How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Blossoms for Corpses”

One night each year
to wear black velvet, crushed
by unseen hands.
One day each year
to dole out sweetness to
strange children wearing masks.
Burn black tapers now to summon
memories of shades;
paint your eyelids dark as the abyss
to make the horror sexy.
It will lose its power if you make it part of you.
Bring the gates that close off realms
down to the ground; lift the curtain
that parts half from half
high enough for crossing
space to space.
Mix and mingle with your loved dead.
Ask them for their wisdom, like a child asks
adults they trust implicitly
for food, drink, shelter.
They loved you when you saw their faces.
With all that they have seen,
they will love you now, just as truly.
Trust their voices, calling through the vapors
vanishing beneath an autumn moon.
The cycle of the year
has given you one blessed night
to burn through all the barriers
and see the other side of truth.
Make it count.

Commentary

Since I have already written in this blog about my past use of tarot cards, it should come as no real surprise to the reader to know that for several years I fancied myself a Neopagan. I think the religion’s most enduring attraction, for me, has always been its yearly cycle of holidays. For those of you who don’t know how Neopagans mark their calendars, here is a brief overview, lifted from a past sermon by Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva‘s Senior Minister, the Reverend Lindsay Bates:

Basically, the story of the God’s incarnation begins at the year’s first Quarter, the Winter’s Solstice, when, after the year’s longest night, the darkness begins to give way to the returning light. The Light is reborn as the Sun — the Son of the Great Mother Goddess. The Yule celebration honors the annual Birth of the Holy Child as a time of joyful innocence, possibility and hope.

Halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox is the first Cross-Quarter Day of the Pagan calendar. This is Candlemas or Brigit’s Day or Imbolc, which mean’s “ewe’s milk” for the time of the year when the ewes begin to produce milk for the new spring lambs, when the infant God is a rapidly-growing child. The Goddess is beginning to awaken from her winter slumber and the sleep from which she gave birth, and in the growing warmth and Light of the Son, her fertility returns.

At the next Quarter-Day, the Vernal Equinox, the God is a young man, dancing the dance of returning life with the Goddess who is now fully awakened as the Maiden. Spring has returned; Persephone has been freed from her confinement in the land of death, and Demeter, rejoicing, brings the green and growing plants of springtime back to life.

At Beltane — May Day — the Cross-Quarter Day half-way between Spring and Summer — the God and Goddess celebrate their marriage, and all the earth celebrates with them. Their marriage is consummated at the Summer Solstice — and the God is consumed by his passion. The year is turning now back toward darkness, and the Summer-Crowned God dies.

At Lammas or Lughnasad — August 1 — the Goddess mourns the God’s death, which is actually his life’s fulfillment, and the God is buried, returned into the earth — to the Goddess as Death Crone and Eternal Mother. The God is now in the grain, which having lived to ripen, is now nearly ready for harvest.

At the Fall Equinox, the Harvest has come. The grain is cut down with thanksgiving for the life of the world that gives itself for the sustaining of life, and the god sleeps within the womb of the Goddess as she carries him to rule the Shining Realm Beyond the Waters. This Realm is part of the Netherworld, the place where the souls of the dead grow young again and prepare to be reborn.

At Samhain, the God arrives at the Land of Youth and becomes its ruler. He opens the gates between the worlds so that the spirits may visit their loved ones. His own spirit continually growing younger, within the earth, within the Goddess, he prepares for his birth to the again Virgin Mother — at the Winter Solstice… The Lord of Death becomes once more the Lord of Life (and if any of this sounds vaguely familiar from your Sunday School stories, that is not an accident)…..

This holiday cycle holds a poetry for me that I find lacking in those of Judaism and Christianity, the dominant religions of US culture. Going to family Christmas parties is very difficult for me now, because every time someone says “Christmas” I have to fight back the urge to say “You mean Solstice, right?”

This poem is a tribute to a secular or psychological reclamation of the holiday most US natives think of as Halloween, the time for children to gorge on candy, teens to toilet paper each other’s houses, and adults to ogle each other in costumes, yes, even the ones that aren’t intentionally framed as sensual – the holiday most Neopagans refer to as Samhain, or if you feel like having a Scottish brogue, Samhuine, the polar opposite of the love-holiday Beltane. Even as an atheist, I believe that it is a good idea to have certain days marked to remember certain aspects of my worldview. Kind of hard for me to call them holidays when that word derives from “holy” and I don’t know if anything can be “holy” without a deity. I guess “observance” might be a better word for what I have in mind.

