John Ashbery, Jane Freilicher and “In a True Light”

Waiting to meet my friend, the writer Woody Haut, for coffee the other week, I passed the time (though more than that) browsing through this neat little David Zwirner Books edition of the poet John Ashbery’s later writings about art, interleaved with a selection of his poems and some intriguing lists of the music he would have been listening to during the same period, roughly 1998 – 2004. Music that would mostly come under the broad term,  modernism, I suppose – John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gavin Bryars – with some Brian Eno and Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Vertigo’ for good measure.]

Growing up, Ashbery had wanted to be a painter, only changing direction when he went to Harvard, though his early interest in surrealism and collage would underpin much of his poetry. That he started to write art criticism was, apparently, an economic decision. “I felt I was never really qualified to be an art critic.The only reason I did it is because I needed to earn some money … It was obviously pretty easy to write about abstract expressionist painting, since it was brand new and nobody knew anything about it, so what you had to say was as valid as what anyone else might. Also, it’s not unlike the poetic process in its being a record of its own coming into being.” That last sentence pretty interesting, I think, not to say crucial.

But be that as it may, art criticsim remained an intergral part of Ashbery’s life. Along with fellow poets, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, he wrote for ARTnews in New York; living in Paris between 1960 and 1965, he was art crtic for the New York Herald Tribune (just typing those words brings vividly to mind Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle), and, back in New York, he was an executive editor of ARTnews and a critic for New York magazine and  Newsweek.

Perhaps it’s the sense that he wasn’t ‘really qualified’ to be an art critic that makes him such a good one – it helps him to eschew what might be termed ‘art speak’ and permits an openness of approach. Important also, I think, was the proximity he felt between his own practice and that of the artists whose work he wrote about (see 2 paras above) – artists who in many cases he knew personally and who were an integral part of the New York scene – Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, Jane Freilicher. 

I first became aware of Jane Freilicher through the poems of Frank O’Hara, in which she appears again and again as muse and companion – ‘Interior (with Jane)’; ‘A Sonnet for Jane Freilicher’; ‘Jane Awake’; ‘Chez Jane’; ‘To Jane; and in Imitation of Coleridge’ – after which she seems to have been usurped by Grace Hartigan and, to a lesser exent, Joan Mitchell.

Once I got to know Freilicher’s work a little, I began to marvel at her persistence of vision; her determination to continue following her chosen course – a personal version of realism that she adhered to as if the explosion of abstract expressionism wasn’t happening all around her. Her subject matter scarcely varied – the views from her studio windows in Greenwich Village and Water Mill, Long Island, and many many still lives, most often a simple portrait, decepetively simple – yet without a glimmer of trickery – of beautiful flowers in equally beautiful vases.  

‘Marigolds II’ Jane Freilicher, 2000, oil on linen

 Why doesn’t this sameness result in a dulling over-familiararity? Boredom even? Not another bloody bunch of marigolds!

This, in part, is Ashbery’s answer  …

The same fields, bouquets, slants of light, views out over water or streets and buildings seem to recur, but it is the tremendous difference in them from picture to picture that entraps and enthralls the viewer. This is because she is able to half-forget the subject at hand and concentrate on the sheer pleasure of moving paint around.” 

And as she said herself in an interview with James Schuyler …

“I’m interested in landscape, but there’s a paradox: it’s depressing to get that realistic look: ‘Why, that’s just the way it looks!’ or ‘I know that time of day’  … Of course a landscape goes on forever but a picture doesn’t. So very soon it has a composition or a form of its own.”  

‘September Moment’ Jane Freilicher, 1998/99 oil on linen

This is Ashbery writing about a small pastel, Flowers on a Table

“The colours are low-keyed and matte, the surface dry and scumbled. The flowers look tangled with burrs like the coat of an old sheepdog.” 

‘Flowers on a Table’ Jane Freilicher 1998 pastel on linen

I was thinking of her use of colour, her use of light when I was preparing my novel, In a True Light, partly set in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, Monk at the Five Spot and Frank O’Hara and company in the audience. 

Through an intermediary – the poet William Corbett – I asked Jane Freilicher if I could use a statement she’d once made about her work as an epigraph to the novel …  “I suppose I think more in terms of colour than of line.”

I was hoping, I think, that it might in some respects be appicable to the writing, the organisation of the book. Heavy on atmosphere, with a story line that shifted, sometimes surprisingly between place and time.  A scumbled narrative, you might say.

