Monthly Archives: February 2007

On behalf of schlumps everywhere

My visits to the cineplex were few and far between last year, so aside from Pan’s Labyrinth I didn’t really have a rooting interest in any of the big-time Academy Award nominees. Nevertheless, I watched just about every minute of the Oscar broadcast, which has become very bearable now that the producers have dispensed with those awful Debbie Allen musical numbers that were absolute death on legs.

The most attractive thing about last night’s broadcast was the tribute to screenwriters, and the frequent mentions given to William Monahan, the screenwriter for The Departed, the big winner of the night. Martin Scorsese, the director, even managed to get in a plug for Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong movie Monahan adapted for The Departed. The man’s got class. So Monahan goes down in history as, I think, the only Pushcart Prize winner to take home a golden guy as well.

You don’t think this is a big deal? I remember the night when Forrest Gump won a basketful of Oscars. You’d have thought that during six trips to the stage, somebody might have mentioned that none of it would have been possible unless a guy named Winston Groom had spent a chunk of his life writing a novel that Robert Zemeckis then took a shine to as a movie property. Nope. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

So I liked the collection of film clips showing inkstained wretches at work, even if none of the actors looked remotely like full-time writers, and I liked the fact that William Monahan looked exactly like a full-time writer: doughy, schlumpy and afflicted with inadvisable ideas about personal grooming.

Because that’s where it starts. Any film is an inverted pyramid in which the broad base of strutting peacocks rests on the shoulders of one person, or at most a couple of people, hunched over a keyboard. That’s a lot of weight to bear for people who don’t always have the same muscle tone as the actors, but bear it they do. All hail the schlumps!

The passing poet

That rumble you just heard was the centenary of the birth of poet W.H. Auden as it passed through the few remaining publications that take note of such things. Looking through the tributes being paid to Auden, I realize once again that I need more poetry in my life and that my duty as a reader is to get up to speed on the poets I’ve missed. W.H. Auden, for example. Of all the articles I’ve read, this piece by James Fenton in the Guardian is far and away the best, so far.

An eyeful for an earful

Check out David McKean’s remarkable artwork for John Cale’s upcoming live album. And to think Neil Gaiman made it all possible.

Here there be dragons

Here in Villa Villekula there have been a few disagreements of late as to what movies make appropriate viewing for Dances With Mermaids, whose ninth birthday is on the horizon.

She’s seen The Lord of the Rings a few times now, as well as all three Jurassic Park movies. She even watched Jaws with me after demanding to see it pretty much every day during the past summer. So we’re talking about a girl with a bit of grit, when it comes to stories.

This past weekend we watched a 1981 movie called Dragonslayer, which caught the interest of Dances With Mermaids after I idly mentioned that it had the single best movie dragon I’ve ever seen. I pre-screened it a little while ago and I was glad to renew the acquaintance: it’s one of the great lost movies of the 1980s, loaded with Dark Ages atmosphere and surprising twists on one of the hoariest fantasy scenarios in literature or film. The biggest of these is the idea that a kingdom, having come up with a sacrificial lottery system that keeps the local dragon under control, would be hostile to the idea of a sorceror coming to stir things up. The other is that the chief bad guy, Tyrian (the excellent John Hallam), while clearly a badass, is also a pragmatist with an undeniable code of honor — he’s seen what happens when people mess with the dragon, and he doesn’t want it to happen again. And the dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative, remains the best firebreather in film, a stop-motion creation that can still outflame the computer-generated beasties that rule Hollywood. (One of the biggest reasons I’d like to see Peter Jackson make The Hobbit is that I want to see his Weta effects shop make Smaug into something that could give Vermithrax a run for his lighter fluid.)