Samhain/Halloween, for me, has become a time to acknowledge the value of fear. I believe there are many things in this world that it is appropriate to fear. Chief among these is dying. Note that I did not say death. There’s no more reason to fear death than to fear a dreamless nap. But the process of dying… being conscious of the fact that soon you will never be conscious again… that scares the dickens out of me. And I believe that is healthy. It’s also healthy to fear pain, in its sundry permutations, although it is possible for this fear to reach pathological heights and cause paralysis; it’s a fear that has to be worked through (and I suppose one day the fear of dying will be worked through too, simply by the process of time). Fear also has value in that it serves as the counterpoint to love. Just as without two eyes, the human brain loses depth perception and some actions become clumsy if not impossible, without both halves of the binary pair of fear and love, the human mind loses the ability to nuance its view of the world.

Ultimately, the significance of October 31 in your life is a delicate interplay of culture, subculture, and your personal perspective. I hope this poem has provided you with a way to re-image that significance. Stay tuned for a spooky film review tomorrow!

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Reverie”

delicate dance
water drops on pastel petals
pink, yellow
shafts of light tell a story
behind the filter of unearthly sheer
breeze comes through the open window
drops roll off the petal edges
dark green leaves
frame blossoms
fist-sized, hardly opened
buds
like coins
closed and hidden from the light
buried tight among the leaves
dark green shades the color of the buds
pink and yellow echoes to remember
past glories of the morning
past spears of the dawn
past noons with their earthy heat
The past comes for us all.
When it seems like there is nothing to remember,
take a pink or yellow flower.
Tease it from its stem.
Let it speak to you of yesterdays.
Let it bring you home to shafts of light
and connect you with a star
shining blue light from the yellow heart of promise.

Commentary

According to dictionary.com, a reverie is “a state of dreamy meditation or fanciful musing.” I chose this word for the title of this poem after the body had been written, only half certain that it was the right word that I wanted to use. (“Perhaps I’m thinking of ‘reverent’ instead?”) But now that I have looked it up, I am sure that it is the perfect title for this poem.

The poem has two halves, and the breaking point between the halves is “past noons with their earthy heat / The past comes for us all.” That is the point at which I decided to transition from breathy, fluttering imagery designed to convey visuals without judgment, to sonorous prose with a theme and with moral content. I’m surprised I was able to talk in images for as long as I did. The second type of poetry is a lot easier for me to write. It’s more solid, and at the same time more abstract. It’s more like how I think. I think in symbols, not images.

I don’t have anything I feel the need to point out about individual lines here. I think I did a good job of avoiding using “ten-dollar words” while at the same time building something beautiful. I wanted this poem to feel very feminine; I guess I’m on a roll with that given the content of “Mother-of-Pearl“. I don’t even like the color pink very much, but it’s an easy way to conjur up girlishness in the reader’s mind. At least nowadays – bit of color trivia, I read that before the 1940s pink was not associated with women because it’s a form of red and red was considered too powerful of a color to belong to us ladies. I can’t remember exactly why the association changed, something to do with Nazi Germany? I read about that more than a decade ago but as far as I know it’s still not common knowledge. We like to think that the more things change, the more they stay the same… but a lot of what gets taken for granted is a fairly recent production of culture. Word.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Mother-of-Pearl”

What holds more beauty –
color,
or
lustre?
Mother-of-pearl holds pastel colors, and it shines
like the serene patina of heaven,
yet pearl,
so pale, so stark in its white hue
gets labeled a precious stone
threaded around the haughty necks
of opera matrons,
funereal in their monochromatic splendor.
Mother-of-pearl, I have never heard you counted
even among the semiprecious.
Agate and amethyst turn up their mineral noses
at your smooth sheen,
your organic love coat and pink acceptance of the waves.
Perhaps they see the brown shabbiness of your outer shell
and feel the repulsion of the orchid for the clover.
The orchid, holding no sweet nectar for children to suck.
I hear some orchids have a breath
that reeks of rotting meat and draws greedy flies.
Mother-of-pearl, whisper your secrets to the abalone shells
that litter jewelry cases in antique stores.
Trimmed with silver for rings and brooches,
the corpses of the abalones
feel your naked pain.
I will love you.
I will understand.

