Thursday, April 25, 2013

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Last month, I traveled to Colorado for a writers’ conference. I flew into Denver and spent the day touring downtown and my alma mater, the University of Denver, then headed south for the 70-mile trip into Colorado Springs. It’s a vast, beautiful state with geographical variety ranging from startling peaks to endless stretches of flat land, and weather that changes in the blink of an eye. When I tell people about our time there, I always talk about storms and the way the sky really does feel closer at the higher elevation, nature intruding into your daily life in a bigger, more immediate way.

Kent Haruf grew up in eastern Colorado, and he’s spent the vast majority of his life in middle America—university in Nebraska and Iowa, work in Wyoming, teaching in southern Illinois and a return to Colorado upon retirement. He knows about ranching and farming and small town life. In fact, his novels take place in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado; the most famous is Plainsong (1999), a finalist for the National Book Award. I count it among my most favorite novels and Haruf is a favorite writer.

Benediction is considered the third in a Holt, Colorado trilogy, beginning with Plainsong and followed by 2004’s Eventide, although earlier novels are set in town too. I’d argue that Benediction is really a stand-alone. Aside from the shared setting and a brief (and probably superfluous) connection to the earlier novels, the story really doesn’t overlap. Thematically though, the three novels work as a cycle. Plainsong: vocal church music, unadorned melody; eventide: evening; benediction: a final blessing, often at the end of a church service (my definitions). Stylistically, they have the same easy, spare urgency, the same attention to each character’s humanity, the same ability to reach in and grab a reader’s heart and give it an insistent squeeze.

I was trying to describe Benediction the other night, trying to say what I loved so much about it. I talked about the high plains of Colorado, its rough qualities and intrusive changes. I mentioned Haruf’s focus on the “precious ordinary” in life. I described his characters, so familiar that you know them from the start. Then I talked about the story, the old man dying from cancer while stories from his life come to light. I began to lose my audience. So I related a scene from the book that had the biggest impression on me—three women, two middle-aged and one elderly—take a young neighborhood girl for a picnic. They lunch, drink wine and take a nap outside under the trees. They talk about things that happened to them in life. And then they skinny dip in the stock tank, the water kept for cattle. And once they’re in, they begin to teach the young girl to swim. A routine scene, perhaps boring? Actually, it’s one of the most poignant things I’ve ever read.

And it occurred to me that Haruf’s representations of women in this novel are among the most fully realized I’ve ever read. The way women take care of what needs to be done, day in and day out. The way they keep families and communities together. Because really, on a broader level, that’s what I love about Haruf’s writing. It’s just about life and the connections we make for our short time here. Family, neighbors, friends. The mistakes, the lessons, the joys. I can't describe the effect of his stories any more than a photograph of Colorado can give a complete impression. Trust me, you have to read these books.

Kent Haruf is seventy years old but I hope he’s got many more novels in him, many stories to tell before the final blessing. Read some prior ramblings about Haruf on this blog here and here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hamlet: Old School YA?

I have a favorite Shakespeare play and I’d wager it’s not an uncommon choice: Hamlet. What’s not to love? There are excellent plot points—supernatural interventions, family betrayals, sword fights, confrontations, suicide—and an array of multi-faceted characters. There is the ongoing mystery of the king’s death filtered through the lens of the most unreliable of narrators, Hamlet. The play is funny, very funny. And of course we have Hamlet’s lovely soliloquies, his incessant waffling about action and inaction, “be”ing or "not to be”ing.

The role of Horatio is considered a minor one. Many critics claim the character is underdeveloped and intended only as a foil for Hamlet. Where Hamlet wavers, Horatio is steadfast. Where Hamlet seeks direction, Horatio is the poster child for loyalty and intent. As a younger person and student, when my love for the play was at its most ardent, I identified keenly with Hamlet. So many choices, so many people looking to him as he tried to decide what type of person to be. And he really loved Ophelia, didn’t he, in his warped, tormented way? How many current YA offerings have this same framework—disturbed but deep-feeling young man, innocent girl hoping to lead him to the stable ground of her love? Even the appearance of the ghost and Hamlet’s hand-wringing about life and dreams, life and death, and his self-assertions: “to thine own self be true”—all seem youthful diversions, the type of thing teens and young adults ruminate over when they don’t have to work all day and maintain a household.

Horatio, on the other hand, is resolute and purposeful. The appearance of the ghost does not rattle him. Instead, he badgers the specter about its purpose: “Speak of it, stay and speak!” He’s like, what’s the deal? Do you have secrets to tell? I don’t have time for this.

Even Hamlet recognizes the differences between himself and his friend and acknowledges him as a “man that is not passion’s slave.” And at the play's end, it’s Horatio who speaks over the corpse of the prince and sets the tone for the kingdom's continued stability.

I’ve been rereading bits from the play lately, and I find that maybe I’m beyond an age to fully appreciate Hamlet and his deliberations. Give me a loyal, calm friend like Horatio any day. Someone who knows his mind and purpose. There is work to do, after all, and only so many hours in the day.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Words and Movement

I’m currently reading a cultural history which deals with the start of what we’d term The Modern Age. Spanning the 20th century, it begins with a discussion of the artistic climate, starting with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913. The introduction of Russian ballet to European theaters (and consequently, parlors) had a seismic effect on artists working in all mediums, but some considered dance an ideal form of art. (Book here.)

“In the ballet, I would point to the elemental mixture of visual and aural impressions; in the ballet is attained the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk about which Wagner dreamed and about which every artistically gifted person dreams.” --Alexandre Benois, art critic

Gesamtkunstwerk:  noun, German.
total art work, an artistic creation that synethesizes the elements of music, drama, spectacle, dance, etc.

I’m a dance enthusiast so this is all good and true, but I’m a writer too. So I’m always looking for experiences to inform my writing. And anyone avidly seeking out art in any form is looking for that total experience, the one that fires brain synapses but lights your soul as well. The movie that makes you laugh and cry, the book that keeps you up at night and thinking long afterward, the painting you buy a reproduction of so you can look at it all the time.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, I had a life-changing art experience last night, at a performance by Spellbound Contemporary Ballet, an Italian company currently touring the U.S. The first offering in the program was called “Lost for Words.” From the printed material:

"Lost for Words is a full-length 43-minute piece. A mixture of graceful fluidity and stunning virtuosity, Astolfi’s Lost for Words is an abstract reflection on the role of language in human relations, echoing the dissonance embedded in a culture of communication dominated by empty words.”

I do a lot of thinking about words and art, and how to make art using words. From the opening moments of Lost for Words, I was gripped. Bodies expressing communication, sometimes in pairs or groups but ultimately, each alone. Bodies moving together in discourse, with intent and at times, entanglement or disengagement. Each dancer similarly clad and blending one with the other, because in matters of communication, we are all equal, male or female. The hope, the futility, the brief connections. It didn’t hurt that these were Italian dancers—dark, muscular, beautiful. What can I say? I spent the 40+ minutes (which felt like 10) on the edge of my seat, a tissue clutched in my hand to wipe tears. I realized what people mean when they say “it took my breath away” because at one point, I was almost panting.

I was deeply moved by this piece because it was personal and universal, exquisite and ragged, theoretical and immediate. It felt like it was about me. It shifted the planes of my foundation and I share an introduction with you below. I don’t expect you to feel as I do about it, but I hope you feel this way about something.  

Spellbound Contemporary Ballet " Lost for words " from Spellbound Contemporary Ballet on Vimeo.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka