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Adrienne Rich on Love, Loss, Public vs. Private Happiness, and the Creative Process

“No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone… The accidents happen.”

We recently lost beloved poet, essayist, feminist, and MacArthur “genius” Adrienne Rich. After last week’s beautiful reading of her 1968 poem “Gabriel,” I revisited the wonderful PennSound archive at the Kelly Writers House, my alma mater, which houses an extensive collection of Rich poetry readings, conversations, and interviews.

Below, I’ve edited several excerpts from a 2005 discussion revealing a rare glimpse of Rich’s creative process and her relationship with art, love, and loss.

Rich adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.

On love and loss as the foundation of all art:

Behind all art is an element of desire. … Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?

On public vs. private happiness:

The question always is there, ‘What kind of a privilege is it just to be able to feel purely and simply happy?’ But we can, and in spite of so much — and in spite of so much knowledge. And, for me, there’s always this issue of private and public happiness.

On her creative process, echoing Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling on where ideas come from:

A poem can come out of something seen, something overheard, listening to music, an article in a newspaper, a book, a combination of all these… There’s a kind of emotional release that I then find in the act of writing the poem. It’s not, ‘I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about this.’

Lastly — because true art is in the doing and not the talking — at a 1985 event at Cornell University, Rich reads from her sublime and sensual Twenty-One Love Poems, found in the fantastic volume The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (public library):

No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone.
The accidents happen, we’re not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.
Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story,
women at least should know the difference
between love and death. No poison cup,
no penance. Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us: that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.

BP

The Fine Art of Italian Hand Gestures: A Vintage Visual Dictionary by Bruno Munari

A pocket guide to Neapolitan nonverbal communication.

Somewhere between his seminal manifestos on design as art and his timelessly delightful children’s books, legendary Italian artist and graphic designer Bruno Munari made time for a number of idiosyncratic side projects. Among them is Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture (UK; public library) — a charming, quirky, minimalist guide to Italians’ expressive nonverbal communication originally published in 1958 as a supplement to the Italian dictionary, inspired by The Ancients’ Mimic Through the Neapolitan Gestures, the first collection of gestures made by Canon Andrea de Jorio in 1832. Unlike the hefty and sparsely illustrated 380-page original tome, however, Munari’s pocket-sized version features frugally descriptive text and ample, elegant black-and-white photographs of hand-gestures for everything from mundane activities like reading and writing to emotive expressions of praise and criticism.

In the short preface, Munari notes the globalization of nonverbal vernacular, as Neapolitan gestures begin being recognized worldwide and American imports like “OK” permeate Italian culture, then promises:

We have collected a good many gestures, leaving aside vulgar ones, in order to give an idea of their meaning to foreigners visiting Italy and as a supplement to an Italian dictionary.

Old Neapolitan gestures, from left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid, good, wait a moment, to walk backward, to steal, horns, to ask for.
Another illustrated page of the book of Canon Andrea de Jorio. Meaning of the gestures: silence, no, beauty, hunger, to mock, weariness, stupid, squint, to deceive, cunning.
Gestures of drinking and eating (from an old Neapolitan print)
‘You make a mockery of the ‘madam’!’ (from an old Neapolitan print)

For a naughty twist, complement Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture with the surrealist chart of erotic hand signaling.

BP

Remembering the Godfather of World Music: Ravi Shankar + Philip Glass, 1990

East meets West in an exquisite meeting of the minds, hearts, and strings.

Legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar passed away this week at the age of 92. (Coincidentally, the same age at which we lost Ray Bradbury earlier this year.) Celebrated as “the godfather of world music,” Shankar not only brought a new appreciation of Indian sound to the West but also influenced generations of eclectic musicians around the globe. In 1990, he partnered with Philip Glass, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, on an uncommon six-track collaboration: Passages unfolds into 55 minutes and 21 seconds of exquisite melodic fusion, blending the Eastern tradition with Glass’s classicism as the mesmerism of Shankar’s sitar and the magic of the saxophone, cello, and the rest of Glass’s signature instrumentation flow seamlessly into and out of one another. The result is the musical equivalent of when Einstein met Tagore.

My favorite track on the album is the beautifully restless “Meetings Along The Edge,” but the record is sublime in its entirety:

BP

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