Commentary

When I first conceptualized writing a poem about mother-of-pearl, I considered doing a play on words: writing a poem with a double meaning, so that the reader would walk through the entire poem thinking it was about the substance mother-of-pearl and then in the very last line discovering that it actually was about a human woman with a daughter named Pearl. It wasn’t long before I decided that such a poem would be a bit too difficult for me to pull off without more concentration and sustained effort than I was willing to put in at the time, and instead decided to harvest some slightly-lower hanging artistic fruit. I would write a poem that drew parallels between the substance mother-of-pearl, and the life of my own mother, and if I could work it in, I would make some allusions to one of my favorite religious figures (Mary, the Virgin Mother of God – I’ve never been Catholic, but I’m not going to deny that the idea of God having a mother is pretty powerful psychologically).

I’m satisfied with the result. “Mother-of-Pearl” is not the best poem I’ve ever written, but I think it works well. The central conceit of the poem is that something considered entirely ordinary by mass culture can have more beauty than something prized because it is rare. I do consider the iridescence of mother-of-pearl more beautiful than many examples of precious gems, and while my mother is not famous and in many respects has a life story typical of a smart, determined woman who surfed the Second Wave of feminism, I love her more than many of the idealized women of history. To continue drawing the parallel, according to the Bible, Mary the Virgin Mother was not anybody special except in her devotion to her God.

Specific Lines Worth Commenting On:

  • it shines / like the serene patina of heaven: I like this line because a patina is a coating and therefore “patina of heaven” could refer to either a coating of something on heaven, or to the idea that heaven is a coating of something, onto something else. What would coat heaven? What would heaven cover over? This was not the poem in which to explore that image, but the seed has been planted and I might write more about this image in another piece.
  • Agate and amethyst turn up their mineral noses: I ran this poem by my mother before posting it here, to make sure she was not offended by my implication about her ordinariness. She really liked this line. I didn’t think it was anything special, but that’s art for you.
  • your organic love coat and pink acceptance of the waves: This is my favorite line in the poem. I feel it’s a powerful and poetic image that does a good job of reflecting in words the way mother-of-pearl works on the eyes.
  • the repulsion of the orchid for the clover: I love orchids, particularly yellow cymbidia, but they don’t produce an attractive scent, and as a child I always used to de-fluff orchids to get the taste of nectar at the base of the fluff, which is something you can’t do with an orchid. Rare does not automatically equal better, and that’s the point of the poem.
  • the abalone shells / that litter jewelry cases… the corpses of the abalone / feel your naked pain: These lines were an attempt to express how I feel in relation to my mother. Abalone is a similar, related substance to mother-of-pearl, but not the same…

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Bees”

the rough outline
curls around the corner of the window
fur covers the body
the hive mind on its mission
sustain, sustain

Bees exist in order to keep existing.
They leave nothing behind
except sweet vomit and satisfied flowers.
They own nothing.
Bees do not make art.
Bees do not make war.
Bees do not make love.
Without bee footprints, where would pollen go?

fumble from blossom to blossom
wings shiny, fuzzy body matte
always in motion

Have you ever seen a bee rest?
If a worker bee were ordered by her queen
to drink hot chocolate with marshmallows
and wrap up cozy in a fleece bathrobe
for a lazy Sunday morning,
would there be revolution?
Bees do not feel gratitude.
Bees do not feel envy.
Bees do not feel love.
When the system came to be, what gave the first bee flight?
What made it seem like a good idea
to start the buzzing,
when for the bee
the buzzing connects to nothing else,
benefits only more of itself?
Seems like the buzzing outwitted the buzzer.
How smart can a living being really be
to get outwitted by an inanimate process?

take the time to see my eyes
where you see red and orange, I see only black
the voids in my vision make purple more beautiful
my feral buzzing fades from the world

Commentary

For most of my life I have considered the frog to be my favorite animal. I still find them cute and symbolically significant, but for a little more than a year I have found myself fascinated by bees. Hey, insects are animals too. I thought I would take a little time to explore the lives of bees in this poem.

One of the reasons I respect bees so much is that while they repel many people, because they are capable of stinging they generally get left alone, whereas many other insects also repel people and in turn get squished. But unlike certain other stinging insects (I’m looking at you, wasps and hornets), the bees I have encountered in my life don’t generally take advantage of their stingers to actively strike fear in the hearts of picnicking folk. I’ve never heard of a honeybee following someone inside their home, whereas we had to do a cup catch-and-release of a wasp just last week. Bees would very much prefer to just be left to do their thing. Their stingers are for defense.

However, as I wrote this poem, I did not find myself wanting to explore this aspect of bees. I didn’t want to write about why I respected them, because that was something I had already devoted some thought to; I wanted to write about what I had not devoted much thought to, namely, how joyless their existence must be. It’s a good thing that bees do not have nervous systems capable of the human consciousness we are familiar with, because I think little pleasure would be found in the rote activities of their lives and, as I stated in the poem, I don’t see how those activities can be connected to any “greater purpose”. Bees have the sort of dilemma explored by Marx regarding factory workers of being divorced from the end product of their labor, except bees have it much worse.

So now that I have written this poem, I am not sure whether I really want to continue to identify with bees. Maybe I should find a new favorite animal.

Specific lines worth commenting on:

  • the hive mind on its mission – If I ever have the opportunity to take a class on the phenomenon of the hive mind as it actually exists in a beehive, I think I’m going to do so. The concept gets used a lot in science fiction and I can’t shake the feeling that use crosses the line into abuse at times. I want to understand more about how the hive mind operates biologically. A trip over to Wikipedia might be a good starting point.
  • sweet vomit and satisfied flowers – Yes, if you stop to think about it, honey is bee vomit, and yes, my use of the word “satisfied” was supposed to be a veiled reference to the reproductive function of pollen. I have been known to write poetry for mature audiences only.
  • fumble from blossom to blossom – I took a significant amount of care in choosing the word “fumble” for this line. I wanted to try to capture the inelegant way I have seen bees move between flowers. They look clumsy at times. But I wanted to convey the motion with a single verb. “Fumble” was the best one I could think of. Let me know if you think of a better one.
  • drink hot chocolate with marshmallows / and wrap up cozy in a fleece bathrobe / for a lazy Sunday morning – I selected these images with care too. I wanted to convey an image of both comfort and femininity as powerfully as I could in as few lines as possible. Again, let me know if you can think of a better way to convey this image (in no more than three lines). It’s important that the words chosen be easy for First World readers to relate to, while not feeling completely stereotyped.
  • How smart can a living being really be / to get outwitted by an inanimate process? – These lines are my personal life leaking through. I have been trying very hard to change some aspects of my behavior recently. I am very frustrated on this score this week and that frustration came out in this poem. If I wanted to wax philosophical, I would pretend that these lines are about capitalism and the futility of the accumulation game, but that would be shadow play. These lines are more self-directed than anything else in this poem and could probably be cut and placed in a journal entry without the poem losing very much, but I’m not re-baking this cake.
  • my feral buzzing fades from the world – Did you know that feral bees are dying at an alarming rate? Like, they’re being decimated. Climate change plays a role, but from what I’ve heard, human use of pesticides is a greater cause. If we don’t have bees to pollinate plants, we’re going to be in trouble. Something to think about.

Film Review: Violette

This is the story of Violette Leduc, 20th century bisexual Parisienne authoress. Leduc kept company with several French intellectuals and artists that I am familiar with and admire, such as Jean Cocteau and Simone De Beauvoir, yet I had never heard her name before encountering this film’s promotion. After watching the film, I can understand why. Violette explores a life eked out in the margins of history. A life of dependence, and being pushed aside because heightened emotions are messy and take time to deal with. A life of acting out, and accusations of drama.

Characters

Not ugly... but probably plain.
Not ugly… but probably plain.