You might. In the event, I think I lacked the courage of my convictions: added a less than necessary secondary crime plot to the basic story of a British painter in search of the daughter he had previously never known existed, the result of his brief and heady relationship with an American abstract expressionist painter decades earlier. 

Even so, it’s a novel I’m fond of – fond in the way, perhaps, one might be fond of errant children. There are scenes, moments, I can still go back to with pleasure rather than embarasment or regret. And there are readers who, amongst my books, place it as one of their favourites. Readers with the abiity to see what I could never quite see myself.

Films, Books, Music of 2022

FILMS OF 2022

FAVOURITES IN ORDER OF VIEWING

The Lost Daughter : Maggie Gyllenhaal
Belfast : Kenneth Branagh
Parallel Mothers : Pedro Almodovar
The Quiet Girl : Colm Bairéad
Hit the Road : Panah Panahi
Emily : Frances O’Connor
Decision to Leave : Park Chan-wook
She Said : Maria Schrader

MOST OVERRATED

Aftersun : Charlotte Wells

BOOKS OF 2022

For whatever reasons, I’ve done a lot of re-reading this year – Liz Moore, Jamie Harrison, Maile Meloy, Joan Didion – but the one big find for me, spurred on by an interview in the Summer 2022 issue of The Paris Review, was the American writer, Sigrid Nunez. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed four books so far …

What Are You Going Through
The Last of Her Kind
The Friend
A Feather on the Breath of God

And am eagerly awaiting delivery of Sempre Susan, her book about Susan Sontag.

Also outstanding were two novels by Claire Keegan …

Foster
Small Things Like These

and Ruth and Pen by Emilie Pine

POETRY

As I get back into writing poetry, I find – surprise, surprise – that I’m reading it more. (Works both ways).

Collections I’ve especially enjoyed include …

Wasn’t That a Time? : Jim Burns
A Reader’s Guide to Time : Rebecca Cullen
Notes on Water : Amanda Dalton
American Sonnets for My Past & Future Assassins : Terrance Hayes
Larder : Rhona McAdam

and, the one I’ve returned to most …

Lanyard : Peter Sansom

MUSIC

Randall Goosby playing the Bruch Violin Concerto with the LPO under Alpesh Chauhan – and encoring with a Louisiana Blues Strut. Royal Festival Hall.

Celebrating Mingus: Guy Barker Big Band & the BBC Concert Orchestra : Queen Elizabeth Hall.

LPO/Jurowski : Mahler 9th Symphony – Final Rehearsal, Royal Festival Hall.

LSO/Noseda : Shostakovich 11th Symphony, the Barbican.

Joanna MacGregor: Jazz Inflections : LSO St. Luke’s

Two Pianos, Eight Hands : Fitkin, Hammond, Stott, Wall : Queen Elizabeth Hall

Jo Harrop singing Fine & Mellow with the Paul Edis Trio : Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham.

Paul Edis Trio : Jazz at the Oxford, Kentish Town

Perville Bévort & Bévort 3 : Pizza Express, Soho

London Jazz Orchestra : The Vortex

A Few Days in Nottingham, Part 2

Early – not too early – the following morning, Saturday, we made our way back towards the city centre, in search of coffee and something tasty but not overwhelmingly substantial to eat. During Covid we frequently ordered coffee from Cartwheel Coffee Roasters, partly to help keep them afloat during hard times and partly because their beans – roasted in Sneinton – are pretty damned good. So it was that we found our way to their café on Upper Parliament Street (there’s another in Beeston), found a table, browsed the menu, mushrooms on toast. And not any old mushrooms on toast. Delicious. And quite enough for Sarah and I to share.

Not being people to look gift kitchens in the mouth, or however the laboured saying goes, we returned the next morning. Result … Vegetarian special … again shared.

But back to Saturday. After breakfast, Sarah went off to Hopkinson’s – Nottingham’s treasure trove of second hand finery, while I stepped along the alley to the Five Leaves Bookshop, where I was lucky enough to encounter it’s manager and owner, the redoubtable Ross Bradshaw.

The bulk of the afternoon, from lunch onwards, was pleasantly spent in West Bridgford, in the company of friends first encountered when I was studying for an MA in American Studies at the University – the old one- and from there we returned to our room in the Premier Inn close to the University – the new one – and readied ourselves for watching the World Cup, England versus France. Comment would be superfluous.

