Sunday, August 12, 2007

la chascona #5: robert desnos

[la chascona was the santiago home of chilean poet pablo neruda—a home in which portraits of walt whitman adorn the study]

this year marks the 35th anniversary of the first publication of robert desnos’ poetry in english translation. desnos’ “selected poems”—translated by carole frankel and william kulik—was published in 1972. (translated by carolyn forché and william kulik, the definitive “selected poems” was reissued in 1991.) it also marks the 80th anniversary of the 1927 publication of the collection “la liberté ou l’amour!” in which he included several poems for singer yvonne george.

born on july 4, 1900 in paris—the son of a café owner—desnos became a literary columnist for the newspaper “paris-soir” after attending business college. his poems first found homes in the dadaist magazine “littérature” in the period immediately following wwi. his first book—a collection of surrealistic aphorisms—was published in 1922. these were followed by “language cuit” (1923), “deuil pour deuil” (1924), “journal d'une apparition” and “la liberté ou l’amour!” (1927), “the night of loveless nights” (1930), “corps et biens” (1930), “état de veille” (1943), and “le vin est tiré” (1943).

while at “paris-soir,” desnos met fellow poet benjamin péret who introduced desnos to the dada group in paris and andré breton. desnos became an active member of the surrealist group and developed a particular talent for “automatic writing.” this involved drifting into a trance and then recording the associations and leaps of the subconscious mind. desnos' poems from this time are playful (by utilizing puns and homonyms), sensual, and serious. in the 1930s his poems became more direct and musical while retaining his earlier playfulness. during that decade, desnos branched out into extensive work on french radio and writing reviews of cinema and jazz. his break with surrealism can be seen in his lyric poem about solitude, “the night of loveless nights,” which was written in quatrains and more similar to baudelaire than andré breton.

upon france’s state of war against germany in 1939, desnos returned to the french army. in paris during the german occupation (with its rampant collaboration), desnos used pseudonyms such as lucien gallois and pierre andier and published a series of essays that undercut and mocked the nazis. such articles—in combination with his work for the french resistance—led to his arrest. sadly, desnos’ arrest by the gestapo that february morning in 1944 cut short the work of a writer whose craft had evolved over myriad twists and turns. as his biographer william kulik points out, “contreé” (the last book published before his arrest) was a culmination of that evolution: it consists of of 25 poems written in alexandrines or syllabics, many of which are sonnets or resemble them.

from “contreé,” we have the poem “cascade,” translated in “the selected poems of robert desnos” (ecco press):

What sort of arrow split the sky and this rock?
It quivers, spreading like a peacock’s fan
Like the mist around the shaft and knotless feathers
Of a comet come to next at midnight.

How blood surges from the gaping wound,
Lips already silencing the murmur and the cry,
One solemn finger holds back time, confusing
The witness of the eyes where the deed is written.

Silence? We still know the passwords.
Lost sentinels far from the watch fires
We smell the odor of honeysuckle and surf
Rising the dark shadows.

Distance, let dawn leap the void at last,
And a single beam of light make a rainbow on the water
Its quiver full of reeds,
Sign of the return of archers and patriotic songs.

desnos was sent to first to the auschwitz/birkenau death factory, but—as the soviet forces approached—he was transferred to térézin/theresienstadt concentration camp in czechoslovakia. weakened by typhoid, he died on june 8, 1945, just after the camp’s liberation by allied forces (and is buried in paris’ montparnasse cemetery).

desnos's poetry has been set to music by a number of composers, including witold lutosławski with “les espaces du sommeil” (1975) and “chantefleurs et chantefables” (1991), and francis poulenc (“dernier poème,” 1956). desnos translator forché names him as a significant influence on her own work. to access the wonder, complexity, and texture of desnos’ poems, check out the following web sources:

(the last three poems on this website of surrealist poems are those of desnos.)

witold lutoslawski’s “les espaces du sommeil” and “chantefleurs et chantefables” can respectively be played at:

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

daytrippers 1: staten island

[basilio’s, jacques marchais tibetan museum, conference house, view of narrows, alice austen house, garibaldi-meucci museum, snug harbor, staten island railway (sir)]

from end to end, this borough is a great place to explore. daytrippers can only skim its “surface.” other amazing spots on staten island include the national lighthouse museum (, the davis wildlife refuge (, sandy ground historical museum (, and the staten island zoo ( at which is found one of the most amazing and complete collections of reptiles—especially rattlesnakes and other poisonous reptiles. birthplace of joan baez, emilio estevez, and mother bloor, as well as the former home of paul and jane bowles, there is much to discover here.

staten island museum (, where my mother once exhibited one of her paintings in the mid-1960s, is just two blocks away from the staten island ferry terminal. also known as the staten island institute of arts & sciences), it is new york city’s only general interest museum—exploring the arts, natural science, and local history through permanent and changing exhibitions.

jacques marchais tibetan museum ( near historic richmond town is an amazing collection 1,200 objects of tibetan buddhist art--from tibet, mongolia, and northern china—dating from the 15th to early 20th century. nestled in a most contemplative place on lighthouse hill and resembling a small himalayan monastery, this architectural gem is surrounded by meditation gardens and its collection is especially rich in statues of buddhas, lamas, arhats, protector deities, thangka paintings and 18th century qianlong cloisonné. do check out its 60th anniversary exhibition, “from staten island to shangri la: the collecting life of jacques marchais,” which runs until december 31, 2008.

historic richmond town ( occupies 25 acres of a 100-acre site with about 15 restored buildings, including homes, commercial and civic buildings, and a museum. historically furnished interiors and museum exhibits are but a segment of its resources. of special note are the “open village,” bluegrass festival, and richmond county fair. nearby one can find st. andrew’s episcopal church, the cemetery of which contains the grave of elizabeth ann bayley seton (1744-1821) , the first american-born roman catholic saint (as opposed to mother cabrini who was the first american saint). her grandfather was rector of the church.

alice austen house ( is a national historic landmark at which are presented exhibitions of the work of alice austen and other photographers. austen's work is significant because of its high quality, range, and level of expression that together form a view of 19th century america. the site itself—with its history, architecture, landscape, and waterfront location at the foot of hylan boulevard with a great view of the narrows—is of note.

garibaldi-meucci museum (, owned and operated by the sons of italy, is located in rosebank. historic home of antonio meucci (the actual inventor of the telephone) and legendary italian patriot giuseppe garibaldi, this building was erected in the 1840s in gothic-revival style. seeking refuge in new york in 1850, garibaldi lived here until 1854 when he returned to italy to lead its victorious unification.

conference house ( is surrounded by the conference house park at the very tip of staten island in tottenville. here, in september 1776—at this house built in 1680—john adams, edward rutledge, and benjamin franklin represented the continental congress in negotiations with britain’s admiral lord richard howe. while the group put forth options for a peaceful end to the revolutionary war, ultimately no agreement was reached and hostilities continued another seven years. tours of this restored house provide a glimpse of what life was like at the time.

snug harbor cultural center (, now affiliated with the smithsonian, is a cultural center set within an 83-acre national historic landmark on staten island’s north shore not far from the staten island ferry. containing the finest collection of greek revival buildings in the united states, plus beaux arts, italianate and victorian style architecture set in lush parkland this gem exists today only because citizens fought tirelessly to save it from destruction. the deteriorated buildings of a seamen's retirement home have been transformed into a center for the arts. found here are the newhouse center for contemporary art, the actors harbor theater, the staten island children’s museum, art lab art school, the staten island botanical garden, and the noble maritime collection.

staten island railway runs from the ferry terminal in st. george to tottenville and is the surviving—though thriving—segment of a system that once had south beach and north shore lines. in 1953, the b&o railroad, the private owner of staten island passenger train service threatened to end that service. new york city agreed to subsidize the tottenville line. the south beach and north shore lines then became defunct. in 1971, new york city bought staten island rapid transit from b&o at a cost of $3.5 million.

for staten island ferry departures and connections to mta and new york city transit:

for the mta staten island railway timetable:

a great overall source for happenings, events, and cultural resources on staten island is the council on the arts and humanities for staten island (coahsi) and its very thorough newsletter at:

a boomer's niche

[555 mcclean avenue in staten island’s south beach houses, p.s. 46 on reid avenue]

from this little corner of the world i spent years 5-10. during this period--corresponding to the years 1964-1969--i started kindergarten and finished fourth grade. as i explored the south beach houses and the surrounding neighborhood, lyndon johnson trounced barry goldwater and the “great society” commenced. civil rights workers michael schwerner, james chaney, andrew goodman, james reeb, and viola liuzzo were murdered. the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965 were passed overwhelmingly and signed into law. watts, newark, and detroit blew up. our ill-considered vietnam incursion “escalated” out of control and young men--including those in our precincts--came home in body bags.