About three-fourths of the way through Violette, Leduc is hospitalized. Her diagnosis is never mentioned in the film, but De Beauvoir makes reference to Leduc receiving “electroshocks”, usually referred to in mental health treatment circles these days as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). My off-the-cuff diagnosis of the film’s portrayed Leduc, with the insight provided by Master’s level coursework in social work? EID (Emotional Intensity Disorder), more commonly referred to as borderline personality disorder. Behaviors displayed by the film character common to those with EID included, but were not limited to: polarized black/white thinking and alternating idealization/demonization of people she related to, suicidal thinking and threats of suicide, inappropriate attempts at intimacy ignoring commonly recognized social boundaries, attempted use of sexuality as a commodity in exchange for intimacy, frantic acting out to avoid real or perceived abandonment, and ascribing her own thoughts and motives to others due to a lack of sense of self. If this attempt at diagnosis rings true (and I don’t feel like taking a trip over to Wikipedia to find out at the moment, it’s been a trying day), the real Leduc would have had my sympathies. The lived experience of people with EID is frequently nightmarish; the disorder is a direct assault on quality of life, an impairment only compounded by the social consequences of disability. I listened to the assessment of Violette’s character by other moviegoers with interest. One pejorative adjective I heard them label her with was “whiny”. Well, if you experienced the pain of excruciatingly intense negative emotions that someone with EID lives with on a daily basis, you would most likely whine too.

Authenticity of Setting

Check out that wallpaper!
Check out that wallpaper!

After my dismay over the staged feel of The Artist, the believability of Violette as a mid-twentieth century period piece refreshed me. The film included so many details about Violette’s marginal life in Paris that I never would have thought to include, from sponge baths and toilets down the hall from the apartment, to dingy peeling wallpaper, chipped paint and scuffed wood. Even the furnishings of the office of the richest character in the film (gay perfume-maker Jacques), while sumptuous relative to the rest of the setting’s decor, would have appeared modest if juxtaposed with the brass, marble, polished wood and brilliant lighting of the standard Rich CEO’s Office of most current Hollywood creations. Violette’s studio apartment reminded me of my own studios in days gone by in Chicago, except the general shabbiness of Violette’s place was much worse – absolutely to be expected in 1950s Paris from someone living the feast-or-famine lifestyle of a black marketer, like Violette wades through at the start of the film. What I really loved about all of this mise-en-scene was the fact that if someone had asked me what life was like in Paris during the era of the film, I would have strained to imagine the details, but every time a new scene started in Violette, some part of my heart and mind said “Yes! Yes, that is exactly what it was like!”

Casting

Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.
Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.

Violette‘s casting was equally painstakingly realistic. Again, I must contrast this film with The Artist. Unlike Bejo’s conventional Hollywood beauty, the actresses who played De Beauvoir and Leduc had the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from passing everyday women on Midwestern streets, the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from looking in the mirror. Sandrine Kiberlain, who played De Beauvoir, is thin, but it’s not a glamorous, hypersexualized thin, she’s just a thin woman. When Emmanuelle Devos gives voice to Leduc’s insecurities about her age and appearance, I can believe that the character would think such things, and not experience cognitive dissonance like I did when I watched Eva Mendes fuss with her hair in Hitch. If this is how French cinema in general or Martin Provost in particular usually rolls, I have to watch more.

If you are unsympathetic toward people who have mental illness and behave in ways that push the limits of what is socially acceptable as the result of their emotions running high, you are unlikely to find anything here that will challenge your preconceived notions about the meaning of such people’s lives. If, however, you would like to examine how such people are able to find solace in art or the written word, and can produce works that even people who do not struggle with such illness or behavior find valuable, Violette is probably worth your time. It’s not a short film and it is quite possible that it will emotionally drain you. But I enjoyed it, and it reminded me of why I engage in creative endeavors like this blog.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film Review: The Artist

I’ve watched a few silent movies in my time. Some Buster Keaton for a high school class. One Halloween I rented a copy of The Man Who Laughs from one of Chicago’s art houses, hoping for some old-fashioned spookiness (it didn’t turn out to be so spooky). But the vast, vast majority of films I have watched have not been silent, and this meant that the most striking feature of The Artist, for me, was the novelty of its audio composition. It provoked accompanying musings about the visual differences that came with the silence – the exaggerated facial expressions that the character of Peppy refers to disdainfully as “mugging the camera”, the breaks in action necessary for dialogue to be flashed on the screen, that sort of thing. If what you want is a narrative about a washed-up silent movie start interacting with a young go-getter, might I suggest you check out Sunset Boulevard instead? Don’t watch The Artist for its narrative. This is a film in which content takes a back seat to form.

Dream Sequence

Feathers can roar.
Feathers can roar.

The Artist is an almost silent film. I’m going to give the game away and state up front, the film switches over to (now) conventional audio in its final scene, and that switch is handled pretty well (I say “give the game away” because half the fun of watching The Artist was trying to guess whether the filmmakers were going to use conventional audio at any point, and if so, when they would make the switch. I must sheepishly admit that they kept me guessing right til the end). However, there is one scene in which the creative team decided to have a little fun.

About halfway through the narrative arc, the film’s protagonist, aging silent film star George Valentin, experiences a dream sequence in which the film’s ambient score drops out and, when George knocks over an item on a desk, sound effects occur. George appears both fascinated and terrified by this and begins knocking other items around, creating a cacophony of ordinary sounds… but when George attempts to speak, his voice produces neither sound, nor the on-screen text boxes that have shown up for important dialogue in the film prior to the dream sequence. George’s shock at “suddenly” being mute is extremely well-played, but what I really enjoyed about this dream sequence was the brief window of time in which George experimented with knocking things over on the desk to make noise, before he discovered he was muted. For a delicious instant, everything went very surreal and I wondered if the story was about to take a radical turn toward breaking the fourth wall, in which the characters might display a precocious awareness of their nature as film characters. It felt very Last Action Hero to me. Unfortunately it only lasted for a moment and I was disappointed when I figured out George was in a dream sequence, but it was a pretty fun moment while it lasted.

Authenticity of Setting

The Artist falls flat when it comes to authenticity as a period piece set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A film that does well on this axis, such as Argo, is believable as a slice of history. The Artist doesn’t feel like history; it feels like people from the 21st century putting on a period piece. It feels staged.

I think one of the main reasons I felt this way was how the character of Peppy Miller, the ingenue, was handled. Peppy Miller (played unremarkably by Bérénice Bejo, though given how blandly the character was written Bejo didn’t have a whole lot to work with) does not have the characteristic look of a film star from the late 1920s to early 1930s.

Compare this face...
Compare this face…

The way female beauty is conceptualized in pop culture has shifted over the past 90 years, and while examples of the earlier conceptualization are still hanging around in media, like the afterimage of the sun one gets when one has looked at it and then looked away,

...to this one...
…to this one…
...or this one.
…or this one.

the creators of The Artist decided to take the easy way out and give their viewers a more familiar image of female beauty, with just enough signs from the period (Peppy’s hairstyle, Peppy’s clothes) for the casual viewer to suspend their disbelief. I’m not just talking about Peppy’s eyebrows and makeup. I’m also talking about her body type. The actresses from the 1920s and 1930s did not typically have the 21st-century sculpted body that Bejo displays. Actresses from the era were not chubby by any measure, but they also were not, typically, muscular or toned. They had a softness that Bejo lacks. This discrepancy made it hard for me to believe that someone who looked like Bejo looks now would have been as wildly popular as the character of Peppy supposedly becomes. She would not have fit in with the times and it makes it harder for me to suspend my disbelief. By contrast, the character of Constance, played by Missi Pyle, looks very much like a woman of the times.

Themes (warning: this section contains spoilers)

I’m not really sure why the creators of The Artist chose the title that they did. The film’s main characters, George Valentin and Peppy Miller, do not come across as artists; they come across as entertainers. They never talk about the art of acting, are never referred to as great actors by other characters, and in the brief sequences that are displayed of their films-within-films, their acting seems thoroughly average. To entertain is not the same thing as to create art. So if we accept that the title of The Artist is a misnomer and that the film is really more about entertainment, the main theme that emerges is the importance, for entertainers, of being relevant. George goes from riches to rags in the matter of a couple of years because he scoffs at his producer’s admonishment that talking pictures are the future. I found it hilariously apt that the solution Peppy turns to in order to save George’s career is the musical dance number, because that is a genre that has also had its day in the sun and is practically never seen these days. I guess the central message of the film is the adage to make hay while the sun shines. If I had known that was the film’s focus, I am not sure I would have picked this one up off the shelf.

The Artist won Best Picture for the Academy Awards in 2012. Either the Academy had slim pickings to choose from, the Academy has poor taste, or the Academy really likes films about Hollywood. Or some combination of the above. Or perhaps there were just no films available in 2012 that starred a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character. I hear those are pretty popular.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

Album Review: Jealous Gods (Poets of the Fall)

Never mess with dudes dressed up for a masquerade.
Never mess with dudes dressed up for a masquerade.

