Monday, February 11, 2008

Literary Tourism, Book-hunting, and the Blurring Borders of "Fiction."

After years without the access, while I'm in New England my trips to certain literary/ historical sites have become much like ritual pilgrimages to shrines.

As I am primarily a Hawthorne/ 19th century New England Lit. scholar, Salem and Concord Massachusetts are among my most frequent and revered Meccas. I was down in Concord last week, visited some familiar sites, and I took some pictures.

Hawthorne's famous "Old Manse," where the "Mosses" were from.

Nathaniel's grave on "Author's Ridge."

The commemorative stones for Nathaniel's wife Sophia and daughter Una, placed on this spot in a ceremony that took place since my last visit to Concord, next to the author's own stone within the Hawthorne family plot. These were actually among the things that I was most interested in seeing on this particular trip.

The stone at the center of the Alcott family plot at "Author's Ridge." I love the stonework on this one.

I'm considering buying a video-camera, filming these nerdy excursions, and becoming the next Fritz Wethersbee. Think I can pull it off? (For those outside New England unfamiliar with Fritz, check this out.)

A large part of these trips usually entails searching for long out-of-print books that I need to find for research purposes. On this particular trip, I once again didn't find the one that I was most specifically looking for. If anyone happens to know where I might be able to find a copy of Julian Hawthorne's biography of his father in two volumes, "Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife," please let me know. Yes, I'm well aware that there's a copy at the Fletcher Library at ASU West. And yes, it does even happen to have a book-plate inside the cover from a New Hampshire parochial school that later became the high-school that I graduated from. Unfortunately, that's not terribly helpful to me right now, which is a bit of a sore subject.

I DID find something else interesting while searching this time around, though... I stumbled on an early Italian copy of Hawthorne's "Transformations," which was later released in America, in a "slightly" different form as "The Marble Faun." What I wasn't aware of, however, as I had never actually seen a copy of the earlier European form of the work, was that he "slight" differences between "Transformations" and "The Marble Faun" somehow made the earlier version of the work about a quarter of the length of the final American version. I can't wait to dig into the older work in more detail and figure out where the differences lie. Differences in the prefaces of the two works in particular could potentially add pertinent depth to some of my present research, and thus I consider the dusty old book a rather essential and exciting find.

When I started flipping through the book, I found some other suprises that made me smile.

There is a pencilled inscription in the front cover of the book, with a girl's name, a rather antique date, and a town in Italy. My mind naturally imediately began running with stories of the situations that led to these flowers becoming pressed within the pages of this book, and the symbolic and poetic significance of the words that surround the dried Italian flowers and thoughts of the girl who had placed them there, with presumably little thought of how alligned she was with which characters of the tale that she happened to be reading.

Even if it's not completely true, even if the flowers were placed in the book a mere year ago by an elderly American woman before her collection was sold with her estate to the book-seller, I don't want to know. These thoughts of the little Italian girl drying flowers a hundred-something years ago in her early-pressing of my favorite book definitely made my day.

In other news of the blurring of the lines between "fiction" and "non-," I stumbled on an intriguing set of quotes in the "Author's Preface" to Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw."

"I wondered, I confess, why so fine a germ, gleaming there in the wayside dust of life, had never been deftly picked up. The thing had for me the immense merit of allowing the imagination absolute freedom of hand, of inviting it to act on a perfectly clear field, with no 'outside' control involved, no pattern of the usual or the true or the terrible 'pleasant' (save always, of course, the high pleasentry of one's very form) to consort with."

"The charm of all these things for the distracted modern mind is in the clear field of experience, as I call it, over which we are thus led to roam; an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"Hun, this is just syntax and prowess;" A Literary Look at The Stiletto Formal's "This is My Boomstick."

After more of a delay than I had anticipated (it’s been a pretty strange week), I’ll try to attempt to pick up where I left off in my last entry.

The first time that I saw The Stiletto Formal, I was familiar with their name, the sort of audience they tended to attract, and several of the bands that they habitually played shows with, and based on these alone I was prepared to dislike them fervently. (See my description of the third sort of band discussed in my prior entry and you’ll know what I’m talking about. The whine-whine-scream, slanty-hair bit.) I went to the show at Modified Arts in Phoenix to see TheStart, an electro-rock act from L.A. that they happened to be playing with that I have been a fan of for quite a while. I thought the choice of billing was strange for one band or the other, which definitely peaked my curiosity a bit.