when we first moved to staten island at the height of beatlemania, a ferry ride to manhattan or brooklyn was required to “connect” to another borough. plodding across the bay this way took us to the world’s fair. yet, looming above us in the near distance was the almost-completed verrazano-narrows bridge. when president lyndon johnson came to inaugurate that wonder, we welcomed him with “hello lyndon” sung to the tune of “hello dolly.” sounds of 77 wabc and the wmca good guys provided a delightful score over am waves to ease racial tensions or the anxiety of vietnam and events such as the soviet crushing of prague spring and dubček’s “socialism with a human face.”

from my perch in 2A i cheered on my hero and fellow left-hander sandy koufax—whether in the ragweed-laden field next to p.s. 46 in the dusty summer of procul harum’s “whiter shade of pale” or that christmas we celebrated german-style with the army family the rushtons in dongan hills when “hello, goodbye” by the beatles and “you better sit down kids” by cher made those holidays even more amazing. immigration guidelines had already changed, which would forever change the face (or actually faces) of new york city in the years that followed. chicken pox erupted a few weeks before 1967’s six day war commenced, allowing me to stay home from school for a week to savor old “donna reed show,” “leave it to beaver,” and “biography” (mike wallace’s version) reruns on morning television. “groovin’” by the rascals was my score to that.

studebaker exhibited its 1964 line-up at the coliseum auto show. the assault by michael quill and his transit workers union upon the nascent administration of mayor john v. lindsay unleashed the unrelenting municipal union troubles of his idealistic tenure—whether the blue flu of nypd, huge piles of refuse uncollected by sanitation workers, and the fiery belligerence of albert shanker and his uft (who struck for two months when i was in fourth grade). during the period of that strike by teachers over decentralization, richard nixon squeaked by to victory over the chicago-tarnished hubert humphrey. lights and appliances in 555 mcclean avenue came to a screeching halt with those in the rest of the city during the great blackout of 1965. that event occurred close to the election of mayor lindsay—the first candidate for whom i ever rooted. [interestingly, the mayor of “gotham city” on the tv show “batman” (which went on the air in 1966) was mayor linseed.]

the summer of 1968 a boy named david (who suffered from brittle diabetes) moved across the hall from us. he writhed in pain in our car as our moms returned from a saturday shopping trip to korvettes (and josé feliciano’s remake of “light my fire” came over the car radio). [feliciano would be greeted by detroit tigers fans with bottles and cans at the world series a few weeks later when he sang the national anthem.] david succumbed to his disease during the teachers’ decentralization strike when it seemed “hey jude” by the beatles never stopped droning on and on.

while i struggled to tie my shoelaces, i delighted to herman’s hermits singing “henry the viii, i am” and tom jones’ “it’s not unusual.” that summer after first grade when i learned to swim at the fort wadsworth pool, the troggs’ “wild thing” and frank sinatra’s “strangers in the night” came over the snack bar’s radio. in the aftermath of bobby kennedy’s assassination (in which my overwrought third-grade teacher mrs. o’brien had to leave the room), i enjoyed burgers at wetson’s on hylan boulevard with my friend allison rushton and brother keith to the strains of richard harris’ “macarthur park.” allison’s sister mimi and her mom had been visiting at our place two months earlier when word of dr. king’s assassination came over news bulletins while we watched “bewitched.”

days before our move to suffolk county, men walked on the moon, upstate roads were clogged with revelers headed to yasgur’s farm, and a chain of events occurred in a place called chappaquiddick. “spinning wheel” by blood sweat & tears and sly & the family stone’s “hot fun in the summertime” provided succor with reruns of “julia, “here come the brides,” and “the ghost & mrs. muir.” vietnam dragged on, wreaking havoc on the vietnamese people: young americans continued to return from that useless conflict in body bags or damaged emotionally.