Mid-morning on Sunday, after the excellent breakfast described above, we visited the current exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – ‘Hollow Earth: Art, Caves & The Subterranean Imaginary’. An hour and perhaps a little more were never going to be enough to do it justice, but most of what we did see was fascinating.

Caragh Thuring : Inferno, 2018
Goshka Macuga : Cave, 1999/2022
Chioma Ebinama, 2022

Just time after this for dim sum at The Mandarin Restaurant in Hockley and thence to the station: despite having to change trains at Grantham, we were back at London, Kings Cross in just two hours. Exceptional in these troubled railway times.

A Few Days in Nottingham – Part 1

Some weeks back, my partner Sarah and I went with our friend Duncan to the Oxford Tavern – a short walk away in Kentish Town – to hear the Paul Edis Trio. Paul at the piano, Adam King on double bass and Joel Barford on drums. The missing link between Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau and Debussy suggested the Oxford, while being rooted in the straight-ahead swinging tradition. Not sure about the Debussy, but otherwise accurate as far as it goes. Clearly a busy and active composer, a good number of the pieces they played were Paul’s compositions – a refreshing change to the more usual diet of standards and 12 bar blues, though neither were ignored.

It was a good evening, good enough for me to look up his list of forthcoming gigs the next day, and there, to my pleasant surprise, was Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham, Friday December 9th. Perfect. I had never been to said venue, though my son, Tom, who lives in Nottingham, had been there, I know, a number of times. And any excuse to spend time in Nottingham is a good one, even though it would mean being there on a weekend when Notts County were not playing at home.

One can’t have everything.

Despite some small confusion over seat reservations, our train journey from St. Pancras to Nottingham was straightforward; as was the tram (God! I do love a good tram!) that took us from the station to the Premier Inn in the midst of the many buildings that make up Nottingham Trent University.

Time to rest and unpack before setting out on foot, up the slow hill towards the back of the Royal Concert Hall and the Theatre Royal, then down towards the crowds in the Old Market Square, which, at first sight, seemed to have been turned into a giant building site. But no, it’s a large, temporary, skating rink – by the shrieks of panic or laughter, used to capacity – and sharing the square with a giant ferris wheel, the obligatory Christmas tree and the overflow of stalls from the Christmas market, the Council House a distinguished purple in the background.

Making our way through the crowds, we soon arrived in the café-bar at Broadway (Nottingham’s excellent independent cinema), where we were to meet Tom and his partner, Karen, and our friends Graham and Helen, tempted for the occasion to venture forth from the by-ways of Lincolnshire. Suitably fortified, we walked the short distance to the club, where we had booked a table close to the band.

Jazz Club – Bar – Kitchen reads the strap line on the Skylight’s web site – live Jazz with a Middle Eastern inspired menu. All true. The club has an excellent sound system, the food was very good indeed, but – and there’s a big but coming – it suffers from the curse of venues that must, to a significant extent, rely on takings from the bar. Why one would choose to spend the evening drinking copiously and therefore talking loudly somewhere that the majority of people had gone primarily to listen to music, is, to me, a mystery. Mostly, but not always, and thanks to the aforementioned sound system, the music won out, but the overloud conversations and laughter from the back of the room left me feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

Thankfully, as I say, the music won out. On this occasion Paul Edis was accompanied by Jihad Darwish on bass and Andrew Wood – a Nottingham local – on drums. Both excellent. And the trio was fronted for most of the evening by the vocalist Jo Harrop, another name new to me – I obviously haven’t been getting out much – possessed of a strong and flexible voice, particularly effective in its lower register. Most of the material – if I was listening correctly – came from Jo’s solo album and a recent album she and Paul have made together – many of the songs written by Paul and his wife, Kate. A fine set, crowned, for me, by the encore, a storming version of Billie Holiday’s Fine and Mellow.

One sad note to finish on. I learned from Andrew Wood that the bass player Geoff Pearson, with whom I’d read in a number of Notts jazz ensembles over several decades, and who I knew had been unwell, had died. A fine musician and a lovely, generous man.

December Playlist …

Here there are, December’s Accidental Top Twelve, just marginally rearranged from whatever shuffled out while preparing and eating porridge, washing up and clearing away … and not a Santa or snowflake in sight.

