caliban’s mother, the witch Sycorax, could well be an anagram for the ancient Greek name of the island which we call Corfu: Corcyra. But there are several other peculiarities of Corfiot life and manners which may find their reflections in Shakespeare’s play. I won’t spoil your own experience of reading Durrell’s book by enumerating them here, but his discussion of them is very entertaining. And perhaps the theory is not at all far-fetched. Elizabethan England may appear to have been very far removed from anything Ionian, but the island group of which Corfu is a part was at the center of a major trade route between Venice and points East in Shakespeare’s time. Like his fellow English contemporaries, he would have been used to Greek currants from the island of Zante, a staple in British holiday baking, for example.  And Shakespeare is rumored to have been out of the country in 1611, when ‘The Tempest’ was written. I like to think of him sojourning on Corfu, pen in hand, and conjuring up his character Ariel, mysterious sprite of the air, while gazing upon the mists and storms which occasionally obscure the Corfiot coast. It’s all interesting to consider.

Georg Trakl: The Solitary’s Autumn

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German Woodcut on Paper. Early 20th Century.

Here is my translation of a poem by the Austrian Georg Trakl. The original was first published in 1915, shortly after the author’s death, by Kurt Wolff Verlag, Leipzig. It is the eighth and last poem in the cycle entitled ‘Sebastian im Traum’.  Readers of the German text will note the various examples of rhythmic versus broken cadence, feminine rhyme, alliteration and assonance. I hope my English translation conveys something of the gradually darkening mood from beginning to end, the use of color, temperature, sound and feeling, and the further realities, both dark and light, to which the more distant edges of the poem seem to point. As a matter of trivial interest, the German text of this poem was used in the 2009 album ‘Der Herbst des Einsamen’ as recorded by the dark metal band ‘Eden Weint im Grab’ (‘Eden Weeps in the Grave’). The first letters of the band’s name spell the German word for ‘eternal’, but I find myself at a total loss as to what Trakl himself might have thought of any of this. 

The Solitary’s Autumn

Dark autumn comes with fruit and fullness,
Yellow glow of fine summer days.
Chaste blue from mouldering husks emerges;
The flight of birds sounds tales of old.
Pressed is the wine, the mild quiet
Filled with sombre questions’ soft replies.

And here and there a cross on desolate hill;
A herd dissolved into reddish woods;
A cloud adrift on a mirror-like pond;
The farmer’s peaceful mien is still.
So softly the evening’s blue wings graze
The roof of dry straw, the blackened earth.

Stars soon nest in the weary one’s brow;
A still content invades the chill rooms
And angels step softly from the blue
Eyes of lovers, whose suffering is sweet.
The reeds rustle; bone-dry dread descends,
When black from naked willows drips the dew.

Der Herbst des Einsamen

Der dunkle Herbst kehrt ein voll Frucht und Fülle,
Vergilbter Glanz von schönen Sommertagen.
Ein reines Blau tritt aus verfallener Hülle;
Der Flug der Vögel tönt von alten Sagen.
Gekeltert ist der Wein, die milde Stille
Erfüllt von leiser Antwort dunkler Fragen.

Und hier und dort ein Kreuz auf ödem Hügel;
Im roten Wald verliert sich eine Herde.
Die Wolke wandert übern Weiherspiegel;
Es ruht des Landmanns ruhige Gebärde.
Sehr leise rührt des Abends blauer Flügel
Ein Dach von dürrem Stroh, die schwarze Erde.

Bald nisten Sterne in des Müde Brauen;
In kühle Stuben kehrt ein still Bescheiden
Und Engel treten leise aus den blauen
Augen der Liebenden, die sanfter leiden.
Es rauscht das Rohr; anfällt ein knöchern Grauen,
Wenn schwarz der Tau tropft von den kahlen Weiden. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palo Alto Plantation: Part 3

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Marie Adrien Persac. ‘Palo Alto Plantation, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana.’ Gouache and collage on paper, 17″ x 23″, 1850’s. Private collection 

A closer look at the Persac painting of Palo Alto (click on image for larger resolution) will reveal some interesting details and features. The window shutters on the main house, for example, are yellow in the painting: though the shutters have always been green, the green paint in Persac’s picture flaked off over time, revealing the yellow undercoat he had painted in order to make the final green of the finished work more vivid. When the painting was cleaned and restored in recent years, Persac’s original green was brought back. The combination of white and green was typical of such dwellings in mid-19th century Louisiana plantation dwellings.

The sugar house, where the cane was processed immediately after harvest into molasses and various grades of sugar, is just visible in the distant background of the painting. Only the wealthiest of planters generally built sugar houses of masonry: the one at Palo Alto was of wood. Federal troops were quartered in the sugar house in the early years of the war and it was not burned, though it has not survived. In both foreground and background of the painting horizontal rail fences are in evidence. Not in evidence is the extensive gridwork of ditches and canals common in all sugar plantations: their function was to drain excess water into the bayous which formed the rear boundaries of these agricultural operations. Maintenance of both fences and ditches constituted some of the main work of plantation slaves during the months when sugar cane was not being cultivated, harvested or processed.

To the left and slightly in front of the main house is a small frame structure with no chimney, which may have been a dairy, judging from its proximity to the plantation kitchen. To the right of the house is what is known in French as a ‘pigeonnier’, a pigeon house both ornamental and functional, with pyramidal roof and small shed attached. Though the original structure did not survive, it has been reconstructed in more recent years from an examination of the painting. A primitive shed in the middle ground of the painting appears to stand directly on the ground and has a dirt floor. The small boats moored nearby indicate that it would have been either a boat shed or storage facility for goods shipped or received via the bayou. 

A small vine-covered cottage stands in the center of the painting, with white curtains pulled to either side of a central opening. According to family tradition, this was the schoolhouse. An English governess named Mrs. Goddard is recorded in the 1860 census as living with the Ayraud family. Just to the right of this, the small overseer’s house appears alongside the double row of slave quarters, each with two rooms, a chimney and open gallery across the front. It is interesting to note that they are of above-ground construction, and that the cabins on the right have steep double-pitched roofs, more typical of Creole than American design. Their proximity to one side of the manor house is also unusual, since slave quarters were often built some distance to the rear and not immediately visible. 

Another point: the large figures in the foreground are actually collage, images cut by Persac from magazines and inserted into the painting, a common practice with Persac. The figures in the background of the picture, however, were drawn and painted by the artist, including the occupants of the sailboat, the people and animals on the farther bank, and the carriage with its passengers and horses passing the front of the house. And one more thing of note: anyone familiar with Palo Alto today will be struck by the relative lack of vegetation evident in the painting, which would have been executed not long after the land itself was originally cleared for planting and the house constructed in what had so recently been a wilderness.