To be brief, what I saw from the Phoenix-based act proved to be far from what I had expected. The instrumentation was diverse, the performance energetic and dramatic in a way that had more in common with an opera than a hardcore show, and the songs were extremely well-written. This was a far cry from what we’re used to hearing 15-year olds who think themselves “fashionable” erroneously calling “screamo” post-Thursday and Blood Brothers. (When I hear the word “screamo” I still stubbornly think of band like Small Brown Bike, The Casket Lottery, Coalesce, etc… which are a far cry from Atreyu from the standpoint of sound…)

I’ll admit, the moment that completely sold me on the act came fairly late into the set… singer Kyle Howard announced that they were about to play a “new” song called “Tastes Like Black Licorice”… to which a white-belt-wearing high-schooler near the front yelled “Yaegermeister!” Mr. Howard looked down at him, with an expression somewhere between perplexion and contempt, and stammered in a ‘Like, duh’ tone into the microphone “Uh, no… absinthe.” I tucked my hands deeper into the pockets of my tweed coat, smirked, and nodded. There was definitely more to this band than a good portion of the trend-jumping facet of their crowd seemed able to process and appreciate. To me, that’s always a positive sign.

Shortly after this show, I picked up a copy of the band’s “This is My Boomstick” EP, which had been recently released around the time.

I would love to be able to take this EP and conduct a song-by-song in-depth analysis, viewing the musical context as creative utilization of objects in the act’s diverse poetic toolbox, but I fear that would prove far too long-winded for this medium; I can only cross my fingers that this band becomes as popular as they deserve to be so that I can someday pitch a longer form of this to some University Press or other as “pertinent” cultural analysis. Pipe-dreams from all angles, I know. But this is a possibility for music crit. that is able to be approached as lit. crit., which is far more rare than I wish that it was. This is what I live for. This record is Literature written without the confines of writing with mere words alone, and this hybridity, to my ear, suggests its staying-power, although as more of a museum-specimen of Art with a capital “A,” (destined most likely, as most of the sort, to be truly appreciated only long after its appearance) than as a commercially-viable object of current “music” alone as it is currently produced, bought, and sold.

In continuation of a past discussion of how a critic’s marginalia can be criticism, and thus Art, itself, I present here a sample-page of my scribbles on a print-out of the lyrics to the record.

Yes, once again, I am well aware that my hand-writing is atrocious.

So, visit the band’s website, pick up a copy of the EP (which, if you haven’t noticed yet, I highly recommend) and give it a few really close listens.

Pay attention to the way that the music is sculpted in such a way as to ebb and flow with the meaning and tone of the lyrics, how Kyle’s voice (which, I will be the first one to admit, takes most people a bit of time to warm up to) rises and falls in intensity and emotion with an operatic sense of melodrama and attention to detail that very few acts would even consider putting the effort into achieving (after getting to know the songs, you’ll find that every time he slips into the falsetto shrieks that will most probably seem jarring at first, it is completely appropriate and necessary to thoroughly express the purpose of the piece). Pay attention to how accurately the overall experience of the song “Tastes Like Black Licorice” captures the foggy lucidity of a good absinthe-buzz, and how the escalation and climax of the song’s plot, the turn from tender to sinister, affection to threat, situates the band as a torch-bearer of a poetic tradition that has been utilized in the past by artists with such names as Poe, Tolstoy, John Fowles, Nick Cave, and hundreds of others. Listen to “The Fall of Ambrose Bierce” with a mind to the work of Bierce himself, who, from what I can gather, the song is written from the perspective of, and replicates the ideas and verbal stylings of extremely well. (For those who aren't familiar with the idiosyncracies of Bierce's biography, and thus the civil war scenarios that lend the song its substance, check here.) Listen closely to “I Sing The Body Electric” and try to figure out what the Whitman connection is that the title implies. I have some pretty good guesses, but I’m not positive. If you have an interesting idea, I’d love to hear it, discuss, and try to piece it together further.

My guess has something to do with this-


I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop on company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any on, or rest my arm ever so lightly
Round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as a sea.

-Walt Whitman, "I Sing the Body Electric"