The story also has a scene in which a sacrificial victim becomes a very gory meal for a bunch of baby dragons. When that scene came along, I found the Woman Warrior giving me the old slit eyes. “I can’t believe you think this is appropriate for her to see,” she snarled, using the exact same voice my old elementary school principal used when she found me reading a copy of Mad. “Well, gee, she’s seen Jaws and Jurassic Park,” I replied, not making much headway. So what is appropriate for a hugely imaginative girl with an insatiable appetite for fantasy?

Right in the middle of this stewing comes a very good Slate.com piece about Katherine Paterson’s celebrated novel Bridge to Terabithia, and the current film version. I’ve never read the book, but for those who grew up with it, part of the book’s quality is the unflinchingly honest way it deals with death:   

When people tell Katherine Paterson that they’ve given the book to a child whose friend has died, she worries it’s too late, because the book works better as “emotional practice.” But it’s easy to understand the impulse, because one piece or another of Jess’ grief will resonate. The book’s death focus goes too far for some people. Terabithia is ninth on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books. In an essay for the New York Times Book Review, she defends it by arguing that children need not only the happily-ever-after of fairy tales, but also “proper endings” in which “hope is a yearning, rooted in reality.”

That line about “emotional practice” strikes a chord for me. When she was much younger, Dances With Mermaids developed a fixation on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She would dress up in her fantasy dresses and mimic Snow White’s panic-stricken flight through the forest, ending with her fainting in the middle of a tangle of branches. It’s very weird to see your little girl imitating a woman in the grip of terror, and doing so repeatedly. But she was practicing the strong emotions she encountered in stories. We made sure that along with the fear, there were other emotions and feelings in the stories she experienced, and they all became part of the hidden and largely forgotten materials we use when, as child, we are unknowingly building the foundations of our character.

Dances With Mermaids can take dragons, sharks and dinosaurs in stride, but while watching the most recent film version of The Secret Garden there was a scene that upset her so much, I had to promise to throw away the videocasette. No surprises about the scene: it was a dream sequence in which a baby cries impotently for succor as her mother draws farther and farther away. It hit her where she lived, and I suspect she’ll brood on it every once in a while.

Am I sorry I let her watch Dragonslayer? No. If she’s going to feast on fantasy, I want her to have the very best, if only to balance out the schlocky computer-animated Barbie moviers that also command her attention. Joan Didion got it half right when she said we tell ourselves stories in order to live; we also tell ourselves stories to prepare for what life will bring us. Stories where the damsel in distress doesn’t get rescued also tell us useful things about life, and deliver the information in a manageable form.

What the little girl was teaching herself, during those play sessions when she pretended to be Snow White, was how to be brave. Courage is a skill, after all, and it has to be nurtured in all kinds of ways. Stories are one of them. Lucky for us, there’s no shortage of great ones.   

   

Passages: Molly Ivins

As if to remind us of how much we lost when Molly Ivins died, Salon.com has brought back a regular column by Camille Paglia, whose posturing as the Auntie Mame of Academe has been deeply, deeply tired since about, oh, five minutes after the publication of Sexual Personae, the tome that remains her only claim to intellectual seriousness.

I suppose I should be electrified by what Paglia has to say about blogs, but honestly, why bother keeping track of her thoughts as she shotgun-sprays them all over the Internet? In one interview for Salon (her steadiest customer) she started with her usual beefs about the neglect of classical authors and history, then whined that she didn’t like blogs because instead of striking out to conquer new visual terrain, they offered “all this print.” That’s what many of us like about blogs, Camille — they stand apart from the lemming rush to graphics, pictures and pared-down stories that makes the mass-market media so freakin’ tedious.

Now she’s reversed herself and is intrigued by the viral possibilities of YouTube. She lurves that word “viral” — it’s so trendy, like chaos theory was in the 1980s. I dig concert clips as much as anybody, and if YouTube gives us all a chance to watch a Republican presidential contender self-immolate, that’s a bonus. But the dowdy old written word and the tired old printed book is still the most effective and flexible way to convey information and argument.     

