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!

Film Review: The Red Violin

From my preteen years through my late twenties, I made a practice of reading tarot cards. My practice was homespun; I didn’t use official or historical card meanings, and I didn’t lay the cards down in patterns (the term used by practitioners is a “spread”) prescribed by a book or some high priestess (see it’s funny because one of the Major Arcana cards is The High Priestess! See what I did there?) Instead, I based my interpretations of the cards on what I had been taught by a relative who at one time also practiced Neopaganism, and on the illustrations present in my deck. I wrote reminders to myself on those cards. In a fit of revisionism, I painted over the card labeled Judgment to use less Christian imagery. I thought I knew what I was doing, and I cared about what I did.

It all changed for me one Halloween/Samhuine night, when I read the cards for a young woman who lived in my apartment building. She took the cards much more seriously than I was prepared for. I had always thought of the cards as providing a chance to reconsider events and situations from a different perspective, to be forced to look at elements that one had not been previously been focusing on. I used the cards to widen my interpretation of life. But this woman… the reading I gave frightened her. I did my best to calm her down – “These cards do not take away your free will!” – but she could not be consoled. The reading I had given her was, in accordance with tarot’s generalizing nature, really just a handful of platitudes and truisms. But those platitudes and truisms took away her peace of mind, in a way that the other platitudes and truisms I had to offer, could not redeem. I was troubled, and while I did a handful of other readings after that one, it was never the same experience that it had been and when I realized that atheism and the spirit of rational inquiry held an answer for me that I had been lacking, I abandoned my practice.

I bring this piece of my personal history to bear on this review because the guiding structure of The Red Violin is a tarot reading, done by a servant for the pregnant wife of a violin builder in 1683. Each card that the servant flips over (I never did a five-card spread but I suppose it’s possible) is supposed to represent a significant owner of the violin over the course of the centuries that separate it from 1997, the year in which the film was created. The Red Violin is therefore another example of a film in which several narratives are told that are connected in some way. I have previously discussed in this blog my feelings about this film phenomenon. The Red Violin does it better than most I have seen.

The presence of tarot cards in films still triggers an emotional reaction of curiosity and pride in me. Curiosity to see what meaning gets ascribed to the cards employed; pride because I almost always come to the conclusion that the meaning has been stretched, sometimes past the point of breaking, for the sake of drama or the narrative, and that if I were the reader of the cards in question, I would come to a much better and more useful conclusion. Why I still have such strong feelings when I see those cards, familiar shapes being put to unexpected ends, I really can’t say. I guess I could compare it to someone recovering from a substance abuse problem getting confronted with images of the substance and people getting high.

Subtitles

Do you watch with subtitles?
Do you watch with subtitles?

What a difference subtitles can make!

I never thought I would be making a point of talking about the subtitling of a film in one of these reviews, but only a few minutes into The Red Violin I knew I would be talking about what had happened. You see, The Red Violin contains dialogue in several different languages: Italian, German, French, and Chinese in addition to English. Whoever set up the subtitles for the edition I was watching only provided 2 options: English for (almost) the entire film, or Spanish for (I can only assume also almost) the entire film. There was no option to translate the Italian, German, French and Chinese, and leave the English without subtitles. While I am very glad that the subtitling would have been useful to a hearing impaired viewer, I also understood for the first time why some people would rather watch Japanese cinema with dubbing instead of subtitles. I had always preferred the subtitled experience but the presence of subtitles on the screen for the English dialogue did distract me. It was necessary though, as the shifts between languages were frequent and at times quite abrupt.

Note my use of the qualifier “almost” in the previous paragraph. There was some material in the segment of the violin’s story that was set in China that was only given the description “singing in Chinese”. This greatly irritated me. The singing accompanied a children’s performance of Maoist propaganda and I was very curious as to its actual words. I maintain that this choice on the part of whomever was in charge of subtitling, whether conscious or unconscious, serves to alienate the presumably Western viewer from the Chinese and makes them seem more exotic. Irritating.

Music

Just how well is this guy really playing, anyway?
Just how well is this guy really playing, anyway?

A review I read a long time ago is relevant to this section. Someone who critiqued the Samuel L. Jackson (who also plays an important character in The Red Violin and does well with the material) vehicle The Caveman’s Valentine once pointed out that the main character is supposed to be a musical genius but his piano compositions lack any type of subtlety and refinement and mostly consist of pounding on the keys for emphasis. “Not since The Piano has supposedly wonderful piano music sounded so bad,” the reviewer crowed.

I bring this up because one of the elements that separates a film from other forms of narrative is the audio component of the experience. A book version of The Red Violin could simply describe Frederick Pope’s compositions as “brilliant”, or it could go into lengthy, loving description of Pope’s eccentric performance, but the actual sound of Pope playing the violin would be left to the imagination of the viewer. In the film version, those who are not hearing impaired expect to hear what Pope actually sounds like. To what extent can the film’s creative team create an actual violin solo that the viewer will label brilliant, instead of just referring to the solo as “brilliant” in the text and relying on the reader’s trust of the perspective of the text’s narrator? I ask this because, as a viewer, I was not sold on Pope’s performance, or even that of the young, talented Austrian orphan, Kaspar Weiss. Both of these violinists were able to play violin solos very quickly. But tempo is only one dimension of musical performance. Their solos did not move me the same way as the performance of the violin’s player in Shanghai, who clearly was not meant to be interpreted by the viewer as being the best violinist of the bunch.

Themes (warning: this section contains spoilers)

Art inspires passion inspires crazy actions.
Art inspires passion inspires crazy actions.

All of the five stories told in The Red Violin hinge on the awe-inspiring power of passion. The violin’s maker goes to macabre extremes to express his grief in a way that connects it to his creation. Kaspar Weiss pushes himself to fatal fervor in an attempt to become famous. Xiang Pei risks her livelihood and possibly her life to preserve art that her people despise. Morritz breaks the law to hold onto perfection. The dangers and depths of passion are most evident in the ridiculous tale of Frederick Pope, his spurious smoking of opium which contrary to artistic depiction was not really a common practice in England in the Victorian Era (look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me) and his authoress lover Victoria, who break each others hearts in the name of their respective arts. All of these stories are about the lengths, breadths, and heights people will go to in order to express emotions: the acts that most people would consider to define us as people.

Like the art of tarot, The Red Violin feels good, but does not really hold up well under the microscope of rational scrutiny. Don’t pick this one up expecting to be challenged. Don’t pick this one up looking for rigorous explanation of thought-provoking questions. Pop yourself some popcorn and enjoy the drama. This one will tug at your heartstrings as surely as the bow sets the strings of the red violin a-humming. Is that enough for you?

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.