THE BYRDS
Goin’ Back

WARREN ZEVON
Accidentally Like a Martyr

ROBERT WYATT
Shipbuilding

NANCI GRIFFITH
Drive-in Movies & Dashboard Lights

COWBOY JUNKIES
A Horse in the Country

SHELBY LYNNE
Leavin’

JOHN STEWART
All the Dangerous Men

PATTY GRIFFIN
Mary

JOHN STEWART
Broken Roses

RUMER
Aretha

ELVIS COSTELLO & ALLEN TOUSSAINT
Freedom for the Stallion

ARLO GUTHRIE
Last Train

Riding the Wide Country …

All those Westerns, people sometimes comment, after browsing through my web site for the first time – the ones you wrote in the 70s & 80s – churning them out the way you must have done – what are they like? Which partly means, unsaid, are they any good?

I can’t – or won’t – answer the second, unasked, question – everyone to their own taste, after all – other than to say they had their readers at the time and, for a smaller, perhaps more selective number, thanks to Piccadilly Publishing, they still do.

But what are they like … ?

It’s easiest perhaps to answer that in relation to the 10 book Hart the Regulator series, the only one not co-written with either Laurence James or Angus Wells. Co-written in this context meaning that after fairly brief but enjoyable discussions, remembering old movies and listening to the likes of John Stewart and Guy Clark, we went off and wrote alternate books in whatever series we were currently working on. Generally, more than one series at a time.

The Hart books tend to begin with a detailed description of landscape, vast and wide, cinematic- an establishing shot – the camera, as it were, pulled back before focussing down, offering a sense of place into which the central character rides and, hopefully, the reader is drawn. This is the opening to the sixth novel, ‘Ride the Wide Country’.

The endings, the final page or pages, are most likely to move in close, the action bloody and abrupt, the mood closer to that of film noir – a kind of emptiness, a sickness almost, that the central character must carry with him from book to book, from one episode to another. These are the closing paragraphs of ‘Ride the Wide Country.’

The Hart the Regulator series is available in ebook format from Piccadilly Publishing along with the other western series in which I was involved.

REMEMBERING MONK’S BIRTHDAY …

October 10th, 1917; Rocky Mount, North Carolina, USA

MONK AT THE FIVE SPOT 

They’ve all been here to see him: Ginsburg,
Mailer; poets, painters, other musicians;
Larry Rivers and his crowd
jammed into a table at the back,
Frank O’Hara in earnest conversation,
oblivious of the fact that Monk,
dark glasses shielding his eyes,
is starting to rock back and forth
at the piano, feeling for a rhythm 
in the bottom hand, while the right 
finds angles of its own …

Blue Monk, ‘Round Midnight,
Epistrophy; Ruby, My Dear.

And all this time, head down, horn hooked
over his shoulder, John Coltrane waits,
biding his time, as Monk launches himself
into a jinking solo, which skips and leaps
and builds into an angular arpeggio
that calls to mind a man stumbling headlong 
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, 
not falling but saving himself with an upward swoop 
and final double-handed chord, 
so sudden, so emphatic, that the crowd, 
almost as one, catches its breath 
and even Frank O’Hara is stunned into silence.

I Mean You. The 5 Spot, New York City,
September, 1957

  • from ‘Aslant‘, Shoestring Press, 2019 (Revised)

Three Poems for National Poetry Day

One oldish one, two newer … Please read and enjoy …

Failed Sonnet Home

The windowboxes outside the Clocktower Café 
are delerious with bloom. Cappuccino with 
chocolate and cinnamon. Blueberry muffin. 
How many more days can the sky sustain
this absurdity of blue? I can taste vanilla 
from the pines. And you. You know the other day 
Jake drove me to Truckee in his van 
and in Safeway I was stalled mid-aisle 
by the scent of that hot-buttered toast 
we shared before you drove me to the train. 
How far we are away! Crimson columbine, 
black centre of violet pansy, its yellow eye – 
one thing you learn here: how little soil 
it takes to nourish the most stubborn root.

– from Out of Silence, 2014

Early Autumn

The first leaves curl inwards
tinged with brown;
first conkers on the ground

Getz’s saxophone winds its way
sinuous and not a little cold
around the sinews of the tune

We stamp our feet
reach for that extra layer
look upwards in search of the sun

– from Summer Notebook, 2021

Another Heath Poem

Just shy of noon and under a lowering sky,
I sit watching the wind
twist the meadow grass this way and that
and think of the passing of years 
and the suppleness of the earth beneath

The only sounds, a distant plane
and, deep in the tree line,
a raucous argument of crows.

– from Summer Notebook, 2021

McMinn and Cheese

A chip on my shoulder you can see from space

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life