No one does love songs quite like Poets of the Fall. While it is easy to make the argument that they are little more than Depeche Mode updated for the 21st century (a sentiment which might send Martin Gore into apoplexy, since Depeche Mode is still releasing albums), with their philosophical waxings, occasional Christian imagery and revelations of infinite sadness that can only be trumped by love, I maintain that the Poets blend their artistic elements with their own idiosyncracies and are therefore worth a closer look. Jealous Gods is the Poets’ sixth album released since 2005, so at this point they have had plenty of time, space, and resources to find their art and voices, and they have created a comfortable album that holds few surprises for returning fans. In fact some of the tracks on Jealous Gods function best as continuations of songs from their previous album Temple of Thought, almost like counterpoints, or the response one might expect from a conversation partner if the Temple of Thought tracks were viewed as opening lines of dialogue. I’m thinking specifically of the title track “Jealous Gods”, which connects back to Temple of Thought‘s most weary track “Skin”, and also of “Brighter than the Sun” (one of Jealous Gods‘ high points), which echoes the previous title track “Temple of Thought” with magnificent resonance. But the Poets should be wary of resting on their creative laurels. One only has to check out the artwork on a few Cake albums to see the dangers of formulaic art.

Bright Spots

Nothing says soulful quite like a bowler hat.
Nothing says “soulful” quite like a bowler hat.
  • Track 5, “Hounds to Hamartia”, would be remarkable even if it didn’t have clean enunciation and tight instrumentation, for the simple reason that I haven’t heard anyone use the word “hamartia” properly since I took my last Classics class in undergrad.
  • Track 6, “Rogue”, is a decent guitar instrumental that happily skips along the line between the technical proficiency required for heavy metal speed, and the easy-to-follow lines and licks of a pop guitar solo. The introduction for this track reminded me of “FiXXXer” by Metallica, and coming from me, that’s a compliment.
  • Track 8, “Brighter Than the Sun”, drops some of the album’s best lyrical gems in the most off-handed way, such as a reference in the song’s chorus to the love given by the person the song is addressed to, raising the singer up until he is ready to be himself. Material like this makes me want to sit down with Marko for a cup of tea. Or perhaps a goblet of fire wine. Your call, Marko. Any time.
  • The album’s closing track, “Rebirth”, speaks just as eloquently of sadness, grief, determination and love as my favorite track off of Temple of Thought (“The Ballad of Jeremiah Peacekeeper”). This track would be a perfect 5 out of 5 if it weren’t for the reference to Tinkerbell. Poets of the Fall and Disney are kept in separate corners in my mind. The two should never mix.

Sun Spots

No, Marko, I will not let you burn.
No, Marko, I will not let you burn.
  • Not all of Marko’s vocals have the clean enunciation that grace “Hounds to Hamartia”. “Rumors”, “Choice Millionaire”, and “Jealous Gods” were all difficult to understand at times. “Choice Millionaire” particularly frustrated me, though I understood that its spoken word chatter was meant to be more noise than signal.
  • I found track 9, “Clear Blue Sky”, difficult to focus on and its lyrics seemed more generic than the Poets’ usual material. It was the album’s least gripping track and I missed Marko’s usual diamond-brilliant imagery.
  • Sometimes the Poets’ lyrics, while great material, raise questions in my mind that never get answered and this can get pretty frustrating for me. For example, in track 10, “Nothing Stays the Same”, the chorus is “When sorrow calls my name, I know nothing stays the same”; I found myself wondering, does this mean Marko gets sad because good things are impermanent, or does it mean that when Marko is already sad, he reminds himself that the pain is impermanent? I realize the answer is probably “yes”, but I wanted to hear that answer in the lyrics and I wanted that answer to be dwelt upon and explicated. Instead, I was left to do the heavy lifting of philosophical thought all by myself.

If you’ve never listened to Poets of the Fall before, you owe it to yourself to check out something by them, but I’m not sure I would recommend Jealous Gods as a starting point. I’m also not sure whether my personal preference for Temple of Thought has a sound basis in artistic strength, or if it’s simply the case that Temple of Thought was the first Poets album I ever heard all the way through and people frequently hold onto a fondness for the first example they encounter of something destined to be a personal favorite. In either case, even if I don’t think Jealous Gods to be the Poets’ best work, it’s beyond decent and at $10.99 for a digital copy, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.