Apropos of which, here in its entirety is what Molly Ivins wrote about Paglia for Mother Jones back in 1991:

“So write about Camille Paglia,” suggested the editor. Like any normal person, I replied, “And who the hell might she be?”

Big cheese in New York intellectual circles. The latest rage. Hot stuff. Controversial.

But I’m not good on New York intellectual controversies, I explained. Could never bring myself to give a rat’s ass about Jerzy Kosinski. Never read Andy Warhol’s diaries. Can never remember the name of the editor of this New Whatsit, the neo-con critical rag. I’m a no-hoper on this stuff, practically a professional provincial.

Read Paglia, says he, you’ll have an opinion. So I did; and I do.

Christ! Get this woman a Valium!

Hand her a gin. Try meditation. Camille, honey, calm down!

The noise is about her oeuvre, as we always say in Lubbock: Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. In very brief, for those of you who have been playing hooky from the New York Review of Books, Ms. Paglia’s contention is that “the history of western civilization has been a constant struggle between . . . two impulses, an unending tennis match between cold, Apollonian categorization and Dionysian lust and chaos.”

Jeez, me too. I always thought the world was divided into only two kinds of people — those who think the world is divided into only two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

You think perhaps this is a cheap shot, that I have searched her work and caught Ms. Paglia in a rare moment of sweeping generalization, easy to make fun of? Au contraire, as we always say in
Amarillo; the sweeping generalization is her signature. In fact, her work consists of damn little else. She is the queen of the categorical statement.

Never one to dodge a simple dichotomy when she can set one up, Ms. Paglia holds that the entire error of western civilization stems from denying that nature is a kind of nasty, funky, violent, wet dream, and that Judeo-Christianity has been one long effort to ignore this. She pegs poor old Rousseau, that fathead, as the initiator of the silly notion that nature is benign and glorious and that only civilization corrupts.

Right away, I got a problem. Happens I have spent a lot of my life in the wilderness, and also a lot of my life in bars. When I want sex and violence, I go to a Texas honky-tonk. When I want peace and quiet, I head for the woods. Just as a minor historical correction to Ms. Paglia, Rousseau did not invent the concept of benign Nature. Among the first writers to hold that nature was a more salubrious environment for man than the corruptions of civilization were the Roman Stoics — rather a clear-eyed lot, I always thought.

Now why, you naturally ask, would anyone care about whether a reviewer has ever done any serious camping? Ah, but you do not yet know the Camille Paglia school of I-am-the-cosmos argument. Ms. Paglia believes that all her personal experiences are Seminal. Indeed, Definitive. She credits a large part of her supposed wisdom to having been born post-World War II and thus having been raised on television. Damn me, so was I.

In addition to the intrinsic cultural superiority Ms. Paglia attributes to herself from having grown up watching television (“It’s Howdy-Doody Time” obviously made us all smarter), she also considers her own taste in music to be of enormous significance. “From the moment the feminist movement was born, it descended into dogma,” she told an interviewer for New York magazine. “They stifled any kind of debate, any kind of dissent. Okay, it’s Yale, it’s New Haven in ’69, I am a rock fanatic, okay . . . So I was talking about taste to these female rock musicians, and I said the Rolling Stones were the greatest rock band, and that just set them off. They said, ‘The Rolling Stones are sexist, and it’s bad music because it’s sexist.’ I said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t make a judgments about art on the basis of whether it fits into some dogma.’ And now they’re yelling, screaming, saying that nothing that demeans women can be art.

“You see, right from the start it was impossible for me to be taken into the feminist movement, okay? The only art they will permit is art that gives a positive image of women. I said, ‘That’s like the Soviet
Union; that is the demagogic, propagandistic view of art.’ ”

Well, by George, as a First Amendment absolutist, you’ll find me willing to spring to the defense of Camille Paglia’s right to be a feminist Rolling Stones fan any hour, day or night. Come to think of it, who the hell was the Stalin who wouldn’t let her do that? I went back and researched the ’69 politburo, and all I could find was Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Gloria Steinem, none of whom ever seems to have come out against rock music.

