Two Poets of the Street

Originally published in Serpentine Magazine

by D. L. Pughe

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Vivian Maier – Night in the City

Maeve Brennan and Vivian Maier shared a lifelong rummage for meaning in the corners of their solitary lives. In the continuous bustle of urban existence, they each paused not to stare but to capture what is usually overlooked in timeless and haunting images.  Their poetry remains in how they transformed ‘the seemingly banal into the arresting and beautiful.’

Vivian Maier, whose photography has only recently come to wide attention, was born just 9 years after Brennan in 1926. Both were emigrants—Brennan grew up in Dublin then Washington D. C. and came to New York in the 1940s. Maier spent much of her childhood in a haut alpine village in the South of France and returned to New York, where she had been born, also in the 40’s. Was it their foreignness, in an era when America floated bright promises abroad, that made the gritty realities of the street so hypnotizing when they arrived?

Brennan found work writing, first for the Irish press, and then producing vignettes for The New Yorker under the byline: the Long-Winded Lady. If anything, her writing was breathless and brief, able to capture volumes in just a few paragraphs. Brennan explained it best: “Moments of kindness, moments of recognition—if there is a difference, it is a faint one. I think the long-winded lady is real when she writes, here, about some of the sights she saw in the city that she loves.”

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Maeve Brennan in the 1940s

Week after week, in a rented room in one hotel or another, Brennan looked down on the street below and captured what the crowds rushing by did not see. In I Look Down From the Windows of This Old Broadway Hotel, she describes the rooftops of Times Square and a trombone player working a Broadway show who, in between performances, often came to the roof.

“One evening he turned up on the roof at seven, clearly visible in the azure autumn air. He took his stand at the roof’s edge and began to play, and at that moment an extremely tall young man stood up between the two blue-painted water towers of the Flanders Hotel (twelve stories high, to my left) and began playing the clarinet. They both seemed to be playing “A Gypsy Told Me.” The trombonist, a few stories above the crowded street faced east, and the clarinetist, half a block away from him and twelve stories up in the air, also faced east, and all around them, above and below, on both sides, and in all directions, far and near and high and low, they were surrounded by walls of windows—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of windows—and all the windows were blind, because there was not a face to be seen in any of them.”

Brennan had a vantage point that many shared but, apart from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, few managed to capture so well. While staying in her friend Howard’s apartment in Greenwich Village of the 1960’s, Brennan took pains to describe the sounds of a nearby cocktail party and of her solitary room some doors away:

“The rain is falling fast and black as ever. The windows of the front apartment where the party is must be steaming with rain—frothing, almost—and Tenth Street must be streaming, too, and frothing black. But a cocktail party has to expand, if it can, and now the people in front have opened their door and left it open. What a lot of noise they are making with glasses and bottles and music and voices! They must have hundreds of people in there. Once in a while, over the low roar of conversation, there is a loud laugh, and once in a while a little shriek. Outside all the noise in the world is being hammered into the earth by the rain, and inside, all the noise there is effervescing at the cocktail party. Only in this room there is stillness, and the stillness has gone tense. The room is waiting for something to happen. I could light the fire, but my friend forgot to leave me any logs. I could turn on a lamp, but there is no animal feeling in electricity. I stand up again and walk over to the phonograph and switch it on without changing the record that I played this morning. The music strengthens and moves about, catching the pictures, the books, and the discolored white marble mantelpiece as firelight might have done. Now the place is no longer a cave but a room with walls that listen in peace. I hear the music and I watch the voice. I can see it. It is a voice to follow with your mind’s eye. “La Brave, c’est elle.” There is no other. Billie Holiday is singing.”

Brennan lived first in rented rooms, then increasingly cheap hotels and, when friends offered, apartments like Howard’s where she could hole up for awhile. The chance sightings she reported were as a witness for the unnoticed:

“One evening lately I saw the old lady sitting at her window, facing west or, rather, facing the west wall of her room. Her hair is completely white. She was reading what appeared to be a letter, holding it an angle in front of her as you would a newspaper. It was one of those lucky evenings when the white summer day turns to amber before it begins to break up into the separate shades of twilight, and in the strange glow the towering outline of the city to the south turned monumental and lonely. The Empire State changed color suddenly, and lost its air of self-satisfaction. Nothing was really certain anymore, except the row of pigeons standing motionless on the western wall of the pink terrace, and beneath, the old lady calmly reading her letter. Without turning her head she put her right hand with the sheet of paper in it out the window, stretched her arm to full length, and let the paper go. It fluttered down and away, and she went on reading. There was a second sheet to the letter. She did not look out. She did not see the amber air, and she did not notice the violet blue vapor that drifted in transparency across her window, carried on a very timid little eastern breeze. A second time she stretched out her arm and let a sheet of paper go, and she continued to read. The third sheet followed the first two uncertainly down the wall of the hotel, and then she stood up and vanished at once into the dimness of her room. There was something very housewifely about the decisive way she left her window and her geraniums. She is on the tenth floor, but she might just as well have been leaving her ground floor window after having spent an hour gossiping with her neighbors and watching the market bags to see who was having what for dinner. A good many of the ordinary ways of living go when people begin to live up in the air.”

The year of the falling letters was 1969, and Brennan’s assignments from the New Yorker were declining. She began to be seen as a ghost at their offices near Broadway and 43rd St. Brennan had entered New York literary circles as a petite and chic Irishwoman in the 1940s. Photos from her early years show the bright intelligence with upswept hair, the steady eyes. Then,  beginning to look seriously over her shoulder.

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Maeve Brennan

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Maeve Brennan, 1948 by Karl Bissinger

In 1954 she briefly married the wrong man, an alcoholic womanizer and fellow writer. By the 1970s Brennan herself suffered from alcoholism and increasing paranoia and was rumored to sleep in the restrooms of The New Yorker. Colleagues and friends tried to rescue her from time to time offering funds and occasional refuge. Her homeless state ended at a nursing home in Queens where she died in 1981.

Brennan had written stories and The Visitor, a novella which hint at cruel family treatment at home in Dublin. She shares these mysteries of an abusive past with Vivian Maier who returned to New York from France in the 1940’s. The documentary film Finding Vivian Maier suggests a troubled childhood recorded only in the recurring themes of Maier’s obsessive collection of newspaper clippings.  When she left France she was armed with a camera and had been taught photography by her mother. Back in the States Maier found work as a nanny and enjoyed the freedom it gave her to walk the city, first New York and then for 40 years the streets of Chicago. The viewfinder of her Rolleflex allowed her to take street portraits unnoticed and include herself in reflective surfaces and shadows. Like Brennan, these early self-portraits convey Maier’s innocence and curiosity adapting itself to the craft.

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The life of the city caught in Maier’s poignant split-second compositions are as accomplished as the ‘decisive moments’ of Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank.

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That Maier never chose to share her photos or even develop some of her film suggests that it was the second of capture which gave her pleasure. She wore the camera everywhere, always alert to what might transpire.

Maier recorded subtleties of affection with respectful distance but not, perhaps, without longing.

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And she had an apparent fascination with aspects of personality, how a single look can convey a whole world view—how the God in details places us in the spectrum of fortune and fate.

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For all her reputed shyness, many of Maier’s subjects gaze back with a complicated but open trust.

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In a photo from her early period, in the mirror a man is removing from a truck, there is Maier—smiling. She’s caught the rare moment that only she noticed, and captured herself too. While a testament to her talent, it is the best clue to her satisfaction.

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Like Brennan, Maier’s eccentricities grew exponentially over the years and became more isolating. The kindness of past employers kept her from being homeless, and a fall on ice also led to a nursing home in her last days. She died in 2009 at age 83, having outlived Brennan by just a few years.

Maier and Brennan mined city life for the sorts of meaning that make humanity a shared experience.  Like Emily Dickenson, their thoughtful observations were made in isolation.  The path of their lives, the challenges age poses to sensitive creative souls, can hopefully enlarge our understanding and care for everyone we encounter, especially those who are the easiest to overlook. And their works, the collections of Maier and Brennan, encourage us to pause and consider, to take the time and have the courage to make sense of what we see.

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Note:  This essay is copyright 2014, D. L. Pughe. The quote defining poetry at the end of the first paragraph is by my dear friend, Margaretta Lovell.  

All photos except for the 3 of Maeve Brennan are by Vivian Maier and copyright is primarily with:   John Maloof’, who purchased a large portion of Maier’s work at auction, Jeffery Goldstein also controls a substantial number of images and Ron Slattery, who bought a smaller collection of Maier’s negatives and prints in 2007, before her death.  

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Black Narcissus

by D. L. Pughe

Well before CGI made spectacular vistas so common, there was the 1947 technicolor film Black Narcissus. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, it is about the passions of nuns in the high Himalayas.  Their convent is a remote cliff-side palace near Darjeeling that was once used to house the concubines of a princely general.

