Why the pout Edward Hopper? Your many self portraits interchangeable Turned down mouth Empty eyes Stoic Sour Brooding Not a hint of a punch line But always impeccably dressed What lies beneath?
Your marriage to Josephine, Jo Reads rather contentious, tumultuous Yet she was your subject Diminutive Combative muse Bedraggled nude Expressionless Perhaps eating from tin cans Transformed you both to granite
Brushstrokes of simplicity Your artistic gifts portrayed loneliness Dark shadows Deep thoughts Solitude Isolation Until you created coastal scenes Where you found light essence And release
Musings on “Little Goose Girl” by Millet
What have you seen Simple thatched house Generations of simple folk Who patched your humble walls
The geese at your doorstep Years of harvest and famine Like the seasons And phases of the moon
Within, the acrid smells of your hearth Beside you the giant tree Your sentinel Why does this interest me, you ask Oh, I feel your heartbeat
(Poetry Workshop at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, French Pastels, with Regie Gibson)
Doreen LeBlanc lives in Massachusetts and spends time in summer and fall at her cabin in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where she was born. Inspiration bubbles up out of the river and sea, streams down the mountain, and comes through family stories and the beauty of Cape Breton and her Acadian and Scottish heritage.
The American West of our imaginations, back in the day. Back in the days of cowboys and gold rushes, San Fran brothels and deadly coal mines, horse thieves and mountain men. The American West of our rather limited imaginations, if we grew up with a certain kind of preset range of ideas, photos, movies, stories and dreams in our heads; which, of course, to one degree or another, means pretty much all of us.
But it’s different if. Way different if, we’re of that tribe that ended up dominating all the other tribes, and all too often take it for granted that our stories, movies, ideas and dreams should be the focus, the main narrative, the supposedly real history of our West. Subconsciously, overtly, aggressively, or just kinda sorta cuz it’s supposedly the Way Things Are.
So into that historical (imaginary) space and time comes this amazing new voice — and, folks, her voice is pure magic — and she sings both her own song, from her own (21st century) life experience, and songs we haven’t heard before that must have been audible back then, from “XX42” to “XX67,” as the author puts it, if one had the ears for those songs, if one opened themselves up to others outside their own set.
C Pam Zhang tells the story of another kind of cowboy, or cowgirl, focusing primarily on Chinese-American siblings Lucy and Sam, orphaned (perhaps) at age 12 and 11, on their own in a beautiful, miserable, dangerous, wondrous unnamed territory. The author never names it, exactly, other than when the scene shifts to San Francisco and the shores of the Pacific, but it’s likely set in the new state of California, for the most part. Lucy and Sam’s Ma came from a land across the ocean, also unnamed, but likely China. Ironically, their Ba was born in the American West, too, but no one seems to believe him, such were those preset ideas back then and now.
In interviews, Ms. Zhang has mentioned John Steinbeck and Laura Ingalls Wilder as influences, and you can hear some of that in her prose. But she makes it all her own, sprinkling in bits of Chinese, varying the rhythms, the pacing, the length of the sentences, and shifts yet again when she gives Ba his own monologue, which made me think of another Wilder: Thornton. Our Town, back from the dead, as if Emily and the Stage Manager merged and became a Chinese American gold prospector, telling his “Lucy Girl” his own story, his whys and wherefores, his regrets.
Upon first reading, I’m inclined to call this a “classic,” a book that belongs in the American Canon, already. And I’m guessing a reread will confirm that. Someone also needs to make this into a film, or a limited “peak TV” series. But that might force the filmmaker to leave out the best part: Zhang’s beautiful, original, magical narrative voice.
The Tempest before the storm. Rocky shores, an island, a remote, semi-protected place for women alone. But they aren’t. And they know it. They know what awaits them offshore. They know what surrounds them, has always surrounded them. They know the countless obstacles in their way. Not just being young women. But being young women in love. Being jeune filles who love each other in 18th century France. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Sciamma’s film is a dream, a haunting, pre-Raphaelite dream, set on an island off the coast of Brittany in 1760. A young lady (Adèle Haenel), fresh out of the convent, is to be married to an Italian nobleman all too soon. Arranged, it is not what she wants. It is not who she is. So her mother, a countess (Valeria Golino), struggles to bring it all together with a portrait, thinking this will finalize the arrangement. Put a bow on it. So she hires Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to befriend Héloïse and paint her in secret, at night, after they’ve walked and talked along the shore.
Is her mother that much in the dark about her own daughter? Did she not know how the two would respond to new secrets and their revelations?
Héloïse still mourns for her sister, whose recent suicide likely sent her to an early life in a convent. The countess must have thought she could arrange both a friendship and a painting that would push her daughter into another world, far away from those remote rocky cliffs and death. She must have feared that her daughter would follow her other daughter into the sea. She followed the painter instead, into a new life, a new way of being.
Few movies know how to end things. Even the best films often fail to wrap up or open up as they should. Sciamma ends this most beautiful of melancholy odes in an impossible fusion of repressed eroticism, passion and understatement. Vivaldi is the spark. A treasured memory for Héloïse, an echo of rocky cliffs brought back to life.
It was never the case, at least not in the modern world. Outside a few. Outside a few lone souls, able to live on grass and berries. Able to hunt and gather, make their own shelters, their own clothes, treat themselves when they got sick. Pull their own teeth. Make and fix their own modest tools. Having next to no layers between themselves and the earth. Right there. Being there always. Right on top of the earth, like mother and child.
And they better be beyond lucky. They better not fall and break their ankles, legs, hit their heads, catch pneumonia or worse. They better, in a word, or two, or three, stay perfectly healthy. It was never the case, outside those rare few souls.
Humans are social animals. We need one another, obviously. And in the modern world, the degree of need and interconnection is beyond complex, far beyond ancient ideas of kin and village, with steeper hierarchies today than in any past worlds, arranged for us, not by us, prefabbed for us in ways both artificial and arbitrary — Potemkin-like — it’s a wonder this isn’t foremost in our thoughts at all times, as we make our way through life.
It is true that we brought some of this dependency on ourselves, as we spun out in all directions, expanded our sense of what was important to us, our sense of what we need each day, which meant a removal from the first ground of our being, a removal from the earth and any chance we may have had to truly be self-reliant to a point. Even back then, even at the dawn of things, it wasn’t possible, except for those rare few. We listened too much to Sirens. We listened too much to ghosts in three piece suits.
We gave in. We gave up. Division of labor, division of expertise, division of the spoils, the allocation of resources decided by the few for the many. Those Sirens and those ghosts. We’re close now to peak dependence, at the same time our personal agency, our personal control over our own destinies, may well be at an all time low. May well be peak inverse.
Year by year, generation after generation, we’ve been led down a pathway toward an existential crisis, a series of these crises, an acceleration of that series, for a host of reasons and rationales. But if we need to boil all of that down to just one, to just one reason why, to just one answer voice cause meaning provocation, it’s money. It’s “I think therefore I buy.” For much of humanity, possibly most, almost all, our management of our consumer choices, our thinking through what, when and where we buy things . . . inanimate objects . . . stuff . . . makes us who we think we are, and this, in our mind’s eye, makes us believe we’re self-reliant. Because we can. Because we can buy stuff.
Not make it, grow it, maintain it, fix it, replenish it. Buy it. But in the Age of Pandemics, we’re quickly learning we can’t necessarily do or count on that any longer, and it’s time to ask ourselves why and how and beyond just that. It’s time to question the system we inherited and its effects, the one that spun us out this far from our home in the first place.