I have myself quite cheerfully been both a country-music fan and a feminist for years — if Camille Paglia is the cosmos, so am I. When some fellow feminist doesn’t like my music (How could you not like “You are just another sticky wheel on the grocery cart of life”?), I have always felt free to say, in my politically correct feminist fashion, “Fuck off.”

In a conversation printed in Harper’s magazine, Paglia held forth on on of her favorite themes — Madonna, the pop singer: “The latest atavistic discoverer of the pagan heart of Catholicism is Madonna. This is what she’s up to. She doesn’t completely understand it herself. When she goes on Nightline and makes speeches about celebrating the body, as if she’s some sort of Woodstock hippie, she’s way off. She needs me to tell her.” I doubt that.

Bram Dijkstra, author of a much-praised book, Idols of Perversity, which is a sort of mirror image of Sexual Personae, said that Paglia  “literally drags the whole nineteenth-century ideological structure back into the late-eighteenth century, really completely unchanged. What’s so amazing is that she takes all that nineteenth-century stuff, Darwinism and social Darwinism, and she re-asserts it and reaffirms it in this incredibly dualistic fashion. In any situation, she establishes the lowest common denominator of a point. She says, `This is the feminist point of view,’ and overturns it by standing it on its head. She doesn’t go outside what she critiques; she simply puts out the opposite of it.”

“For example,” Dijkstra continues, “she claims, `Feminism blames rape on pornography,’ which is truly the reductio ad absurdum of the feminist point of view. Of course, there are very many feminist points of view, but then she blows away this extremely simplified opposite, and we are supposed to consider this erudition. She writes aphorisms and then throws them out, one after the other, so rapid-fire the reader is exhausted.”

Tracing Paglia’s intellectual ancestry is a telling exercise; she’s the lineal descendant of Ayn Rand, who in turn was a student of William Graham Sumner, one of the early American sociologists and an enormously successful popularizer of social Darwinism. Sumner was in turn a disciple of Herbert Spencer, that splendid nineteenth-century kook. Because Paglia reasserts ideas so ingrained in our thinking, she has become popular by reaffirming common prejudices.

Paglia’s obsession with de Sade is beyond my competence, although the glorification of sadomasochism can easily be read as a rationalization of bondage into imagined power, a characteristic process of masochistic transfer. Dijkstra suggests that the Sadean notion of the executioner’s assistant is critical to her thinking, though one wonders if there is not also some identification with de Sade the Catholic aristocrat.

Paglia’s view of sex — that it is irrational, violent, immoral, and wounding — is so glum that one hesitates to suggest that it might be instead, well, a lot of fun, and maybe even affectionate and loving. Far less forgivable is Paglia’s consistent confusion of feminism with yuppies. What does she think she’s doing? Paglia holds feminists responsible for the bizarre blight created by John T. Molloy, author of Dress for Success, which caused a blessedly brief crop of young women, all apparently aspiring to be executive vice-presidents, to appear in the corporate halls wearing those awful sand-colored baggy suits with little floppy bow ties around their necks.

Why Paglia lays the blame for this at the feet of feminism is beyond me. Whatever our other aims may have been, no one in the feminist movement ever thought you are what you wear. The only coherent fashion statement I can recall from the entire movement was the suggestion that Mrs. Cleaver, Beaver’s mom, would on the whole have been a happier woman had she not persisted in vacuuming while wearing high heels. This, I still believe.

In an even more hilarious leap, Paglia contends that feminism is responsible for the aerobics craze and concern over thin thighs. Speaking as a beer-drinking feminist whose idea of watching her diet is to choose either the baked potato with sour cream or with butter, but not with both, I find this loony beyond all hope — and I am the cosmos, too.

