Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I, Ed, witness now poorly standing, do herewith and hear-abouts, by means of quick peeks at certain under-praised (if not outright overlooked) peaks of Pop Culture, impartially recommend the following items for your pleasure and attentive consumption:

1) Child Ballads (Wilderland Records CD WILDER 002) presents vocalists Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer reviving, entwining, and breathing new harmonic life into seven of those expansive, even epic, medieval-and-after British Isles tales of passion, savagery, and magic--musically mesmerizing story-songs most frequently set in the Border Country between Scotland and England, over 300 of them as compiled in the 19th century by Francis Child, but the diverse texts only, with folk singers before and since supplying suitable tunes both ancient and modern to match the words, and the combined ballad songs then transmitted/sung/"handed" down orally rather than read on the printed page. To the distinguished mid-20th century lineage of recordings by Anne Briggs, Ewan MacCall and A.L. Lloyd, Joan Baez, and then Fairport Convention, Nic Jones, Maddy Prior and June Tabor, we must now add Mitchell and Hamer, whose
heartfelt readings and gorgeous harmonies will make your trumpet sound and your welkin ring.

2) Muscle Shoals (Magnolia Home Entertainment DVD 10634): From Child ballads to Deep Soul ballads is more quiet hop than giant leap--love requited or un-, passion spent or new, living easy or hard and sometimes tragic, and usually bearing some of that old Black magic... well, I've written often about the simple unsegregated synchronicity of music made in Memphis and Muscle Shoals and captured in the grooves of recordings cut in those two locales during the Sixties and Seventies, when Black singers and White session cats and horn players of all stripes and colors worked (played!) happily together, creating hits for Stax and Hi and Fame and the bigger labels that hired their soulful skills.

Think Booker T and the MGs, Aretha loving a man her way and gaining Respect, Percy Sledge both loving and respecting his woman, Wilson Pickett beating the Beatles' Jude by grace of guitarslinger Duane Allman, the great long separate careers of (husband) Clarence Carter and (wife) Candi Staton... all but the first in that role call came courtesy of the tiny, funky Muscle Shoals recording studio
simply named Fame. Watch this artfully photographed, intelligent yet emotional documentary film to see and hear from all the folks mentioned and then some--Bono, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, Dan Penn and Spencer Oldham both, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevies Wonder and Winwood, the famously mostly-anonymous Shoals session men themselves, Fame studio head Rick Hall, and marvelously more.

3) and 4) All the attention accorded the dark, cold, often snowbound mystery-thrillers written by folks with last names like Mankell, Nesbo, Indridason, Larsson, Sigurdsdottir and, for all I know, Yggdrasilsden--these and others lazily lumped together as "Scandinavian Noir"--has stolen the thunder due a duo of police-detective series set in the sunnier climes of the boot-shaped peninsula farther south. If you're weary of grey skies, bleak lives, and serial killers, I commend to you Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri, two masters of... let's call it... "Nero Italiano,"
meaning cop-shop mysteries marked by awakened taste buds, passionately expressive personae, political corruption Mediterranean-style, and writing that mixes subtle plotting and deceptively sweet passages, but also resigned irony and bitter sarcasm--a blend that seems just right for Italy in the Berlusconi Era.

Leon's lead is the decent and clever Commissario Guido Brunetti, who loves deeply, but casts a cold eye on, the blind alleys, clogged canals, touristed squares, and nightmare bureaucracies of slowly sinking Venice; his feisty academic wife, teenage children, and trusted equal-if-underlings at headquarters all contribute to the often heartbreaking "solutions" that end each novel. (The latest, By Its Cover, involves stolen maps, scarce manuscripts, and soulless murder. Book 'em, Donna!) Meanwhile, ex-newspaperman Camilleri keeps his Inspector Montalbano busy on the Africa-facing seacoast of Sicily, in a fictional town called Vigata--a sun-drenched sleepy region
that still manages to produce sufficient Mafiosi, official greed, illegal immigrants, varied smuggling, and careless murder to whet the imagination and appetite of perennially hungry Montalbano. A handsome, courteous and crafty, occasionally sardonic man, the inspector is yet hapless around women, who regularly make him sweat and escape for a brisk walk or a long ocean swim.

Montalbano is also played to cool yet vigorous perfection by Italian actor Luca Zingaretti in a terrific series of feature-length films (2 or 3 episodes per MHZ/Rai Trade DVD; 28 wry tales so far), with scenic Sicily, eye-popping food, governmental chicanery, shapely misses, and lively characters to be found in each and every novel and film. (Leon's Brunetti is less well-served by a recent television series shot in Venice but made for German TV--an awkward misfit collision of
languages, kunst und kultur!)