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In this remote setting, Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, is tasked with bringing a community of nuns to set up their convent, teach the children English and convert the locals to their religion.DeborahKerr-BlackNarcissus

She brings with her several willing sisters and one who they suspect is mentally ill, Sister Ruth (the amazing Kathleen Byron), hoping the alpine air will heal her.

blacknarcissus.SisterRuth3In spectacular flashbacks and dissolves we learn of Sister Clodagh’s earlier life in Scotland and what led her turn from her youthful lover to become a nun. The local young general, who studies with the girls in their school, brings with him jewels and scents, and the wind up the sheer mountainside also carries with it memories of passion.

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Into this mix comes a Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the British raconteur who becomes their not so trusted local advisor as he makes his lust for life well known.

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At his suggestion the nuns take in an outcast girl who attracts the eye of the young general. Played by Jean Simmons, Kanchi is a character so far from her role of Ophelia the next year, and her dance is captivating.

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In the most lush color Director Michael Powell and the British-Hungarian producer Emerich Pressberger (known together as The Archers) worked with cinematographer Jack Cardiff to draw this exotic, mystical and passionate world into vivid reality. The scenes on the cliffside, the sheer verticality, the way that the wind flaps the habits of the nuns and disturbs their calm is unlike any other film before or since.

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The essence of the place works on everyone and culminates in desperate acts.

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The most fascinating thing is that the film was made at Pinewood Studios in London, using scale models and sets.  A few scenes were shot at an Indian garden in West Sussex.  Many contemporary filmmakers like Scorcese and Spielberg refer to it as a landmark in technicolor film and cinematography, a film creating a whole exotic world in the studio.  It is a film that casts a spell, encouraging one to keep thinking for a long time.

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The Criterion version is wonderful, and I highly recommend the extras:  the analysis by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, the short about the making of the film, and the commentary including Scorcese and Powell. One of the most satisfying recent experiences of  cinema I’ve had.

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The Miniature Natural History Museum and Laboratory has its own site now!

You can reach it here:
http://theminiaturenaturalhistorymuseumandlaboratory.com/

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The First Dioramas in the Miniature Natural History Museum

Deer Diorama by D. L. Pughe

Deer Diorama by D. L. Pughe

Squirrel and Owl Diorama by Angie Zirbes

Squirrel and Owl Diorama by Angie Zirbes

Wolf Detail

Wolf Detail

Wolf Diorama by Angie Zirbes

Wolf Diorama by Angie Zirbes

Tiger Diorama by Emily Buck

Tiger Diorama by Emily Buck

Panda Diorama by Xin Xu

Panda Diorama by Xin Xu

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The Beginnings of the Miniature Iowa City Natural History Museum, Laboratory and Herbarium

We are making a miniature museum full of tiny sometimes hand-made specimens, a Herbarium, and a very small laboratory with itty bitty slides. Wildlife dioramas are still under construction, as is the suitcases which will hold it all…working with the wonderful Emily Buck, Angie Zirbes and Xin Xu.

“The nest is a bird’s very person; it is its form and its most immediate effort, I shall even say, its suffering. The result is only obtained by constantly repeated pressure of the breast. There is not one of these blades of grass that, in order to make it curve and hold the curve, has not been pressed on countless times by the bird’s breast, its heart, surely with difficulty in breathing, perhaps even, with palpitations…”

Jules Michelet

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Snow and Ice and Water

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  Gustav Fjaestad- Tarde De Invierno Junto A Un Rio 1907

A little over a century ago the great Scandinavian artists of nature painted so many evocative paintings of snow and ice—but I’m particularly drawn to the works which capture the movement of water in this frozen world, the ripples and rapids and cold, freezing waters and how light is reflected in their depths on even the grayest of wintry days.

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Victor Westerholm – The Rapids 1902

 

VictorWesterholmVueDeLaValleeDeKymijoki1901Victor Westerholm – Vue De La Vallee De Kymijoki 1901

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A short tribute to Edmund Gwenn

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 He was the quintessential avuncular Englishman, poised and proper, but thoughtful and full of insights.  While he is most often known as Santa Claus in Miracle on 49th Street,

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and who could make a better Santa Claus, my favorite Gwenn film is Apartment for Peggy, an uninspired title for a very fine and neglected film, also starring Jean Crain and William Holden.  It is the thoughtful journey of an elderly academic luminary who has decided to end his own life.  The lack of housing in Cambridge after the war forces him to rent his attic to the bustling and full of life Peggy (Jean Crain) while her husband (Holden) studies chemistry at Harvard.  The professor and Peggy are at two poles of experiencing life:  Peggy on the brink of having her first child and the professor feeling that, since his wife passed away, he no longer has a reason to live.  Peggy convinces him to hold seminars in philosophy for herself and other GI bill wives whose husbands have access to college while they do not—they work to support their families. In a pool hall they borrow for the class, there is a lively discussion of philosophy and ideas among the women assembled, a scene often lacking in the history of film.  And Gwenn is there, the Professor revitalized by new ways of thinking, a soul becoming recommitted to being.

 

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Bergkristall

by D. L. Pughe

A century and more ago…in 1845, Adelbert Stifter wrote the most amazing short story, Bergkristall, translated as Rock Crystal and in a wonderful new edition by the New York Review of Books.

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The story is deceptively simple, a tale of two children who live in the high Alps and who walk over the crest of a mountain to visit their grandparents on the morning of Christmas Eve and then are caught in a blizzard on their return at dusk.  Yet it is one of the most moving, beautifully described books about nature and how one can experience it, about snow and ice and mountains, about the sanctuary of forests, and about the wakefulness that keeps us alive.

in Reflections on Culture and Literature), Hannah Arendt writes of Stifter’s talents and

“overwhelming, neverending  gratitude for everything that is. Out of this grateful devotion, Stifter  became the greatest landscape-painter in literature…: someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words and all visible movements—the movement of the horse as well as that of the river or of the road—into sentences…. For Stifter,  reality actually means nature and, for him, man is but one of its most perfect products. Again and again, he describes the slow, steady, and blessed process of the growth of a human being as it lives and blossoms and dies together with the trees and flowers of which it takes care during its lifetime.”

 

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And so, with heartfelt anticipation, I take down Rock Crystal, as I do each year, to experience the whirl of snow and ice in all its glory.

 

 

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Cybermobs

I’ve just arrived back in the Bay Area and discovered the Shih Storm.  You all are probably aware of the start up guy Peter Shih who tweeted 10 pretty sexist and stupid things he hated about San Francisco that resulted in a complete cyber mob attack on him.

Wanted Posters of him were put up around the city and Cheap Air offered him a one-way ticket back to New York.  In the Twitterverse it lasted a while and spawned #petershihfacts which had some humorous response.

Funny or Die had the best riposte however, with their resident humorist Suzi Barrett doing her own ironic I Hate San Francisco riff:
The whole subject of cyber mobs, though, is interesting and can trend very negative too—
After Anita Sarkeesian announced an online series examining the representation of women in video games, she was subject to an online campaign of harassment, including denial of service attacks, attempts to hack into her email and Twitter accounts, and doctored photos of her released to the web.
I still think, noticing parallels in the hooded protagonists of The Birth of A Nation, that the abstraction of that universe and the couched anonymity of cyberspace brings out hateful bravado in idiots who would never be so brazen if they were without their hoods.
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Le Notte Bianche

In English, to stay up all night in feverish consciousness is to ‘pull an all-nighter’—such a flat alternative to Le Notte Bianche, Nuit Blanche.  Visconti’s 1957 film with Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell captures all the mystery and beauty of a fleeting acquaintance made on an evening and which grows through the long hours of darkness into a meaningful exchange on life, love, the spell of darkness.  1 Le Notti bianche Luchino Visconti White Nights Criterion DVD Review 71wcOYzBfFL._SL1024_2ba3ff181be4b311d0c115ffe16a2486a Le Notti bianche Luchino Visconti White Nights Criterion DVD Review PDVD_012a Le Notti bianche Luchino Visconti White Nights Criterion DVD Review PDVD_015  a Le Notti bianche Luchino Visconti White Nights Criterion DVD Review PDVD_016kPZrBPjFB0EJZezJhISVCYrKhUa  le-notti-bianche-4le-notti-bianche-viscontiNUITS-BLANCHES--2- PDVD_015Picture-34  Picture-39  tumblr_lwy75il6mX1qdx4k4o1_1280vlcsnap-2010-12-26-18h52m55s132  vlcsnap-2010-12-26-18h53m27s233vlcsnap-2010-12-26-18h54m00s25  WhiteNights_2White Nights 1957 image

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