What we have here, fellow citizens, is a crassly egocentric, raving twit. The Norman Podhoretz of our gender. That this woman is actually taken seriously as a thinker in New York intellectual circles is a clear sign of decadence, decay, and hopeless pinheadedness. Has no one in the nation’s intellectual capital the background and ability to see through a web of categorical assertions? One fashionable line of response to Paglia is to claim that even though she may be fundamentally off-base, she has “flashes of brilliance.” If so, I missed them in her oceans of swill.

One of her latest efforts at playing enfant terrible in intellectual circles was a peppy essay for Newsday, claiming that either there is no such thing as date rape or, if there is, it’s women’s fault because we dress so provocatively. Thanks, Camille, I’ve got some Texas fraternity boys I want you to meet.

There is one area in which I think Paglia and I would agree that politically correct feminism has produced a noticeable inequity. Nowadays, when a woman behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, “Poor dear, it’s probably PMS.” Whereas, if a man behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, “What an asshole.”

Let me leap to correct this unfairness by saying of Paglia, Sheesh, what an asshole.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

With everything that’s still happening (and not happening) in New Orleans, the idea of whooping it up for Mardis Gras seemed a little too weird — even indecent. I’ll let Billie Holiday do the talking.

The farthest Shore

I remember exactly where I was when I realized that Howard Shore had become one of the all-time great film composers. It was a mile or so beneath the Misty Mountains, the Fellowship of the Ring was entering Dwarrowdelf, and as Gandalf decided to risk a little more light I found myself admiring not just the ranks of immense pillars fading into the shadows but the wonderfully non-cliched music on the soundtrack. Instead of another standard-issue eardrum thumping fanfare, the orchestra filled the hall with hints of lost grandeur and hidden strength undercut by sadness and regret. Just the kind of music you’d expect to hear for a fleeting glimpse of an awesome accomplishment that had been taken from its makers and despoiled.

 

 

That scene was a double-decker realization for me. Though I’d been intrigued by the half-hour preview reel for The Lord of the Rings that screened at the Cannes film festival, I went to The Fellowship of the Ring with carefully diminished expectations. I had seen Ralph Bakshi’s calamitously bad animated film, as well as the ramshackle Rankin-Bass production that was its unofficial sequel. Hollywood has a bad record when it comes to adapting big, complicated books.

 

 

So I went not expecting much, and when I fell hard, Howard Shore’s huge, emotionally expansive score was a big part of the reason why. I bought all three soundtrack discs as they came out, and when the “Complete Recordings” series got rolling two years ago, I snapped up the multi-disc soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring and waited impatiently for The Two Towers to get the same big box treatment. I’ve been playing it fairly obsessively through Christmas and well into the hard winter doldrums. I’ve held off on writing about it all this time because, first of all, it’s an immense amount of music to absorb, and second, I had a reaction to it I didn’t expect.

 

 

Shore has been a busy composer for over two decades, but for a long time it seemed to me that David Cronenberg was the only filmmaker who could consistently get great work out of him. When Shore worked with other directors, the results were hit or miss: for every dark beauty like Cop Land, you’d get three pieces of hackwork like The Silence of the Lambs. His stuff for Cronenberg, on the other hand, was often brilliant. The early horror movie scores like The Brood and Scanners were nothing special, but The Fly had a dreamy intensity I liked very much. The Fly was Shore’s first work for a big orchestra, and it seems to have marked a turning point in his artistic development.

 

 

The score for Dead Ringers was the first time I noticed what Shore calls his “breathing method” of composition, which follows the natural rhythms of respiration. The title theme, with its sense of tidal sadness, was remarkable, but Shore achieved an early career peak with the scoring for the bondage sequence, which follows the scene’s movement from outrageousness to poignancy and, finally, deep tenderness. I would bet Dead Ringers was the soundtrack that attracted Peter Jackson’s interest; it’s certainly the one that got me buying any Shore soundtrack CD for any Cronenberg film, sight unseen. Just as Alfred Hitchcock came to rely on Bernard Herrmann to give his coldly plotted thrillers an emotional undertow – it’s impossible to imagine North By Northwest, Psycho and especially Vertigo working even half as well without Herrmann’s scores — so has David Cronenberg elevated Howard Shore to the status of co-auteur. Not only can Shore match Cronenberg in his weirdness, he can exceed Cronenberg in his sense of tragedy.