5) File this final recommendation under "Guilty Pleasures." I've become a great fan--via Netflix instant downloads--of the on-going Canadian TV series Heartland, which for eight successful seasons now has combined, oh, say, My Friend Flicka, Little House on the Prairie, and a not-so-nasty Dallas, and gorgeous footage of ranches and Rockies (it's set and shot on location in Alberta). Faithful watchers have witnessed on-going changes in the lives of a handful of main characters--a cute-as-a-button high school girl sensitive to horses and their ailments (Amy), her business-trained older sister Lou, Jack the aging cowboy/gruff grampa who owns the Heartland ranch-turned-horse haven, plus Ty the all-around stable lad who's also Amy's beau, and precocious motormouth Mallory, a young teen who practically lives with them and has become the wiseacre Greek chorus able to see through all obfuscations. A half-dozen other friends and near-lovers provide regular support
for plots that can involve horse healing, bronc busting, or basic stable mucking; a downed small plane, a threatened wild horse herd, or a mountain lion on the prowl; calf roping, barrel racing, and other rodeo craziness; broken-down farms, blizzard conditions, and wedding plans gone awry; rich horse breeders, crooked oil frackers, or troubled runaway kids; teen angst, middle-age muddle, or First Nations wisdom. (You can also just immerse yourself in all that beautiful horseflesh and scenic splendor.) C'mon, newbie... cowboy up!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Hall of New Hampshire

Twenty-six years ago now--in late Spring of 1988--Sandie and I were settling in. We’d been back in the States for several months, had gotten married spectacularly in February, and by late April she’d landed a job in the world of Antiques, while I was still searching hard for both a teaching position and a sympathetic editor or two who might give my poems a hearing and a place in their magazines.

I’ve been revisiting those days gone by because, a few weeks ago, I found and bought a signed copy of The Old Life, one of the many wonderful books of poetry (and not forgetting his prose works) by venerable and venerated, yet still under-rated and too-little-known, author-for-all-seasons Donald Hall.

Man-about-pond (Eagle Pond, on the farm of that same name), poet of New Hampshire and the world, Hall in a long and distinguished career has written honored children’s books and baseball books (Fathers Playing Catch with Sons); guides to writing and reading; collections of his own varied poems (lyric and witty, dark and elegiac, stoically autobiographical); reminiscences of farming, his “live free” forebears, and famous elder poets he knew early on (Their Ancient Glittering Eyes); always-pithy essays by the hundreds, eagerly-awaited letters by the thousands and, for all I know, cookbooks, travel guides, biographies, and helpful hints on the path to spiritual enlightenment.

No, you can strike out that last one; Hall’s too cranky and earthy and wise-with-age to pretend he has answers. Though a believer and regular rural-church attendee, he has his doubts and sees the ironies and lies awake at night wondering why he lives on while his much younger wife, poet Jane Kenyon, and other sorely needed men and women are killed off hourly.

Back in ’88, Hall was New Hampshire’s poet laureate. (Two decades later he became the 14th poet laureate for the entire U.S.) Because I admired his plain-spoken, free-flowing poems, I wrote him a fan letter, which led to a brief flurry of messages back and forth. But starting before and then continuing much beyond our exchange, Hall’s life became an epic-length study in pathos and odd circumstance... Lately divorced, he took up with and then married a graduate student named Jane Kenyon who was herself a poet already short-listed to become great. The couple moved from the University of Michigan to Eagle Pond Farm, near Wilmot, the Hall family’s ancestral farm that Donald remembered vividly from his childhood. Then Hall was diagnosed with some sort of incurable cancer, and Ms. Kenyon vowed to see him through the long slide... except that a bizarre thing happened: Hall lived on and on, and Jane became the patient instead, her own deadly leukemia diagnosed too late.

During those dreadful months the two poets wrote brief lyrics and longer works both that were harrowing and sorrowful, love-stricken and life-affirming, death-resisting and then, exhausted, broodingly accepting--poem collections that were widely acknowledged and honored: Hall’s The Happy Man, The One Day, The Museum of Clear Ideas, The Old Life, and following Jane’s death, the coruscating Without; Kenyon’s books were Let Evening Come, Constance, and the posthumous collection Otherwise. (She also enjoyed a few years as another poet laureate for New Hampshire.)

Kenyon died in 1995. In idle ignorance I had assumed Hall to be dead too, but the Internet insists that he's still up there in New Hampshire, alive and ticking if not exactly kicking. He reportedly had eased into withdrawal mode, gradually turning reclusive, restricting himself more and more to Eagle Pond Farm. He’d watch the seasons come and go and write about whatever was on his mind, from brindle cows to the language of poetry, from the snakebitten Red Sox to the foibles of multi-celled creatures. He kept publishing--mostly prose; he said the urge for poems had moved elsewhere--and he lived on...

And he is still there today, two decades past Kenyon's death, observing, scribbling notes, eighty-five years young. Speaking little. Writing. Cared for in 2014 by some other woman, but always remembering Jane.

In honor of his stoic and astonishing quarter-century, I am reproducing the most expansive letter from our brief correspondence--thoughtful, newsy, chiding me gently. So here’s to Donald Hall, splendid writer, remarkable man, stubborn old cuss; loving husband and living poet:

(I began this post a year ago while having reproduction problems with BlogSpot host--never did figure out how to fix the visuals, or present the letter correctly. But anyone who actually wants to read Hall's words--and why wouldn't you?--can expand the letter image area to 300% and make out fairly well. My apologies for computer ignorance.)