 

 

Crash, done for Cronenberg’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, is really impressive: scored for an ensemble of electric guitars, with touches of electronically treated harp and woodwinds. Very spiky and menacing music – completely appropriate for the material, needless to say. Equally good is Naked Lunch, in which Shore brought in jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman to improvise against a string orchestra. The sound reminds me of Skies of America, Coleman’s magnificent orchestral piece. Shore used some interesting tricks to get the sound he wanted. For example, in the studio he had Coleman improvise against the drumming of his son, Denardo Coleman, but the studio was miked so that the orchestra could hear only the saxophone, not the drums. Shore also spent a lot of time studying the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and incorporated their wild, blaring sound into the score. How this all came together is something only Shore will ever know, but the result is a gripping suite of music that stands tall in Ornette Coleman’s catalogue as well as Shore’s.

 

 

Even so, none of this led me expect much beyond the usual bombastic stylings that have come to dominate fantasy scores in the post-Star Wars era. So imagine my amazement when it turned out that for The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore had written the score for an opera – and a damned thrilling one at that. Its welter of musical motifs and themes helps the viewer stay oriented within the teeming canvas of characters, plotlines and battling races, and aid considerably in helping director Peter Jackson and his collaborators weave a skein of emotion through what could have been a mind-numbing pageant of special effects set pieces.

 

Though The Lord of the Rings is a unified story, each of its installments has a unique character, and I find I like The Two Towers best. There is a sense that irrevocable choices will have to be made and then lived with, as well as a feeling of deep regret for what will be lost in the coming war, all of it tremendously impressive. And as much as I loved the Celtic-flavored Shire music in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers is where Shore breaks out his full arsenal of unfamiliar and exotic instruments and textures. For the endlessly squirrelly Gollum, jittery notes on the cimbalom, an instrument best known (if at all) from Debussy’s “La Plus Que Lente.” For the fading glories of Rohan, the mournful sound of a hardanger fiddle. I am still dazzled by the music cue for the arrival of the lumbering mumakil: heavy bass strings beneath a keening, bowed sitar called the dilruba. And, last but not least, the boy soprano singing the lead during the last march of the Ents.

 

“Evenstar,” the song for Arwen, is simply the loveliest piece of music Shore has yet written, and lyric soprano Isabel Bayrakadarian (singing with some electronic treatment) lifts it into the stratosphere. Almost as good is “Gollum’s Song,” which I wrote off as Gothic tosh the first time I heard it but has since won me over through the simple, unshowy authority of Emiliana Torrini’s singing. Though The Two Towers boasts even more digital wonders than its predecessor, two of the film’s most powerful sequences owe little or nothing to computer effects, just the old school techniques of fine acting and inspired direction. Elrond’s last-ditch attempt to argue Arwen out of staying with Aragorn becomes a heartbreaking meditation on mourning and loss, with images of Arwen’s desolate future gaining impact from a reprise of “Evenstar,” this time crushed by the weight of Elrond’s words. And Bernard Hill’s recitation of “Where is the horse, where is the rider,” one of the few instances in which Tolkien’s verse approached the power of his Nordic sources, becomes transcendent when posed against a wordless choir and images of the boys and men of Rohan preparing to face a battle in which they are dreadfully overmatched.

 

 

The three-disc edition of the complete Fellowship soundtrack won me over immediately: the original one-disc edition had preserved the crucial set pieces pretty much intact, so the omitted music revealed in the expanded edition simply made a good thing better. But the expanded Two Towers box is a much different listening experience. A great deal of editing went into the single-disc Two Towers soundtrack: “The Forbidden Pool” track, for instance, takes passages scattered across roughly a half hour of screen time and welds them into a unified whole. Most of them are now in “The Forests of Ithilien,” separated (as in the film) by long stretches of pensive underscoring. It took a great deal of getting used to – at first the underscoring came across as filler to my ears. I emphasize that the problem was mine, not Shore’s, but for a while I wondered if I’d made an expensive mistake in getting the “Complete Recordings” edition of The Two Towers. I hadn’t, and if you’re having the same qualms I did, take my advice and wait for Shore’s artistry to do its work. It won’t be that long a wait.

 

 

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a few small bones to pick with this production. As I’ve noted, The Two Towers is unique in the series for the number of sequences that rely simply on long spoken passages to put across their power. I was hoping some of these recitations would make it onto this set. After all, the Fellowship box gave us two Ians mumbling “The Road Goes Ever On,” but the Two Towers set won’t even give us one Bernard speaking “Where is the horse.” Mirando Otto singing the funeral song for Eowyn’s slain brother is no compensation. I will, however, acknowledge the wisdom of keeping Treebeard’s poetry recitation out of this box. In the film, set against images of misty forests and crags, John Rhys-Davies’s vocal performance as the head Ent achieves eccentric grandeur, but I doubt an audio-only version would work as well.

 

The sheer mass of music in the complete Two Towers set sounds ready to burst from its box – God knows how they’ll get the complete Return of the King score into this same format. I will, however, be waiting with my credit card to find out.

 

It’s a cliché that great works of literature keep revealing new secrets every time you return to them. Howard Shore’s “Complete Recordings” series for The Lord of the Rings brings the same experience to the realm of movie soundtracks. It’s been four years since the last Lord of the Rings movie came out, but it feels like I’m still getting acquainted. Now that is a trip worth taking, many more times.

The contenders

I still think Pablo Neruda is the poet laureate of physical love, but Robert Pinsky (who ought to know about these things — poetry, I mean, but he probably knows a thing or two about sex and love as well) has come up with a list of pretty strong contenders for Valentines Day.   

Passages: Pablo Neruda

Here is your early Valentines Day poem, courtesy of Pablo Neruda and his book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair:

In my sky at twilight you are like a cloud

and your form and color are the way I love them.

You are mine, mine, woman with sweet lips

and in your life my infinite dreams live.

The lamp of my soul dyes your feet,

my sour wine is sweeter on your lips,

oh reaper of my evening song,

how solitary dreams believe you to be mine!

You are mine, mine, I go shouting it to the afternoon’s

wind, and the wind hauls on my widowed voice.

Huntress of the depths of my eyes, your plunder

stills your nocturnal regard as through it were water.

You are taken in the net of my music, my love,

and my nets of music are wide as the sky.

My soul is born on the shore of your eyes of mourning.

In your eyes of mourning the land of dreams begins.

We should just rename Valentines Day as Neruda Day and be done with it. Nobody writes love poetry like the Chilean maestro. He is the bard of what comes after the first night together, when the doors are all being opened and the wonders of the two of you are ready to be explored. It’s the kind of love that can burn out quickly or, if you are lucky, reduce to a long simmer that lasts for years, flaring up at unexpected and delightful times.

This is from a poem in The Captain’s Verses:

Lovely one,

with a nest of copper entangled

on your head, a nest

the color of dark honey

where my heart burns and rests,

lovely one.

Lovely one,

your eyes are too big for your face,

your eyes are too big for the earth.

There are countries, there are rivers,

in your eyes,

my country is in your eyes,

I walk through them,

they light the world

through which I walk,

lovely one.

There are writers whose works can make you feel smarter, sexier, funnier, stronger, better, more loveable and more worthy of love. Neruda is one of them. You should have at least one of his books and know at least some of his poems by heart. If you don’t, these two books are great places to begin.